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Erie v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938) is a cornerstone of American jurisprudence.
It all began late one night, when Harry Tompkins was walking along a railroad right of way near his home in Pennsylvania. Tompkins was hit by an object sticking out of a passing train, and his arm was severed. Tompkins decided to sue the Erie Railroad Co., the New York company that owned the train and the right of way, for the injury.
Under Pennsylvania law, Tompkins was considered a trespasser on railroad property at the time of the accident. This meant that the railroad’s duty of care was drastically reduced, and Tompkins would almost certainly have lost the case in a Pennsylvania state court.
Tompkins’s solution? Sue in federal court under diversity jurisdiction.
Under the prevailing Supreme Court precedent at the time, federal courts were free to exercise their judgment and apply the “general law” in diversity cases if there was no controlling state statute. Applying the general law, the federal court held that the railroad owed a higher duty of care than it would have under Pennsylvania law, and Tompkins won the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected its previous precedent and held that federal courts exercising diversity jurisdiction must apply state substantive law, rather than federal substantive law. The Erie doctrine remains one of the foundational concepts of civil procedure in the United States.