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Erie R.R. v. Tompkins

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Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938).

Facts: Tompkins, the plaintiff, was walking alongside a railroad track. A passing train operated by the defendant, Erie Railroad, struck him and severed his arm.

Procedural History: Plaintiff filed suit in federal district court. The judge applied "general law," instead of Pennsylvania state tort law. The plaintiff appealed. The Penn. law provides that anyone walking along a trail that is parallel to the tracks is a trespasser, and the railroad is not liable to undiscovered trespassers. General law provides that "where the public has made open and notorious use of a railroad right of way for a long period of time and without objection, the company owes to persons on such permissive pathway a duty of care in the operation of its trains."

Issue: Which law should be used, Pennsylvania law, or "general common law"?

Holding: Federal courts must apply the governing substantive state law. There is no "federal general common law."

Reasons: The results stemming from the decision in Swift v. Tyson, in which the court held that general common law supersedes state law, has produced undesired results. For example, diversity in citizenship could result in more favorable results.

Judgment: Reversed.