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Opinion of the Court.
views of the state courts, always exercises an independent judgment; and as unvarying has been the course of decision, that the question of the responsibility of a railroad corporation for injuries caused to or by its servants is one of general law. In the case of Swift v. Tyson, 16 Pet. 1, the first proposition was considered at length. On p. 18 it is thus stated: “But, admitting the doctrine to be fully settled in New York, it remains to be considered whether it is obligatory upon this court if it differs from the principles established in the general commercial law. It is observable that the courts of New York do not found their decisions upon this point upon any local statute, or positive, fixed, or ancient local usage, but they deduce the doctrine from the general principles of commercial law. It is, however, contended that the thirty-fourth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, c. 20, furnishes a rule obligatory upon this court to follow the decisions of the state tribunals in all cases to which they apply. That section provides that the laws of the several States, except where the Constitution, treaties, or statutes of the United States shall otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision, in trials at common law, in the courts of the United States, in cases where they apply. In order to main
' tain the argument, it is essential, therefore, to hold that the word laws' in this section, includes within the scope of its meaning the decisions of the local tribunals. In the ordinary use of language it will hardly be contended that the decisions of courts constitute laws. They are, at most, only evidence of what the laws are, and are not, of themselves, laws. They are often reëxamined, reversed, and qualified by the courts themselves, whenever they are found to be either defective, or ill-founded, or otherwise incorrect. The laws of a State are more usually understood to mean the rules and enactments promulgated by the legislative authority thereof, or longestablished local customs having the force of laws. In all the various cases which have hitherto come before us for decision, this court has uniformly supposed that the true interpretation of the thirty-fourth section limited its application to state laws strictly local, that is to say, to the positive statutes of the
Opinion of the Court.
State, and the construction thereof adopted by the local tribunals, and to rights and titles to things having a permanent locality, such as the rights and titles to real estate, and other matters immovable and intraterritorial in their nature and character."
Notwithstanding the interpretation placed by this decision upon the thirty-fourth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress has never amended that section; so it must be taken as clear that the construction thus placed is the true construction, and acceptable to the legislative as well as to the judicial branch of the government. This decision was in 1842. Forty years thereafter, in Burgess v. Seligman, 107 U. S. 20, the matter was again fully considered, and it was said by Mr. Justice Bradley, on pp. 33 and 34, that "the Federal courts have an independent jurisdiction in the administration of state laws, coördinate with and not subordinate to, that of the state courts, and are bound to exercise their own judgment as to the meaning and effect of those laws. The existence of two coördinate jurisdictions in the same territory is peculiar, and the results would be anomalous and inconvenient but for the exercise of mutual respect and deference. Since the ordinary administration of the law is carried on by the state courts, it necessarily happens that by the course of their decisions certain rules are established which become rules of property and action in the State, and have all the effect of law, and which it would be wrong to disturb. This is especially true with regard to the law of real estate and the construction of state constitutions and statutes. Such established rules are always regarded by the Federal courts, no less than by the state courts themselves, as authoritative declarations of what the law is. But where the law has not been thus settled, it is the right and duty of the Federal courts to exercise their own judgment; as they always do in reference to the doctrines of commercial law and general jurisprudence.
As, however, the very object of giving to the national courts jurisdiction to administer the laws of the States in controversies between citizens of different States was to institute independent tribunals which it might be supposed would be unaffected by local
Opinion of the Court.
prejudices and sectional views, it would be a dereliction of their duty not to exercise an independent judgment in cases not foreclosed by previous adjudication. As this matter has received our special consideration, we have endeavored thus briefly to state our views with distinctness in order to obviate any misapprehensions that may arise from language and expressions used in previous decisions. The principal cases bearing upon the subject are referred to in the note, but it is not deemed necessary to discuss them in detail.” And in the note referred to over fifty cases are cited, in which the proposition had been in terms stated or in fact recognized. Since the case of Burgess v. Seligman the same proposition has been again and again affirmed.
Whatever differences of opinion may have been expressed, have not been on the question whether a matter of general law should be settled by the independent judgment of this court, rather than through an adherence to the decisions of the state courts, but upon the other question, whether a given matter is one of local or of general law. Thus in the case of Bucher v. Cheshire Railroad Co., 125 U. S. 555, these facts appeared : A statute of Massachusetts forbade travel on the Lord's day, except for necessity or charity, under penalty of a fine not exceeding ten dollars. The plaintiff, while riding in the cars of the defendant in violation of that statute, was injured through its negligence. The defendant pleaded his violation of this statute as a bar to any recovery, citing repeated decisions of the bighest court of that State sustaining such a defence. This court followed those decisions. It is true, as said in the opinion, that there was no dispute about the meaning of the language used by the legislature, so this court was not following the construction placed upon the statute by the Massachusetts court, but only those decisions as to its effect. And yet, from that opinion two of the Justices dissented, holding that, notwithstanding it was a dispute as to the effect of a state statute, it was still a question of general law.
Again, in the case of Detroit v. Osborne, 135 U.S. 492, 499, the plaintiff was injured while walking in one of the streets of
Opinion of the Court.
Detroit, through a defect in the sidewalk. The Supreme Court of Michigan bad held that the duty resting upon the city, of keeping its streets in repair, was a duty to the public, and not to private individuals, the mere neglect of which was a non-feasance only, for which no private action for damages arose. This court followed that ruling, although conceding that it was not in harmony with the general opinion, nor in accordance with views of its own, and this was done on the ground that the question was one of a purely local nature. This quotation was made from the opinion in Claiborne County v. Brooks, 111 U. S. 400, 410, as fully expressing the reasons for so following the rulings of the Michigan court: “It is undoubtedly a question of local policy with each State what shall be the extent and character of the powers which its various political and municipal organizations shall possess, and the settled decisions of its highest courts on this subject will be regarded as authoritative by the courts of the United States; for it is a question that relates to the internal constitution of the body politic of the State.” Observations of a similar nature are pertinent to other cases, in which this court has felt itself constrained to yield its own judgment to the decisions of the state courts.
Again, according to the decisions of this court, it is not open to doubt that the responsibility of a railroad company to its employés is a matter of general law. In Railroad Company v. Lockwood, 17 Wall. 357, 368, the question was as to the extent to which a common carrier could stipulate for exemption from responsibility for the negligence of himself or his servants, and notwithstanding there were decisions of the courts of New York thereon, the State in which the cause of action arose, this court held that it was not bound by them, and that in a case involving a matter of such importance to the whole country it was its duty to proceed in the exercise of an independent judgment. In llough v. Railway Company, 100 U. S. 213, 226, was presented the liability of a company to its servant for injuries caused by negligence, and Mr. Justice Harlan thus expressed the views of the entire court: “Our attention has been called to two cases determined in the
Opinion of the Court.
Supreme Court of Texas, and which, it is urged, sustain the principles announced in the court below. After a carefui consideration of those cases, we are of opinion that they do not necessarily conflict with the conclusions we have reached. Be this as it may, the questions before us, in the absence of statutory regulations by the State in which the cause of action arose, depend upon principles of general law, and in their determination we are not required to follow the decisions of the state courts.” In Myrick v. Mich. Cent. Railroad, 107 U. S. 102, 108, the question was whether a bill of lading, issued by a railroad company, whereby the company agreed to carry cattle beyond its own line to the place named for final delivery, was a through contract. The ticket or bill of lading was issued in Illinois, and the rulings of the Supreme Court of that State, as to the effect of such a ticket or bill of lading, were claimed to be conclusive; but this court declined to follow them, and in the exercise of its own judgment placed a different construction upon the contract. And in the recent case of Railway Company v. Prentice, 147 U. S. 101, 106, where the question arose as to the right to recover from the railway company punitive damages for the wanton and oppressive conduct of one of its conductors towards a passenger, it was said: “This question, like others affecting the liability of a railroad corporation as a common carrier of goods or passengers, — such as its right to contract for exemption from responsibility for its own negligence, or its liability beyond its own line, or its liability to one of its servants for the act of another person in its employment, — is a question, not of local law, but of general jurisprudence, upon which this court, in the absence of express statute regulating the subject, will exercise its own judgment, uncontrolled by the decisions of the courts of the several States."
Not only that, but in the cases of Wabash Railway v. McDaniels, 107 U. S. 454, a case arising in the State of Indiana; Randall v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, 109 U. S. 478, arising in West Virginia; and Chicago, Milwaukee &c. Railway v. Ross, 112 U. S. 377, coming from Minnesota all three cases being actions by employés to recover damages