One local case inspired a bobble-head figure of a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
It also reversed a federal precedent.
A group of speakers, including U.S. Circuit Appeals Judge Thomas Vanaskie, delivered a presentation to a nearly full house of students and lawyers about the importance of Erie Railroad Co. v. Harry J. Tompkins at the Steamtown National Historic Site theater on Tuesday.
Vanaskie called the case one of “great lawyering and zealous advocacy” from both sides.
Before Vanaskie took over, however, Park Historian Pat McKnight provided “historic context.”
According to McKnight, Harry Tompkins was on his way home in Hughestown, walking parallel to some railroad tracks at 1 a.m. on July 27, 1934, when a passing train, known as “the Ashley Special,” hit him with, well, something.
“The thing about the whole thing,” McKnight said, “is no one knows what actually hit Harry Tompkins.”
By process of elimination, Tompkins’ lawyers determined the open door of a refrigerator car to be the culprit, he said.
McKnight added that, as he wasn’t a worker or passenger, the law considered Tompkins a trespasser on the tracks.
The accident cost Tompkins his right arm, making the already out-of-work man even less desirable to Great Depression-era employers.
Thus, seeking compensation from the railroad company doesn’t seem out of the question.
However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court previously had determined that railroads were not liable for injury to a trespasser unless “guilty of wanton negligence,” a tall order, Vanaskie said, but New York law held railroad companies liable in the event of any negligence.
Tompkins’ young lawyers had done their homework and took the case to trial in the latter state, and the court awarded their client $30,000, a ruling Erie appealed.
“There was no dissent, so round two goes to Mr. Tompkins,” Vanaskie said.
The cases that followed, though, would see Tompkins lose the award and an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Swift v. Tyson, overturned.
The Supreme Court’s final decision, delivered by Associate Justice Louis D. Brandeis in 1938, threw out the previous rulings made in favor of Tompkins on the grounds that he and his representation had gone forum shopping, or searching for the location perceived most favorable to their case’s victory.
In a precedent-setting ruling, the court determined that the case should have been settled in Pennsylvania — where the accident occurred — instead of neighboring New York.
But perhaps the most visible result of the ruling is still the bobble-head figure of Brandeis riding the Ashley Special.