Wells v. Simonds Abrasive Company/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

345 U.S. 514

Wells  v.  Simonds Abrasive Company

 Argued: Jan. 7, 1953. --- Decided: May 18, 1953

Cheek Wells was killed in Alabama when a grinding wheel with which he was working burst. The wheel had been manufactured by the respondent, a corporation with its principal place of business in Pennsylvania. The administratrix of the estate of Cheek Wells brought an action for damages in the federal court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania after one year, but within two years, after the death. Jurisdiction was based upon diversity of citizenship.

The section of the Alabama Code [1] upon which petitioner predicated her action for wrongful death provided that action '* * * must be brought within two years from and after the death * * *.' The respondent moved for summary judgment on the ground the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute required suit to be commenced within one year. [2] In an opinion [3] on that motion, the district judge found that the Pennsylvania statute, which was analogous to the Alabama statute, had a one-year limitation. He further found that the Pennsylvania conflict of laws rule called for the application of its own limitation rather than that of the place of the accident. Deeming himself bound by the Pennsylvania conflicts rule, he ordered summary judgment for the respondent. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. [4]

We granted certiorari [5] limited to the question whether this Pennsylvania conflicts rule violates the Full Faith and Credit Clause [6] of the Federal Constitution.

The states are free to adopt such rules of conflict of laws as they choose, Kryger v. Wilson, 1916, 242 U.S. 171, 37 S.Ct. 34, 61 L.Ed. 229, subject to the Full Faith and Credit Clause and other constitutional restrictions. The Full Faith and Credit Clause does not compel a state to adopt any particular set of rules of conflict of laws; it merely sets certain minimum requirements which each state must observe when asked to apply the law of a sister state.

Long ago, we held that applying the statute of limitations of the forum to a foreign substantive right did not deny full faith and credit, McElmoyle v. Cohen, 1839, 13 Pet. 312, 10 L.Ed. 177; Townsend v. Jemison, 1850, 9 How. 407, 13 L.Ed. 194; Bacon v. Howard, 1857, 20 How. 22, 15 L.Ed. 811. Recently we referred to '* * * the well established principle of conflict of laws that 'If action is barred by the statute of limitations of the forum, no action can be maintained though action is not barred in the state where the cause of action arose.' Restatement, Conflict of Laws, s 603 (1934).' Order of United Commercial Travelers v. Wolfe, 1947, 331 U.S. 586, 607, 67 S.Ct. 1355, 1365, 91 L.Ed. 1687. [7]

The rule that the limitations of the for um apply (which this Court has said meets the requirements of full faith and credit) is the usual conflicts rule of the states. [8] However, there have been divergent views when a foreign statutory right unknown to the common law has a period of limitation included in the section creating the right. The Alabama statute here involved creates such a right and contains a built-in limitation. The view is held in some jurisdictions that such a limitation is so intimately connected with the right that it must be enforced in the forum state along with the substantive right. [9]

We are not concerned with the reasons which have led some states for their own purposes to adopt the foreign limitation, instead of their own, in such a situation. The question here is whether the Full Faith and Credit Clause compels them to do so. Our prevailing rule is that the Full Faith and Credit Clause does not compel the forum state to use the period of limitation of a foreign state. We see no reason in the present situation to graft an exception onto it. Differences based upon whether the foreign right was known to the common law or upon the arrangement of the code of the foreign state are too unsubstantial to form the basis for constitutional distinctions under the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

We agree with the respondent that Engel v. Davenport, 1926, 271 U.S. 33, 46 S.Ct. 410, 70 L.Ed. 813, has no application here. It presented an entirely different problem. Congress had given a statutory cause of action to seamen for certain personal injuries, placing concurrent jurisdiction in the state and federal courts . In Engel, supra, the two-year federal limitation rather than the one-year California limitation for similar actions was held controlling in an action brought in the California courts. Once it was decided that the intention of Congress was that the two-year limitation was meant to apply in both federal and state courts under our Federal Constitution, that was the supreme law of the land. [10]

Our decisions in Hughes v. Fetter, 1951, 341 U.S. 609, 71 S.Ct. 980, 95 L.Ed. 1212, and First National Bank v. United Air Lines, 1952, 342 U.S. 396, 72 S.Ct. 421, 96 L.Ed. 441, do not call for a change in the well-established rule that the forum state is permitted to apply its own period of limitation. The crucial factor in those two cases was that the forum laid an uneven hand on causes of action arising within and without the forum state. Causes of action arising in sister states were discriminated against. Here Pennsylvania applies her one-year limitation to all wrongful death actions wherever they may arise. The judgment is affirmed.


Mr. Justice CLARK, not having heard oral argument, took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Mr. Justice JACKSON, with whom Mr. Justice BLACK and Mr. Justice MINTON join, dissenting.


^1  'A personal representative may maintain an action, and recover such damages as the jury may assess in a court of competent jurisdiction within the State of Alabama, and not elsewhere for the wrongful act, omission, or negligence of any person or persons, or corporation, his or their servants or agents, whereby the death of his testator or intestate was caused, if the testator or intestate could have maintained an action for such wrongful act, omission, or negligence, if it had not caused death. Such action shall not abate by the death of the defendant, but may be revived against his personal representative; and may be maintained, though there has not been prosecution, or conviction, or acquittal of the defendant for the wrongful act, or omission, or negligence; and the damages recovered are not subject to the payment of the debts or liabilities of the testator or intestate, but must be distributed, according to the statute of distributions. Such action must be brought within two years from and after the death of the testator or intestate.' Ala.Code, 1940, Tit. 7, § 123.

^2  Purdon's Pa.Stat.Ann., 1931, Tit. 12, § 1603.

^3  D.C.1951, 102 F.Supp. 519.

^4  3 Cir., 1952, 195 F.2d 814. See also Quinn v. Simonds Abrasive Co., 3 Cir., 1952, 199 F.2d 416.

^5  1952, 344 U.S. 815, 73 S.Ct. 57.

^6  'Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.' U.S.Const., Art. IV, § 1, cl. 1.

^7  Cf. dissenting opinion by Mr. Justice Black, Order of United Commercial Travelers v. Wolfe, 1947, 331 U.S. 625, 67 S.Ct. 1374, 91 L.Ed. 1687.

^8  Restatement, Conflict of Laws, § 603 (1934).

^9  Cristilly v. Warner, 1913, 87 Conn. 461, 88 A. 711, 51 L.R.A., N.S., 415, overruled on another ground, Daury v. Ferraro, 1928, 108 Conn. 386, 143 A. 630, 62 A.L.R. 1323; Louisville & Nashville R. Co. v. Burkhart, 1913, 154 Ky. 92, 157 S.W. 18, 46 L.R.A.,N.S., 687 (dictum); Negaubauer v. Great Northern R. Co., 1904, 92 Minn. 184, 99 N.W. 620. Contra: White v. Govatos, 1939, 1 Terry 349, 40 Del. 349, 10 A.2d 524; Tieffenbrun v. Flannery, 1930, 198 N.C. 397, 151 S.E. 857, 68 A.L.R. 210; Rosenzweig v. Heller, 1931, 302 Pa. 279, 153 A. 346. See also Restatement, Conflict of Laws, § 397, Comment b, and § 605 (1934).

^10  'This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.' U.S.Const., Art. VI, cl. 2.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).