Burnett v. New York Central Railroad Company

RESPONDENT: New York Central Railroad Company
LOCATION: Longshore and Warehouse Union

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 380 US 424 (1965)
ARGUED: Mar 11, 1965
DECIDED: Apr 05, 1965

Facts of the case


Media for Burnett v. New York Central Railroad Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 11, 1965 in Burnett v. New York Central Railroad Company

Earl Warren:

Number 437, Otto V. Burnett, petitioner versus New York Central Railroad Company.

Mr. Cole.

Douglas G. Cole:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This is the case of Otto Burnett V. New York Central Railroad.

The petitioner was a resident of the State of Kentucky who was employed by the dependent Railroad and while working in the state of Indiana on March 17, 1960, he was injured.

Thereafter on March 13, 1963 four days before the three-year statute limitations under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, a suit was brought on his behalf under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act in Hamilton County, Ohio, Court of Common Pleas and service was issued and returned upon the defendant and thereafter the defendant came in and moved to dismiss on the basis of improper venue of the case.

This motion was granted by reason of Ohio Statute 2307.37, which is a venue statute.

Thereafter, within eight days of the time of the dismissal of the case in the state court, the suit was re-filed in the U.S District Court of the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of the petitioner, relying upon the Ohio saving statue which is section 2305.19, of the Ohio Revised Code, and the respondent came in and filed the motion to dismiss, alleging that the Ohio Saving Statute did not apply in a Federal Employers’ Liability Act case and the District Court sustained the motion and it was affirmed upon – from appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This squarely presents a very simple question to this Court and that is, does the three-year limitation period contained in a Federal Employers’ Liability Act which is Section 56 of the Act, may it be extended by the Ohio Saving Statute when a case has been commenced within the three-year period, but by reason of a problem because of venue, the original action has had to be transferred to another court which had the jurisdiction and the venue to hear the case to it’s completion after this three-year period of --

[Inaudible] State or Federal Court.

Douglas G. Cole:

That's correct sir, it really does not matter.

It just happened been in a Federal Court and that is because the state of –

Potter Stewart:

It couldn't have been filed in the State Court (Voice Overlap)

Douglas G. Cole:

Well as you say in Ohio, it could not have happened in a state court because of venue section of the statute, you cannot bring an action anywhere in Ohio by nonresident where the cause arose outside of the State Ohio.

It could, perhaps has happened in some other states, not in Ohio.

An examination of the background of Section 56 of the Federal Employers' Liability Act itself indicates that there was no intention on the part of Congress when they first enacted that section, first, it was two -ear section and later amended to be a three year section, there was no intention on their part to make this a limitation period which was cutoff at the end of that period of time and not be extended by various rules of law such as estoppel, fraud, fraudulent concealment and the whole idea was to grant minimum protection to the employees of the Railroad and not to create some maximum series of rights.

In other words, they were not attempting to say that you had to bring an action within three years and thereafter you cannot bring any action.

Congress rather intended that they were trying to set up a uniform system, uniform minimum length of time throughout the United States so that various state legislatures cannot say in one state, you had minimum of two years or minimum of year-and-a-half and then another state say three years.

So, they were trying to say that this minimum period and there was no attempt on a part of Congress at anytime to say that the ordinary rules which applied to statue of limitations should not apply to this one.

The only construction that has caused this idea of a substantive procedural dichotomy to arise has been by judicial construction and some of the lower of courts of an earlier age, but principally before 1939 and the amendment to the Federal Employers' Liability Act where the whole trend went the other way in order to protect the employees, considerably more than they have ever been protected prior to 1939.

And certainly these old cases which have been cited repeatedly to the proposition that this was a substantive statue which set up a period of three years and that this was a limitation upon the right, rather than upon a remedy, does not bear itself out in any rational or logical construction of the -- either the purpose of the act or the language itself.

Now we have cited in number of the cases which have been decided in United States by various Federal Courts since 1947 and the defense and as matter of fact the Sixth Circuit pick these up saying that these all contain problems of fraud or fraudulent concealment, estoppel by some activity of the railroad as opposed to situation that we have here where there it no fraud involved, nobody said that the railroad mislead the petitioner in this case as to how long he had. What we were trying to show by citing these cases is that there has been a revolution in the United States, since mid 1940s and the thinking on how this Federal Employers' Liability Act, Section 56, the limitation period could be handled, the package you can't open it up.

If it can be open for one reason that certainly it can be opened for the same reasons that other statue limitations are generally opened up, whether it be fraud concealment or just the circumstances that arise which call into play state saving statues.

Now, we say that it just as unjust to a petitioner to make him guess correctly upon the elusive questions of venue in a case and make him stick to that even though he makes a mistake, this is just as unjust as his fraud or fraudulent concealment.

He has never had the opportunity to get his case to a court for determination on the merits and yet it is recognized by this Court in decisions of this Court that this can be just as unjust, the problem of wading through elusive questions of venue, this can be just as unfair as any other form of problem such as fraud which calls for equitable inter position by a court.

In the case of which I have cited in the brief of Goldlawr versus Heiman, 369 U.S. 463, a point is made that this problem of employing injustice where some elusive fact that were the kind upon which venue provisions often turn is required in order to that an expeditious and orderly adjudication of cases and controversies on their merits can be had.

As the court there point it out, the main problem is a question of whether there has been notice to the defendant within at three-year period and there is no question that in this particular case there was notice to the defendant.

They were actually served with the summons within the three-year period of time and it was only after they came in and defended the case in the Common Pleas Court of Hamilton County, Ohio, that it was subsequently removed to the District Court in the Southern District of Ohio.

So there is no question that the petitioner had done all that he could.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

So far as the venue is concerned [Inaudible]