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The decision as to the applicable survivorship rule in a civil rights case is governed by 42 U.S.C.S. § 1988. This statute recognizes that in certain areas federal law is unsuited or insufficient to furnish suitable remedies; federal law simply does not cover every issue that may arise in the context of a federal civil rights action. When federal law is thus deficient, § 1988 instructs courts to turn to the common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes of the forum state, as long as these are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States. Regardless of the source of the law applied in a particular case, however, it is clear that the ultimate rule adopted under § 1988 is a federal rule responsive to the need whenever a federal right is impaired.
Clay Shaw filed an action for damages and injunctive relief under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 against petitioner and others, claiming that they had deprived him of his constitutional rights. Upon the death of Shaw before trial, the executor of his estate, respondent Edward F. Wegmann, was substituted as plaintiff. Petitioner and the other defendants filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that Shaw's death abated the action. The District Court denied the motion. The court held that the applicable survivorship rule was governed by 42 U. S. C. § 1988, which provides that the jurisdiction conferred on district courts for the protection of civil rights shall be exercised conformably with federal laws so far as such laws are suitable "but in all cases where they . . . are deficient in the provisions necessary to furnish suitable remedies . . . the common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes of the [forum] State" shall apply as long as they are "not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." The court found the federal civil rights laws to be "deficient in not providing for survival," and then held that under Louisiana law an action like Shaw's would survive only in favor of a spouse, children, parents, or siblings, none of whom was alive at the time of Shaw's death, but refused to apply the state law, finding it inconsistent with federal law. In place of the state law the court created "a federal common law of survival in civil rights actions in favor of the personal representative of the deceased." The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Was the District Court required to adopt as federal law a Louisiana survivorship statute, which would have caused this action to abate?
The Supreme Court reversed, ruling that the district court should have adopted the Louisiana survivorship law, which would have caused Shaw's action to abate. The fact that it limited survivorship to certain family members did not render it inconsistent with federal law under § 1988.