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Sampson v. Channell - 110 F.2d 754 (1st Cir. 1940)


The question whether in diversity of citizenship cases burden of proof is to be classified as a matter of procedure or substantive law is to be determined by following the classification made by the courts of the state. No doubt federal courts should look to those courts to tell federal courts what their rule is and how it operates in local litigation. But once that is determined, the rule is the same whether it is labeled substantive law or procedure. Furthermore, such a classification by the state court for one purpose does not mean that the classification is valid for another purpose. Surely the question whether a particular subject-matter falls within the power of the United States Supreme Court to prescribe rules of procedure under the Act of 1934, 28 U.S.C.S. §§ 726b, 723c or is a matter of substantive law governed by the doctrine of the Erie case cannot be foreclosed by the label given to the subject-matter by the state courts.


A car driven by defendant's Testator collided in Maine with a car occupied by the Sampsons, a husband and a wife, injuring them. In a prior separate proceeding, the wife sued and recovered judgment, which the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed. Subsequently, Mr. Sampson brought his own suit in the same federal district court in Massachusetts, where the jury found specially that the injury of plaintiff husband was caused by the negligence of defendant's Testator, but the jury also brought in a general verdict for the defendant on the issue of contributory negligence. Judgment was entered for the defendant's Testator. The district court entered judgment for defendant executor. 


Must a federal court, in diversity of citizenship cases, follow the applicable state rule as to incidence of burden of proof?




The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings, concluding that  there was error in the instructions given to the jury on the burden of proof. The court's theory was that the federal court in Massachusetts sat as a court coordinate with the Massachusetts state courts to apply the Massachusetts law in diversity of citizenship cases. The court held that it was difficult to see that gain in the direction of uniformity would have been achieved by creating a discrepancy between the rules of law applicable in the Massachusetts state and federal courts, respectively, in order to bring the law of the Massachusetts federal court in harmony with the law that would be applied in the state courts of Maine.

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