Burlington Northern R. Co. v. Woods

480 U. S. 1

February 24, 1987

I’ve finally made it out of Volume 479! And having reached Volume 480, this Dante will have a new Virgil to be his guide. Decision reporter Henry C. Lind retired at the end of January, and was replaced by Frank D. Wagner. For the next 80 volumes or so, Wagner will be silently with us.

Woods brought a tort action against Burlington Northern. The suit was removed from Alabama court to federal court in diversity. Woods got massive damages, and Burlington Northern appealed, but the Appeals Court ruled for Woods as well. An Alabama rule provides that a penalty equal to 10% damages will be imposed on a party that unsuccessfully appeals a judgment. The rule was meant to discourage frivolous appeals The question was whether this Alabama rule could be applied in federal court.

Unanimously the Court ruled that it could not, with Justice Marshall writing. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure said that an an Appeals Court could punish frivolous appeals at its discretion, and impose similarly discretionary penalties. Because the discretionary character of the Federal Rule conflicted with the mandatory character of the Alabama rule, Marshall held that the Alabama rule was preempted. I think it was a good decision, but in fairness, I tend to have a bias against anything that enlarges tort liability.


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