Burnett v. New York Central Railroad Company

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation85 S.Ct. 1050,380 U.S. 424,13 L.Ed.2d 941
Docket NumberNo. 437,437
PartiesOtto V. BURNETT, Petitioner, v. NEW YORK CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY
Decision Date05 April 1965

Douglas G. Cole, Cincinnati, Ohio, for petitioner.

Roy W. Short, Cincinnati, Ohio, for respondent.

Mr. Justice GOLDBERG delivered the opinion of the Court.

On March 13, 1963, petitioner, a resident of Kentucky, began an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. (1958) ed.) in the Common Pleas Court of Hamilton County, Ohio. He alleged that he had been injured on March 17, 1960, in Indiana, while in the course of his employment with respondent, the New York Central Railroad. The Ohio court had jurisdiction of the action, and respondent was properly served with process. The action was dismissed upon respondent's motion, however, because venue was improper. While in Ohio in most transitory actions venue is proper wherever the defendant can be summoned, see Ohio Rev.Code, §§ 2307.36, 2307.38, 2307.39, venue is properly laid in actions against railroads to recover for personal injuries only in the county of the plaintiff's residence or the county where the injury occurred.1 See Ohio Rev.Code, § 2307.37, Loftus v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 107 Ohio St. 352, 140 N.E. 94. On June 12, 1963, eight days after his state court action was dismissed, petitioner brought an identical action in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. The District Court dismissed petitioner's complaint on the ground that although the state suit was brought within the limitations period, the federal action was not timely and was then barred by the limitation provision of the FELA, 35 Stat. 66, as amended, 45 U.S.C. § 56 (1958 ed.), which provides: 'That no action shall be maintained under this Act unless commenced within three years from the day the cause of action accrued.' 230 F.Supp. 767. The Court of Appeals, rejecting petitioner's argument that his suit in the state court had tolled the FELA limitation provision, affirmed the District Court's dismissal of his suit. 332 F.2d 529. The Court of Appeals reasoned that since the limitation provision does not limit a common-law right, but, rather, is contained in the same Act which creates the right being limited, the limitation is 'substantive' and not 'procedural.' For this reason, it held, '(f)ailure to bring the action within the time pre- scribed extinguished the cause of action.' 332 F.2d at 530. We granted certiorari to determine whether petitioner's suit in the Ohio state court tolled the FELA statute of limitations. 379 U.S. 913, 85 S.Ct. 260, 13 L.Ed.2d 184.

There is no doubt that, as a matter of federal law, the state action here involved was properly 'commenced' within the meaning of the federal limitation statute which provides that 'no action shall be maintained * * * unless commenced within three years from the day the cause of action accrued.' As this Court held in Herb v. Pitcairn, 325 U.S. 77, 79, 65 S.Ct. 954, 955, 89 L.Ed. 1483, 'when process has been adequate to bring in the parties and to start the case on a course of judicial handling which may lead to final judgment without issuance of new initial process, it is enough to commence the action within the federal statute.' Had Ohio law permitted this state court action simply to be transferred to another state court, Herb v. Pitcairn holds that it would have been timely. The problem here, however, is that the timely state court action was not transferable under Ohio law but, rather, was dismissed, and a new action was brought in a federal court more than three years after the cause of action accrued. Nonetheless, for the reasons set out below, we hold that the principles underlying the Court's decision in Herb v. Pitcairn lead to the conclusion that petitioner's state court action tolled the federal limitation provision and therefore petitioner's federal court action here was timely.

The basic question to be answered in determining whether, under a given set of facts, a statute of limitations is to be tolled, is one 'of legislative intent whether the right shall be enforceable * * * after the prescribed time.' Mid-state Horticultural Co. v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 320 U.S. 356, 360, 64 S.Ct. 128, 130, 88 L.Ed. 96. Classification of such a provision as 'substantive' rather than 'procedural' does not determine whether or under what circumstances the limitation period may be extended.2 As this Court has expressly held, the FELA limitation period is not totally inflexible, but, under appropriate circumstances, it may be extended beyond three years. Glus v. Brooklyn Eastern Terminal, 359 U.S. 231, 79 S.Ct. 760, 3 L.Ed.2d 770. See Osbourne v. United States, 164 F.2d 767 (C.A.2d Cir.); Scarborough v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 178 F.2d 253, 15 A.L.R.2d 491 (C.A.4th Cir.); Frabutt v. New York, C. & St. L.R. Co., 84 F.Supp. 460 (D.C.W.D.Pa.). These authorities indicate that the basic inquiry is whether congressional purpose is effectuated by tolling the statute of limitations in given circumstances.

In order to determine congressional intent, we must examine the purposes and policies underlying the limitation provision, the Act itself, and the remedial scheme developed for the enforcement of the rights given by the Act. Such an examination leads us to conclude that it effectuates the basic congressional purposes in enacting this humane and remedial Act,3 as well as those policies embodied in the Act's limitation provision, to hold that when a plaintiff begins a timely FELA action in a state court of competent jurisdiction, service of process is made upon the opposing party, and the state court action is later dismissed because of improper venue, the FELA limitation is tolled during the pendency of the state action.

Statutes of limitations are primarily designed to assure fairness to defendants. Such statutes 'promote justice by preventing surprises through the revival of claims that have been allowed to slumber until evidence has been lost, memories have faded, and witnesses have disappeared. The theory is that even if one has a just claim it is unjust not to put the adversary on notice to defend within the period of limitation and that the right to be free of stale claims in time comes to prevail over the right to prosecute them.' Order of Railroad Telegraphers v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 321 U.S. 342, 348—349, 64 S.Ct. 582, 586, 88 L.Ed. 788. Moreover, the courts ought to be relieved of the burden of trying stale claims when a plaintiff has slept on his rights. 4

This policy of repose, designed to protect defendants, is frequently outweighed, however, where the interests of justice require vindication of the plaintiff's rights. Thus, this Court has held that an FELA action is not barred, though brought more than three years after the cause of action accrued, where a defendant misled the plaintiff into believing that he had more than three years in which to bring the action. Glus v. Brooklyn Eastern Terminal, supra. Moreover, it has been held that the FELA limitation provision is tolled when war has prevented a plaintiff from bringing his suit, even though a defendant in such a case might not know of the plaintiff's disability and might believe that the statute of limitations renders him immune from suit. See Osbourne v. United States, supra; Frabutt v. New York, C. & St. L.R. Co., supra. In such cases a plaintiff has not slept on his rights but, rather, has been prevented from asserting them.

Considerations in favor of tolling the federal statute of limitations in this case are similar to those leading to an extension of the limitation period in the cases mentioned above. Petitioner here did not sleep on his rights but brought an action within the statutory period in the state court of competent jurisdiction. Service of process was made upon the respondent notifying him that petitioner was asserting his cause of action. While venue was improper in the state court, under Ohio law venue objections may be waived by the defendant,5 and evidently in past cases defendant railroads, including this respondent, had waived objections to venue so that suits by nonresidents of Ohio could proceed in state courts.6 Petitioner, then, failed to file an FELA action in the federal courts, not because he was disinterested, but solely because he felt that his state action was sufficient. Respondent could not have relied upon the policy of repose embodied in the limitation statute, for it was aware that petitioner was actively pursuing his FELA remedy; in fact, respondent appeared specially in the Ohio court to file a motion for dismissal on grounds of improper venue.

Both federal and state jurisdictions have recognized the unfairness of barring a plaintiff's action solely because a prior timely action is dismissed for improper venue after the applicable statute of limitations has run. In both federal and state systems of justice rules have been devised to prevent this from happening. Thus a federal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a), allows a district court 'of a district in which is filed a case laying venue in the wrong division or district * * * if it be in the interest of justice,' to 'transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.' 7 Congress thereby recognized that the filing of a lawsuit 'ITSELF SHOWS THE PROPER DILIGENCE ON THE Part of the plaintiff which * * * statutes of limitation were intended to insure. If by reason of the uncertainties of proper venue a mistake is made * * * 'the interest of justice' may require that the complaint * * * be transferred in order that the plaintiff not be penalized by * * * 'time-consuming and justice-defeating technicalities." Goldlawr, Inc. v. Heiman, 369 U.S. 463, 467, 82 S.Ct. 913, 916, 8 L.Ed.2d 39. If petitioner in this case had instituted his suit in a federal court where venue was improper, his case could simply have...

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