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U.S. Supreme Court

Erie R. Co. v. Board of Public Utility Comm'rs, 254 U.S. 394 (1921)

Erie Railroad Company v. Board of Public Utility Commissioners

No. 330

Argued November 16, 17, 1920

Decided January 3, 1921

254 U.S. 394


1. A state may require a railroad company to do away with grade crossings of public streets, whether laid out before or after the construction of the railroad, and may place upon the company the expense of executing the state's plan to accomplish this by running the streets over or beneath the tracks. P. 254 U. S. 409.

2. Of the two conflicting interests in such cases -- that of the public using the streets and that of the railroad and the public using it -- the former is paramount, and the state may constitutionally insist that the streets be kept free of danger whatever the cost to the parties introducing it. P. 254 U. S. 410. Distinguishing cases involving the power to regulate trains.

3. The authority so exercised is an obvious case of the police power, or it may be regarded as an authority impliedly reserved when the state granted to the railroad the right to occupy the land. Id. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 254 U. S. 395

4. The order requiring the changes should be regarded as stating a condition that must be complied with if the railroad continues to use the soil of the state, but the railroad cannot be compelled to serve at a loss. P. 254 U. S. 410.

5. There being reason to believe that safety requires the change, the facts that the execution of the plan will interfere with prior contracts and involve expenditures so heavy as to impair the efficiency of the railroad as an agency of interstate commerce, or even lead to bankruptcy, do not bring the state's order into conflict with the contract or commerce clauses of the Constitution or the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 254 U. S. 411.

6. The rights of the railroad company in respect of private sidings are no greater than those in respect of the main line. Id.

7. The burden of paying for the required changes may be laid upon an operating lessee railroad company without regard to the financial ability of the lessors to compensate it for the required improvements if the leases should be terminated. Id.

8. As the railroad company might be charged the entire expense, it cannot complain that only 10 percent of it is cast upon a street railway company as to streets used by the latter. P. 254 U. S. 412.

9. While it may be that an order of a state board directing such changes at heavy expense to a railroad company would be so unreasonable as to be void if the evidence plainly did not warrant a finding that the particular crossings were dangerous, yet such crossings are generally dangerous, and the conclusion reached by the board and confirmed by the state courts is entitled to much weight, and, if reasonably warranted, must stand. Id.

10. As a state may delegate legislative or quasi-legislative power to a board, subject to review in the courts (Hall v. Geiger-Jones Co., 242 U. S. 539), the constitutional aspect of changes ordered at grade crossings, as regards the railroad company affected, is the same whether the board ordering them was obliged to do so upon finding danger or had a discretion in the matter under the state law. P. 254 U. S. 413.

11. A street railway crossing the tracks of a steam road at grade increases the danger, and may be obliged to bear part of the expense of removing it. Id.

12. And where changes are lawfully ordered, a water company is not deprived of property without due process by being obliged to adjust the pipes to the new conditions at its own expense. Id.

13. In being so required, a water company is not denied equal protection of the laws as compared with a street railroad company required to pay 10 percent of the total expense of the crossing and chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 254 U. S. 396

presumably more than the expense of merely readjusting it tracks. P. 254 U. S. 413.

14. Held that change ordered at railroad grade crossings involving expense to a telegraph company in adjusting it line did not infringe its right under the Fourteenth Amendment or violate the commerce clause. P. 254 U. S. 414.

15. An order and plan for abolishing grade crossings of a railroad and public streets, if otherwise valid, is not unconstitutional because it will dislocate private sidings connected with the railroad and put their owners to expense. Id.

89 N.L.J. 57, 24; 90 N.J.L. 672, 673, 714, 729, 677, 694, 715, affirmed.

The cases are stated in the opinion. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 254 U. S. 407

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