Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Railroads Need Law, Too

You hear a lot about the need for law to address issues raised by new technology like autonomous vehicles, drones, and robots. Folks in the Technology Law & Policy Clinic (UW Law) and the Tech Policy Lab (School of Law, Information School, Computer Science & Engineering, and other units on campus) are among those wrestling with those issues.

photo of steam locomotive in woods
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
But this isn't the first time the law has had to figure out how to respond to new technology. The coming of the railroads created huge challenges. You might remember from Torts class the cases about liability for fires caused by passing trains and rules about liability for injuries to railway workers. And of course, where would Civil Procedure be without Erie Railroad v. Tompkins? Beyond that one case of a man injured in Pennsylvania suing in New York federal court, think how diversity jurisdiction is shaped by the ease of transportation. If you never traveled further than you could ride a horse, you'd usually be in your home state, dealing with businesses based right there.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of first transcontinental railroad. People noting the occasion include descendants of the Chinese workers who did a lot of the heavy lifting, as reported on NPR yesteerday. See the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association Facebook page. For more on the Chinese immigrant experience during that era, see John R. Wunder, Gold Mountain Turned to Dust: Essays on the Legal History of the Chinese in the Nineteenth-Century American West (2018).

And for more (much more!) on railroads, see our Macfarlane Transportation Collection Guide. Robert S. Macfarlane (UW Law class of 1922) spent several decades as counsel to and then president and chairman of the Northern Pacific Railway and its successor company, Burlington Northern. (That was after serving as chief deputy prosecutor for the King County Prosecutor's Office and being a judge of the King County Superior Court. Busy guy!) In his memory, his family has created a fund that has enabled the law library to buy works in transportation law.  The Macfarlane Lounge on the fourth floor is also named in his honor.

If your summer reading tastes run to railroad history or transportation policy, there's plenty to choose from!

One last bit of railroad-and-the-law trivia: When young William O. Douglas left his family home in Yakima to go to Yale Law School, he saved money by traveling by boxcar, tending 1000 sheep for part of the way and just riding the rails the rest of the way. G. Edward White, The Anti-Judge: William O. Douglas and the Ambiguities of Individuality, 74 Va. L. Rev. 17, 22–24 (1988), HeinOnline.

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