A common carrier is a transportation service, e.g., a municipal bus or subway service. It is available to the general public for compensation for the transportation of people and goods over defined routes according to a regular schedule. These can include buses, duck boats, ferries, airlines, cruises, taxis, and other forms of public mass transit.
The federal government regulates common carriers that transport passengers or cargo across state lines under the Interstate Commerce Act (ICA). Individual state governments and local governments may regulate the common carriers that only operate within the borders of a state, county, or municipality.
What Happens if My Cargo or Property Is Lost or Damaged by a Common Carrier?
Even if a company is transporting goods rather than people, it can have common carrier liability for damage to the goods. The question of which entity or person is liable can become complicated because commercial carriers transporting freight today use leased trucks and drivers instead of their own.
Or, they may use independent contractors who drive their own trucks instead of the commercial carrier’s trucks. In addition, drivers are not employees of the carrier.
For these reasons, common carrier lawsuits can be challenging. The question of which law applies, federal, state, or local, can also come into question.
A shipper who wants to hold a carrier of goods liable for damage or loss to the goods must show three things as follows:
- The shipper handed the goods over to the carrier in good condition;
- The carrier delivered the goods to their destination in a damaged condition;
- The damage to the goods can be quantified.
Everything in the shipping of cargo depends on the bill of lading. This document records that the carrier has taken the goods from the entity that wants to ship them. It also states the terms and conditions of the carriage. It is essentially the contract for the carriage of a specified delivery of goods.
Motor carriers are liable for any actual loss or damage to the property they cause when transporting the goods. However, a carrier’s liability can be limited to a value established by written or electronic declaration of the shipper or by written agreement between the carrier and shipper. The value established by declaration or written agreement must be one that is reasonable under the circumstances of the particular transportation at issue in the case.
A carrier can limit its liability for damage to the goods it carries. In order to do this, the carrier has to do the following:
- Provide the shipper a copy of its rate schedule if asked for it;
- Provide the shipper with an opportunity to choose a level of liability;
- Obtain the shipper’s agreement to a limit on the liability of the carrier;
- Before moving the cargo, the carrier must issue a bill of lading to the shipper that accurately reflects the full agreement between them.
Generally, a common carrier is legally liable for all losses which may occur to the property assigned to its care during the course of business, subject to any limitations in the bill of lading. This is true unless it can be shown that the loss occurred because of any of the following:
- An act of God;
- Hostile action, such as a bomb;
- The consequence of an act by the owner of the property.
What Duties Are Owed to Passengers of Common Carriers?
Generally, common carriers are required by law to exercise the highest degree of care and diligence in protecting the safety of their passengers. If they fail to fulfill their duty of care and a passenger is injured in an accident, they can be sued for negligence. The victim may recover an award of damages to compensate them for losses that result from any injuries.
Amtrak and other rail operators are governed by the federal Railroad Safety Act (RSA) and are classified as common carriers. Rail operators can be sued for injuries for failing to comply with a particular regulation or for failing to exercise the degree of care that would be expected of a reasonably careful operator.
Airlines are also common carriers, and they come within the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA establishes the safety standards for pilot conduct and enforces them. It also sets and enforces the safety standards for flight operations and aircraft manufacturers. It provides both civil and criminal penalties for the violation of safety standards.
Even if a person suffers an injury on local public transportation, such as a bus or a subway, they may be able to sue the carrier to recover damages. However, many municipalities and other local government agencies have laws that establish the rules for suing and recovering damages from public transit agencies.
These laws may require a victim to file a notice of a claim with the local agency before they are allowed to file a lawsuit in civil court. Local laws may also limit the amount of damages that a person can recover.
What Damages Can I Recover for My Losses From a Common Carrier Accident?
If a person has any significant injuries in an accident while a passenger is on a common carrier vehicle, they may sue the carrier for negligence. If a person is successful with their negligence lawsuit, they can recover compensatory damages, which reimburse them for both their economic and non-economic losses. A person would consult a personal injury lawyer. Their lawyer would be able to research the applicable law and discuss a person’s options for recovering damages for their injuries.
When Can a Common Carrier Avoid Liability?
When it comes to the transportation of goods, as noted above, if the damage to goods in shipment is caused by an act of God, a hostile action, or some act by the owner of the property, they cannot be held liable. In addition, a carrier can limit its liability in a bill of lading, as explained above.
There may be other enforceable contracts between a shipper and a carrier that affect liability. For example, a shipper may have signed a release of liability. A release of liability is a contract or a provision in a contract. If a shipper were to sign a release of liability limiting or waiving the carrier’s liability, a court may well enforce it. If a shipper has signed a release of liability, this may prevent them from suing the carrier for damage to shipped goods.
When it comes to injury to passengers of a common carrier, negligence is a tort in legal terminology. There are defenses to tort liability available to anyone who has been sued on a theory of tort law, such as negligence. For example, one such defense is assumption of liability. The defense alleges that the victim of negligence, for example, assumed any risk associated with the activity in which they engaged and were injured. So if they were injured, they cannot recover damages from the negligent actor.
In a common carrier case, the carrier could argue that the passenger assumed any risk of injury when it used the common carrier’s facility. That this defense would work to defeat a carrier’s liability in the case of an accident involving a common carrier is questionable. Perhaps, if the carrier could produce some kind of document, e.g., a ticket, that includes an express waiver of liability for the use of the carrier’s services.
Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer for My Common Carrier Accident?
If you have been injured in an accident while you were a passenger on a common carrier, you should consult an auto accident lawyer. Your lawyer can review the facts of your case and identify the applicable law, whether it is local, state, or federal. Your lawyer can then advise of your options for recovering damages and represent you in negotiations with the carrier or in hearings and trials if they should be necessary.
If you have shipped goods via a common carrier and they arrived at their destination in a damaged condition, you want to consult a contract lawyer. A contract lawyer is best equipped to review the documentation associated with a shipment of goods by a common carrier. In addition, a contract lawyer can identify which law applies to the carrier, whether local, state, or federal, and how it affects potential liability.