Common Carrier Law Overview

Common carrier companies are those that offer public transportation and actively engage in contracts requiring them to transport people, property, or goods across and within state lines. Common carrier laws hold these carriers responsible for injuries to passengers and pedestrians caused by a carrier vehicle. There are exceptions to common carrier laws, including natural disasters and defective products. Scroll down to learn more.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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A common carrier is a company that provides public transportation. Specifically, it is any transportation company that enters into a contract (or offers itself up as available to enter into a contract) to transport any people, property, or goods across or within state lines as a publicly available service. The carriers must take the goods to the agreed destination within the agreed time or within a reasonable time.

The person that is physically transporting the goods by transport is called an actual carrier. When a carrier subcontracts with another provider, such as an independent contractor or a third-party carrier, the common carrier provides a substituted service. The same person may operate both common carrier authority and contract carrier authority.

Public airlines, railroads, bus lines, taxicab companies, phone companies, internet service providers, cruise ships, motor carriers, and other freight companies operate as common carriers.

The rules and regulations that govern common carriers are numerous, and these common carrier laws hold companies responsible for injuries that occur to passengers in transit or pedestrians injured by a common carrier vehicle.

Pipeline and Telecommunications Carriers

Many oil, gas, and CO2 pipelines are common carrier pipelines. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) controls rates charged and other carrier pipeline tariff terms required by interstate common carrier pipelines. Intrastate common carrier pipeline tariffs are often controlled by state agencies. Common carriers usually transport persons, or goods, however, the term may also refer to telecommunications service providers and public utilities (utility companies). Telephone companies can provide video programming on a common carrier basis or as a conventional cable television operator.

Governing bodies may also grant carriers the authority to operate under contract with their customers instead of under joint carrier authority, rates, time schedules, and rules. These are also known as contract carriers and they must show that they can provide service according to standards required by the regulator. A contract carrier may have the authority to provide service over either fixed routes and time schedules i.e, regular route carrier or on an ad hoc basis as an irregular route carrier. Back in 1887, the U.S Congress declared railroad companies to be common carriers as well.

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Common Carrier Law Makes Carriers Liable for Injuries

Although the federal government has passed laws regulating common carriers, public transportation is typically controlled by the states. A common public carrier, such as a bus service, offers services to the general public, whereas a private carrier serves only specific clients on a contractual basis. The liability of public or common carrier of passengers is only to carry with due care. A utility may be considered a common carrier under the law because it is available to anyone in its coverage area that is willing to pay the fee.

In most states, a public transit vehicle is held the highest degree of care, diligence, and vigilance in the transport of its passengers to the appropriate destination. Should the carrier agency fail in its duty of care, it will be liable for personal injuries passengers suffer as a result of negligence Common carriers are also considered to be liable for any damage to property that is entrusted to them as a result of their work, and they typically carry insurance policies that will help in the event of loss or damage to the goods.

A common carrier also has a duty to warn its passengers of known dangers that exist in the type of transportation they operate – such as, standing in an aisle of a moving vehicle liable to sudden jolts in motion. If a passenger reasonably could see that such a problem may occur, the carrier may not be liable or may be subject to only partial liability, depending on the nature of the danger and the age/experience of the passenger.

Exceptions to Common Carrier Liability

Common carriers are subject to special laws and regulations that vary by the means of transport used, e.g., sea carriers are often supervised by quite different rules from road carriers or railway carriers. A shortlist of exceptions may allow a common carrier to be absolved of its responsibility in the case of an accident. For example, common carriers may not be held responsible for an act of nature. Because no one can control acts of nature, common carriers are not expected to do so either.

Other exceptions may involve acts of public enemies (robbing or pirating), shipper negligence or fraud, or proven defects in the goods being transported.

As with the regulations, exceptions are rooted in state law and will differ, but generally only apply in limited circumstances that the common carrier could not control.

Liability for Lost Luggage

There are specific laws in place that prevent a common carrier from totally relieving itself of liability for lost luggage. Your personal property is protected to some extent when you purchase a ticket or enter into a contract to have them transport you. As such, you cannot be deprived of your rights to recover a claim for lost luggage or damaged personal property, and the common carrier cannot require you to give up those rights.

However, this does not mean that the common carrier cannot limit its liability in the case of loss or damage. For example, the common carrier can limit its liability to the replacement cost for the pieces of lost luggage, or to a flat monetary fee, without being in violation of the law. In this way, a customer who leaves a $10,000 gold bracelet in a piece of luggage that is lost is unlikely to recover the whole cost of the bracelet.

Some credit card issuers offer common carrier baggage insurance, which covers the cardholder’s luggage if it is lost, damaged, or stolen while in transport. The common carrier, in this case, is the airline. The coverage applies when the consumer uses a credit card to purchase a plane ticket.

Removal From a Common Carrier

Common carrier companies take the responsibilities of safety and regulations very seriously, and will not allow behavior that violates their stated safety policies and procedures.

There are a number of reasons for ejection from a common carrier, and you can usually look on the back of your ticket for examples.

While the precise reasons for removal may vary, in addition to the reasons listed above, if you refuse to abide by any of the restrictions or regulations listed on the ticket that you have purchased to ride the common carrier, or if you have a medical condition that would prevent you from being safely transported via the common carrier, you can be asked to leave the common carrier. Generally, if there is a circumstance that would result in you being ejected from a common carrier, you will have your fare refunded and your passage on the common carrier denied.

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Getting Help – Legal Issues with Common Carriers and Public Transportation

If you have been involved in any type of accident on a common carrier, it is imperative that you consult with a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. The common carrier may be liable under the law for your damages, and a lawyer can help you to assess whether you have a claim.

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