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Law School Help: What is a Common Carrier?

One of the things that makes the law unnecessarily confusing for non-lawyers (and lawyers too, let’s be honest) is specialized terminology. This isn’t unique to the law, of course. Many industries and specialties have their own terms and vernacular that makes perfect sense to those in the field, but leaves everyone else scratching their head.

In a small, small, small, small, small effort to remedy that for the law, I’m going to explain in this blog post what the legal term “common carrier” means. This post will be specific to California, which means, as usual, that you have to look it up yourself for other states.

The term common carrier appeared for me in law school in my torts class. If you happen to be encountering it in your law school torts class now and have no idea what it means, this post is for you. Regardless of whether your professors are explaining the concept, very few professors actually connect the concept to a specific authority in California like I am about to.

In California, “Common Carrier” is defined in Civil Code section 2168 which states: “Every one who offers to the public to carry persons, property, or messages, excepting only telegraphic messages, is a common carrier of whatever he thus offers to carry.” Sections 2169 and onward of the Civil Code also provide other rules and requirements for common carriers.

Court cases in California also help define the term Common Carrier. For example, “[A] common carrier within the meaning of Civil Code section 2168 is any entity which holds itself out to the public generally and indifferently to transport goods or persons from place to place for profit.” Squaw Valley Ski Corporation v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1499, 1508.

In other words, a Common Carrier can be thought of as someone who is in the business of transporting goods or persons.

This distinction between common carriers and not is important because it helps determine the duty and standard of care that applies when, unfortunately, something goes wrong (e.g. accident, damage to property, injury or death to people, etc) and blame has to be determined. A common carrier owes an elevated or heightened standard of care “based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care towards their customers. Squaw Valley Ski Corporation. Common carriers “owe both a duty of utmost care and the vigilance of a very cautious person towards their passengers. Such carriers are responsible for any, even the slightest, negligence and are required to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonable can do under all the circumstances.” Acosta v. Southern California Rapid Transit Dist. (1970) 2 Cal.3d 19, 27.

Phrased in a more simple manner, everyone who undertakes a task — any task — performs that task with a certain level of attention and diligence.  Often, we pay closer attention and exercise greater diligence the more we care about the task that we’re doing. If you’re a parent, imagine that you’re reminding your child to pay attention or be careful in what they’re doing. When it comes to common carriers, the task in question is the transporting of goods, persons, and messages belonging to members of the public. Because it is the common carriers’ business or profession, the expectation is that the common carrier performs that task with the greatest possible diligence. Doing the task in a sloppy or half-hearted manner does not satisfy the standard.

An additional way to think about this is that because a common carrier’s tasks involve dealing with the public, the public would be harmed or injured if the common carrier performed its tasks in a sloppy or half-hearted manner. The heightened standard, therefore, protects the public.

However you describe or think about it, if you do something as your business or profession, you are expected to do it with the greatest possible diligence and attention in order to safeguard the public. If you don’t want to be forced to live up to that high standard, don’t do the task as your business. Keep it as a hobby.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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