Common Carriers

July 30, 2009

By: David K. Jaffe

A Higher Duty of Care Imposed upon Common Carriers

Traditionally there is a higher duty of care imposed upon common carriers with respect to the treatment and safety of their passengers.[1] Some courts, therefore, have recognized such a duty even with respect to ordinary slip and fall injuries.[2] A number of these courts, however, have imposed the carrier's special duty of care to injuries which occur only during actual transit, and not with respect to slip and fall injuries sustained in terminal buildings[3] and other areas of the premises after the passenger has been safely discharged from the public conveyance itself,[4] or while the passenger is awaiting permission to board.[5]

Nevertheless, even under the exercise of the "utmost" degree of care, a common carrier is still not an insurer for the absolute safety of its passengers.[6] Thus, the plaintiff in such cases must still prove that the defendant had either actual or constructive notice of the hazardous condition before liability will ordinarily be imposed.[7]

Since public transportation facilities are often owned or operated by various governmental entities, some very unique issues are sometimes presented regarding the applicable duty of care. For example, an indemnity agreement between a public air carrier and a municipality responsible for the operation of the terminal facility has been construed not to shift the carrier's high degree of care owed to passengers onto the defendant municipality relative to slip and fall injuries occurring in the terminal building.[8]

In another case an injured airport patron brought an action against a municipal airport authority for injuries sustained when she slipped and fell on a quantity of ice cream that had been spilled onto the floor of defendant's terminal building.[9] Addressing a state statute that waived immunity against municipalities engaged in the performance of proprietary functions, the court construed the operation of the municipal airport for profit as a non-immune proprietary function for which the defendant municipality could be held liable for ordinary negligence.


[1] See, e.g., Bleecker v. Colorado & Southern RR Co., 114 P. 481 (Colo. 1911); Lipman v. Atl. Coast Line RR Co., 9 S.E. 714 (S.C. 1917).

[2] See, e.g., Green v. Taca Int'l Airlines, 304 So. 2d 357, 359-360 (La. 1974). The plaintiff airline passenger tripped and fell over a safety ground rod installation while walking across the runway with several other passengers in an attempt to board the defendant air carrier's plane. The court held that the defendant carrier owed a stringent duty of care, "whether it be termed 'the highest standard of care,' 'highest degree of vigilance, care and precaution for the safety of those it undertakes to transport,' or 'the strictest diligence.' This duty embraces those risks to which passengers are exposed by unsafe conditions in the boarding area."

[3] See, e.g., Marshall v. United Airlines, 110 Cal. Rptr. 416, 418 (1973). The plaintiff airline passenger fell on a stairway in the defendant carrier's terminal building after departing from an airplane and while en route to board a helicopter in another portion of the terminal. Affirming a summary judgment in favor of the defendant carrier, the court explained that the carrier's duty to exercise the highest degree of care "ends when the passenger is discharged into a relatively safe place."

[4] See, e.g., Morrell v. Lane Aviation Corp., 22 Ohio App. 2d 57, 258 N.E.2d 250 (1970). The court held that the defendant air carrier did not violate its duty to exercise reasonable care to the plaintiff passenger who slipped and fell on a snow-covered surface in the airport landing area.

[5] See, e.g., Blye v. Manhattan & Bronx Surface Transit, 124 A.D.2d 106, 511 N.Y.S.2d 612 (1987). The plaintiff bus passenger, while attempting to board the defendant's bus, tripped and fell in a tree-well containing some raised cobblestones, but no tree, and was situated near the officially designated bus stop adjacent to the sidewalk. Holding that the defendant carrier owed a duty to provide a reasonable safe passage onto the bus which did not invite or dictate that the bus passenger board the bus via a treacherous path, the court concluded that the defendant's driver under these circumstances had satisfied this duty by stopping near the designated bus stop which provided an unimpeded access to the bus had the plaintiff chosen to take such a route in boarding the bus.

[6] See, e.g., D.C. Transit Sys., Inc. v. Smith, 173 A.2d 216 (D.C. App. 1961). Denying recovery against the defendant carrier in a slip and fall action allegedly caused by the presence of a greasy spot, the court applied the common carrier standard of care, but explained that even the highest degree of care did not require a continuous inspection of the defendant's bus.

[7] See, e.g., Arden v. Chicago Transit Auth., 89 Ill. App. 2d 214, 232 N.E.2d 501 (1967). In a slip and fall action against the defendant transit carrier for injuries caused by the presence of newspapers and other debris which had accumulated in the stairway of the defendant's station, the court held that the jury could reasonably have determined that the defendant had notice of the presence of such debris from the fact that the stairs had not been swept for 3 hours prior to the accident, despite evidence that considerable quantities of newspapers and other debris accumulated on the premises during rush hour.

[8] See Rogers v. Western Airline, 602 P.2d 171 (Mont. 1979).

[9] Johnson v. Detroit Metropolitan Airport, 133 Mich. App. 603, 350 N.W.2d 295 (1984).