Californians see and use a variety of transportation modes every day. These modes range from taxi cabs to planes, trains, ships and semi-trailer trucks. From a legal standpoint, these transportation modes fall into two broad categories: private or contract carriage and common carriage.
The difference between the two classes of carriers depends upon one salient fact about how they operate: a common carrier must accept cargo or passengers from anyone who needs transportation and is willing (and able) to pay for it, and a private carrier only accepts passengers or freight from a specified shipper. Private carriers are not required to serve the public.
Both the state of California and the U.S. government regulate common and private carriers, although common carriers are more heavily regulated than private carriers.
Different agencies regulate different carriers. For example, planes are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and trucks operating in interstate commerce are regulated by the Department of Transportation.
The most significant legal difference between private and common carriage is the standard of legal liability for injury to passengers or damage to cargo.
Common carrier standard of care
A common carrier is liable to a fare-paying passenger for an injury caused by the carrier’s failure to adhere to the highest standard of care. This standard is different from common negligence because it does not depend upon determining how a reasonable person would act under similar circumstances. Instead, the common carrier standard requires that the carrier’s conduct be judged against the highest care possible under the circumstances. That standard invites comparison to the actions that might be taken by another person engaged in the transport of goods or passengers. Private carriers are only required to exercise due care when transporting passengers or freight.
Some common carriers limit their exposure to claims for injury or damages by including a limitation in the ticket issued to the passenger or shipper.
Recovering on a claim for damages or personal injury can be a complicated legal fight. The assistance of an attorney experienced in transportation law can be necessary to achieve a positive outcome.