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Short Summary of Law:

Common Carriers (for example, railways, buses, taxis, elevators, escalators, airlines, and roller coasters) generally have a duty to use the utmost care and diligence for passengers' safety, while passengers need only use reasonable care for their own safety.

Typically, a common carrier commits negligence when it breaches the legal duty (of utmost care and diligence), resulting in injury to another.

Who is a Common Carrier? 

Civil Code Section 2168 defines a common carrier as: "Everyone who offers to the public to carry persons, property, or messages, excepting only telegraphic messages."

Under the statute, therefore, "a common carrier . . . 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 Corp. v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1499, 1508.)

Some examples of common carriers include:

Two Common Carrier Duty Standards:

The Civil Code treats common carriers differently depending on whether they act gratuitously or for reward. (Gomez v. Superior Court (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1125, 1130.)

"Carriers of persons for reward ...must use the utmost care and diligence for [passengers'] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill." (Civil Code 2100; Gomez v. Superior Court (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1125, 1128, 1130.)

While these carriers are not insurers of their passengers' safety, "[t]his standard of care requires common carriers `to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.'" (Squaw Valley Ski Corp. v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1499, 1507.)

Factors: Factors bearing on a defendant's common carrier status (i.e. gratuitous versus reward)  include:

(Gradus v. Hanson Aviation, Inc. (1984) 158 Cal.App.3d 1038, 1048.)

The defendant need not have a regular schedule or a fixed route to be a common carrier, nor need the defendant have a transportation license. (Gradus, supra, at p. 1048.)

Not all these factors need be present for the defendant to be a common carrier subject to the heightened duty of care. (See CACI No. 901).

For instance, "[i]t now is well established that commercial operators of elevators and escalators" may be common carriers for reward (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1131), even though stores do not maintain an established place of business solely for purposes of transporting escalator or elevator passengers.

And "[a]lthough a store does not charge for use of its elevators or escalators, it profits from the utilization of these devices to assist customers in shopping at the store." (Squaw Valley, supra, 2 Cal.App.4th at p. 1508.) In other words, the "reward" contemplated by the statutory scheme need not be a fee charged for the transportation service. (Champagne v. A. Hamburger & Sons, Inc. (1915) 169 Cal. 683, 692 ["Reward does not necessarily import that there must be a fare paid for carriage...."].) The reward may be the profit generated indirectly by easing customers' way through the carriers' premises. (Treadwell v. Whittier (1889) 80 Cal. 574, 592.)

[Squaw Valley, supra, 2 Cal.App.4th at p. 1508: "Hence, a common carrier [for reward] is any entity which holds itself out to the public generally and indifferently to transport goods or persons from place to place for profit."].

Special Circumstances:

Disabled Persons: If a carrier voluntarily accepts an ill or disabled person as a passenger and is aware of the passenger’s condition, that carrier must exercise as much care as is reasonably necessary to ensure the safety of the passenger, in view of his or her mental and physical condition. (McBride v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. Co. (1955) 44 Cal.2d 113, 119–120.)

Minors - Greater duty of care owed: “[A] carrier owes a greater quantum of care to a child of tender years accepted by it as a passenger than it would to an adult.” (Brizzolari v. Market Street Ry. Co. (1935) 7 Cal.App.2d 246, 248.)

Duty to Protect Passengers From Assault: “To establish this claim, …plaintiff… must prove both of the following:

Duty of Passenger for Own Safety:

“While a common carrier must use the highest care for its passengers’ safety, passengers need only use reasonable care for their own safety.” [CACI No. 906].

See also Lopez v. Southern Cal. Rapid Transit Dist. (1985) 40 Cal.3d 780, 789. Terrell v. Key System (1945) 69 Cal.App.2d 682, 686. 


When does a Common Carrier duties begin and end?

Starting Point: "It is not necessary … that the passenger should have actually entered the vehicle. The relation is in force when one, intending in good faith to become a passenger, goes to the place designated as the site of departure at the appropriate time and the carrier takes some action indicating acceptance of the passenger as a traveler." (Orr v. Pacific Southwest Airlines (1989) 208 Cal.App.3d 1467, 1473).

 “…[T]he rule that a carrier owes its passengers the highest degree of care… [only] applies while the passengers are in transitu, and until they have safely departed from the carrier's vehicle.” [Marshall v. United Airlines (1973) 35 Cal.App.3d 84, 86].

Ending Point: The "`duty [to exercise the highest degree of care] ends when the passenger is discharged into a relatively safe space, not merely that he alights safely from the [carrier's vehicle] if he is discharged into a dangerous area.'" (Riggins v. Pacific Greyhound Lines (1962) 203 Cal. App.2d 125, 128.

Disclaimer: This is a general article.  This area of the law can be highly complex.  Many issues can arise that were not discussed.  This article is not to be relied on a legal advice.  If you desire legal advice, consult or retain a lawyer regarding the specifics of your situation. Further Disclaimer.

 Author: Attorney Matthew B. Tozer
Copyright 2017

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