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United States v. Carroll Towing Co.

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Brief Fact Summary.

A barge without an attendant sank after its lines were removed by another boat in the harbor.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

We determine negligence based on the comparison of the burden of the care, against the magnitude of the harm multiplied by the probability of the harm.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Since there are occasions when every vessel will break from her moorings, and since, if she does, she becomes a menace to those about her; the owner's duty, as in other similar situations, to provide against resulting injuries is a function of three variables: (1) the probability that she will break away; (2) the gravity of the resulting injury, if she does; (3) the burden of adequate precautions.

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Facts.

The United States government had flour that was being transported by the Pennsylvania Rail Road company on a barge leased from Connors.  The barge in question was tied to a private pier as well as a public pier.  The Carroll tug boat was sent to remove one of the barges from the public pier.  In so doing, it inadvertently loosened the ropes of the barge with the flour, which eventually floated away and sank because there was not an attendant on board to monitor it.

Issue.

Is the plaintiff also negligent in not having an attendant on the flour barge, and by what standard to we determine negligent?

Held.

Yes, the plaintiff was also negligent in failing to have a barge attendant aboard.

Discussion.

The Court reasoned that the standard for determining negligence is whether the burden of exercising care is more or less than the magnitude of the harm multiplied by the probability of the harm.  Here, while the probability of harm was not very high (how likely the boat is to float away), the magnitude of the harm was large (its going to be very expensive if the whole barge sinks), and the burden of exercising the care of hiring an attendant for the barge comparatively low.  Consequently, the Court found that the barge owner was also negligent for failing to exercise that care.


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