Cargo owner sued the owner of barges whose barges sank in a storm and destroyed all cargos. The barge owner then sued the owner of tugs that towed the barges.
Custom is a factor in determining reasonable standard of care, but rarely it is determinative.
Defendants are the owner of two tugboats and the owner of barges, and they were hired by plaintiff to tow its cargo of coal from Virginia to New York. During a severe storm, the barges sank and cargos were lost. Neither tugboat was equipped with radio receiving sets which would have enabled them to seek shelter and received warnings. Plaintiff alleged that the lack of radio sets made the tug negligently unseaworthy.
Was the barge owner and the tug owner negligent for not equipping radio sets?
Yes, the tug and barge owners were liable, regardless of whether radio sets were widely adopted within the industry.
Courts must discern whether the standard of care has been met because every situation is different. The Court opined that although equipping radio sets is not a general practice among coastwise carriers yet, but if the use of radio sets constitutes reasonable prudence, then a business may be liable for failing to adopt new technology, even if the industry has not widely adopted it.
The Court did not think defendants are liable because they failed to follow customs, rather, the Court believed that in this case, the tugboat operator is liable for negligence due to its failure to use useful, safety-promoting radio technology. If the tugs had radios, they would have received warnings about the weather.