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with a party for carrying his goods or person on modified terms, drops his character and becomes an ordinary bailee for hire, and, therefore, may make any omtract he pleases. That is, he may make any contract whatever, because he is an ordinary bailee; and he is an ordinary bailee because he has made the contract.
We are unable to see the soundness of this reasoning. It seems to us more accurate to say that common carriers are such by virtue of their occupation, not by virtue of the responsibilities under which they rest. Those responsibilities may vary in different countries, and at different times, without changing the character of the employment. The cominon law subjects the common carrier to insurance of the goods carried, except as against the act of God or public enemies. The civil law excepts, also, losses by means of any superior force, and any inevitable accident. Yet the employment is the same in both cases. And if by special agreement the carrier is exempted from still other responsibilities, it does not follow that his employment is changed, but only that his responsibilities are changed. The theory occasionally announced, that a special contract as to the terms and responsibilities of carriage changes the nature of the employment, is calculated to mislead. The responsibilities of a common carrier may be reduced to those of an ordinary bailee for bire, whilst the nature of his business renders him a common carrier still. Is there any good sense in holding that a railroad company, whose only business is to carry passengers and goods, and which was created and established for that purpose alone, is changed to a private carrier for hire by a mere contract with a customer, whereby the latter assumes the risks of inevitable accidents in the carriage of his goods? Suppose the contract relates to a single crate of glass or crockery, whilst at the same time the carrier receives from the same person twenty other parcels, respecting which no such contract is made; is the company a public carrier as to the twenty parcels, and a private carrier as to the one ?
On this point, there are several authorities which support our view, some of which are noted : Davidson y. Graham, 2 Ohio St. 131; Graham v. Davis & Co. 4 Ohio St. 362; Swindler v. Hilliard, 2 Rich. 286; Baker v. Brinson, 9 Rich. 201; Steele v. Townsend, 37 Ala. 247.
A common carrier may undoubtedly become a private carrier, or a bailee for hire, when, as a matter of accommodation, or special engagement, he undertakes to carry something which it is not his business to carry. For example, if a carrier of produce, running a truck boat between New York city and Norfolk, should be requested to carry a keg of specie, or a load of expensive furniture, which he could justly refuse to take, such agreement might be made in reference to his taking and carrying the same as the parties chose to make, not involving any stipulation contrary to law or public policy. But when a carrier has a regularly established business for carrying all or certain articles, and especially if that carrier be a corporation created for the purpose of the carrying trade, and the carriage of the articles is embraced within the scope of its chartered powers, it is a common carrier, and a special contract about its responsibility does not divest it of the character.
But it is contended, that though a carrier may not stipulate for his own negligence, there is no good reason why he should not be permitted to
N. Y. C. R. R. v. LockWOOD.
stipulate for immunity for the negligence of his servants, over whose actions in his absence he can exercise no control. If we advert for a moment to the fundamental principles on which the law of common carriers is founded, it will be seen that this objection is inadmissible. In regulating the public establishment of common carriers, the great object of the law was to secure the utmost care and diligence in the performance of their important duties - an object essential to the welfare of every civilized community. Hence the common law rule which charged the common carrier as an insurer. Why charge him as such ? Plainly for the purpose of raising the most stringent motive for the exercise of carefulness and fidelity in his trust. In regard to passengers, the highest degree of carefulness and diligence is expressly exacted. In the one case, the securing of the most exact diligence and fidelity underlies the law, and is the reason for it; in the other, it is directly and absolutely prescribed by the law. It is obvious, therefore, that if a carrier stipulate not to be bound to the exercise of care and diligence, but to be at liberty to indulge in the contrary, he seeks to put off the essential duties of his employment. And to assert that he may do so seems almost a contradiction in terms.
Now, to what avail does the law attach these essential duties to the employment of the common carrier, if they may be waived in respect to his agents and servants, especially where the carrier is an artificial being, incapable of acting except by agents and servants? It is carefulness and diligence in performing the service which the law demands, not an abstract carefulness and diligence in proprietors and stockholders who take no active part in the business.
To admit such a distinction in the law of common carriers, as the business is now carried on, would be subversive of the very object of the
It is a favorite argument in the cases which favor the extension of the carrier's right to contract for exemption from liability, that men must be permitted to make their own agreements, and that it is no concern of the public on what terms an individual chooses to have his goods carried. Thus in Dorr v. N. J. S. Nav. Co. 1 Kern. 485, the court sums up its judgment thus: “ To say the parties have not a right to make their own contract, and to limit the precise extent of their own respective risks and liabilities, in a matter no way affecting the public morals, or conflicting with the public interests, would, in my judgment, be an unwarrantable restriction upon trade and commerce, and a most palpable invasion of personal right.”
Is it true that the public interest is not affected by individual contracts of the kind referred to ? Is not the whole business community affected by holding such contracts valid ? If held valid, the advantageous position of the companies exercising the business of common carriers is such that it places it in their power to change the law of common carriers in effect, by introducing new rules of obligation.
The carrier and his customer do not stand on a footing of equality. The latter is only one individual of a million. He cannot afford to higgle or stand out and seek redress in the courts. His business will not admit such a course. He prefers, rather, to accept any bill of lading, or sign any
N. Y. C. R. R. .. LOCKWOOD.
paper the carrier presents; often, indeed, without knowing what the one or the other contains. In most cases he has no alternative but to do this or abandon his business. In the present case, for example, the freight agent of the company testified that though they made forty or fifty contracts every week like that under consideration, and had carried on the business for years, no other arrangement than this was ever made with any drover. And this reason is obvious enough — if they did not accept this, they must pay tariff rates. These rates were seventy cents a hundred pounds for carrying from Buffalo to Albany, and each horned animal was rated at 2,000 pounds, making a charge of $14 for every animal carried, instead of the usual charge of $70 for a car load ; being a difference of three to one. Of course no drover could afford to pay such tariff rates. This fact is adverted to for the purpose of illustrating how completely in the power of the railroad companies parties are; and how necessary it is to stand firmly by those principles of law by which the public interests are protected.
If the customer had any real freedom of choice, if he had a reasonable and practicable alternative, and if the employment of the carrier were not a public one, charging him with the duty of accommodating the public in the line of his employment; then, if the customer chose to assume the risk of negligence, it could with more reason be said to be his private affair, and no concern of the public. But the condition of things is entirely different, and especially so under the modified arrangements which the carrying trade has assumed. The business is mostly concentrated in a few powerful corporations, whose position in the body politic enables them to control it. They do, in fact, control it, and impose such conditions upon travel and transportation as they see fit, which the public is compelled to accept. These circumstances furnish -an additional argument, if any were needed, to show that the conditions imposed by common carriers ought not to be adverse (to say the least) to the dictates of public policy and morality. The status and relative position of the parties render any such conditions void. Contracts of common carriers, like those of persons occupying a fiduciary character, giving them a position in which they can take undue advantage of the persons with whom they contract, must rest upon their fairness and reasonableness. It was for the reason that the limitations of liability first introduced by common carriers into their notices and bills of lading were just and reasonable, that the courts sustained them. It was just and reasonable that they should not be responsible for losses happening by sheer accident, or dangers of navigation that no human skill or vigilance could guard against; it was just and reasonable that they should not be chargeable for money or other valuable articles liable to be stolen or damaged, unless apprised of their character or value; it was just and reasonable that they should not be responsible for articles liable to rapid decay, or for live animals liable to get unruly from fright, and to injure themselves in that state, when such articles or live animals became injured without their fault or negligence. And when any of these just and reasonable excuses were incorporated into notices or special contracts assented to by their customers, the law might well give effect to them without the violation of any important principle, although modifying the strict rules of responsibility imposed by the common law. The improved state of Vol. I.)
N. Y. C. R. R. v. LOCKWOOD.
society, and the better administration of the laws had diminished the opportunities of collusion and bad faith on the part of the carrier, and rendered less imperative the application of the iron rule that he must be responsible at all events. Hence the exemptions referred to were deemed reasonable and proper to be allowed. But the proposition to allow a public carrier to abandon altogether his obligations to the public and stipulate for exemptions that are unreasonable and improper, amounting to an abdication of the essential duties of his employment, would never have been entertained by the sages of the law.
Hence, as before remarked, we regard the English statute, called the railway and canal traffic act, passed in 1854, which declared void all notices and conditions made by common carriers, except such as the judge at the trial, or the courts should hold just and reasonable, as substantially a return to the rules of the common law. It would have been more strictly 80, perhaps, had the reasonableness of the contract been referred to the law instead of the individual judges. The decisions made for more than half a century before the courts commenced the normal course which led to the necessity of that statute, giving effect to certain classes of exemptions stipulated for by the carrier, may be regarded as authorities on the question as to what exemptions are just and reasonable. So the decisions of our own courts are entitled to like effect when not made under the fallacious notion that every special contract imposed by the common carrier on his customers must be carried into effect, for the simple reason that it was entered into without regard to the character of the contract and the relative situation of the parties.
Conceding, therefore, that special contracts, made by common carriers with their customers, limiting their liability, are good and valid, so far as they are just and reasonable ; to the extent, for example, of excusing them for all losses happening by accident, without any negligence or fraud on their part, when they asked to go still further, and to be excused from negligence, — an excuse so repugnant to the law of their foundation and to the pablic good, — they have no longer any plea of justice or reason to support such a stipulation, but the contrary. And then, the inequality of the parties, the compulsion under which the customer is placed, and the obligations of the carrier to the public, operate with full force to divest the transaction of validity.
On this subject, the remarks of Chief Justice Redfield, in his recent collection of American Railway Cases, seem to us eminently just. “ It being clearly established then," says he, “ that common carriers have public duties which they are bound to discharge with impartiality, we must conclude that they cannot, either by notices or special contracts, release themselves from the performance of these public duties, even by the consent of those who employ them ; for all extortion is done by the apparent consent of the victim. A public officer or servant, who has a monopoly in his department, has no just right to impose onerous and unreasonable conditions upon those who are compelled to employ him.” And his conclusion is, that, notwithstanding some exceptional decisions, the law of to-day stands substantially as follows: “1. That the exemption claimed by carriers must be reasonable and just, otherwise it will be regarded as extorted from the owners of the goods by duress of circumstances, and, N. Y. C. R. R. v. LOCKWOOD.
therefore, not binding. 2. That every attempt of carriers, by general no tices or special contract, to excuse themselves from responsibility for losses or damages resulting in any degree from their own want of care and faithfulness, is against that good faith which the law requires as the basis of all contracts or employments, and, therefore, based upon principles and a policy which the law will not uphold."
The defendants endeavor to make a distinction between gross and ordinary negligence, and insist that the judge ought to have charged that the contract was at least effective for excusing the latter.
We have already adverted to the tendency of judicial opinion adverse to the distinction between gross and ordinary negligence. Strictly speaking, these expressions are indicative rather of the degree of care and diligence which is due from a party, and which he fails to perform, than of the amount of inattention, carelessness, or stupidity which he exhibits. If very little care is due from him, and he fails to bestow that little, it is called gross negligence. If very great care is due, and he fails to come up to the mark required, it is called slight negligence. And if ordinary care is due, such as a prudent man would exercise in his own affairs, failure to bestow that amount of care is called ordinary negligence. In each case, the negligence, whatever epithet we give it, is failure to bestow the care and skill which the situation demands; and hence it is more strictly accurate perhaps to call it simply “negligence.” And this seems to be the tendency of modern authorities. 1 Smith's Lead. Cases, 6th Amer. ed.; Story on Bailments, $ 571; Wyld v. Pickford, 8 M. & W. 443; Hinton v. Dibbin, 2 Q. B. 661; Wilson v. Brett, 11 M. & W. 115; Beal v. South Devon R. Co. 3 Hurlst. & Colt, 337; L. R. 1 C. P. 600; 14 How. 486 ; 16 How. 474. If they mean more than this, and seek to abolish the distinction of degrees of care, skill, and diligence required in the performance of various duties, and the fulfilment of various contracts, we think they go too far; since the requirement of different degrees of care in different situations is too firmly settled and fixed in the law to be ignored or changed. The compilers of the French Civil Code undertook to abolish these distinctions by enacting that “every act whatever of man that causes damage to another, obliges him by whose fault it happened to repair it.” Art. 1382. Toullier, in his Commentary on the Code, regards this as a happy thought, and a return to the law of nature. Vol. 6, p. 243. But such an iron rule is too regardless of the foundation principles of human duty, and must often operate with great severity and injustice.
In the case before us, the law, in the absence of special contract, fixes the degree of care and diligence due from the railroad company to the persons carried on its trains. A failure to exercise such care and diligence is negligence. It needs no epithet properly and legally to describe it. If it is against the policy of the law to allow stipulations which will relieve the company from the exercise of that care and diligence, or which, in other words, will excuse them for negligence in the performance of that duty, then the company remains liable for such negligence,
The question whether the company was guilty of negligence in this case, which caused the injury sustained by the plaintiff, was fairly left to the jury. It was unnecessary to tell them whether, in the language of law writers, such: negligence would be called gross or ordinary.