Common carrier

A common carrier is a person or company that transports goods or people. A common carrier advertises themselves as generally available to carry any goods or persons a hirer might specify. Common carriers are bound to accept any goods or persons offered for carriage and are strictly liable for lost or damaged goods.

The legal position of common carriers was discussed by Palmer J in Stapley v Towing Masters Pty Ltd (trading as Dynamic Towing) [2009] NSWSC 139. Justice Palmer quotes a passage from Halsbury (4th Ed) Vol 5(1) at paragraph 402 and outlines that the test as to whether someone is a common carrier of goods is an objective one and “a carrier must hold himself out, either expressly or by a course of conduct, as willing to carry for reward, so long as he has room, goods of all persons indifferently who send him goods to be carried at a reasonable price”. Importantly, “If a carrier reserves to himself the right to reject… goods [which] he is asked to carry according to his usual course of business, or if he carries only… certain goods for customers, he is not a common carrier”.

Justice Palmer qualifies the above description of a common carrier in relation to the “rejection” of goods. He states that “the fact that a carrier reserves the right to refuse to carry particular goods is not, of its own, sufficient to remove him from the category of common carriers… If, however, the carrier reserves a right of refusal for reasons not connected with inherent practicality [e.g. size of truck etc.] but, rather, for reasons attributable to the general profitability of the business, then it will not be a common carrier”.

The use of a common carrier by a business is not as common as it once was, and from a commercial perspective it is against the interests of a business to carry goods, accept liability, at a “reasonable” price and without reservation.

Nonetheless, in NSW common carriers continue to be regulated by the Common Carriers Act 1902 (NSW).