United States v. Carroll Towing Co.

159 F.2d 169 (1947)

Quick Summary

Connors Company (plaintiff) and United States (plaintiff) sued Carroll Towing Co. (defendant) and Grace Line (defendant) over damages incurred when the Anna C barge sank. The dispute centered on liability for negligence and contributory negligence due to an absent bargee.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals found Grace Line liable due to its harbormaster’s authority over mooring fasts, while Connors Company’s recovery was reduced due to its bargee’s absence.

It established a standard for liability based on probability, injury severity, and precaution burden.

Facts of the Case

Connors Company (Connors) (plaintiff) owned a barge named the Anna C, which carried a cargo of flour owned by the United States (plaintiff). To move the barge, Connors contracted with Carroll Towing Co. (Carroll) (defendant), which in turn chartered its tugboat to Grace Line (Grace) (defendant).

On January 4, 1944, the barge was docked at Pier 51 on the North River, but the employee responsible for watching the barge had gone ashore. Carroll’s tug attempted to move the Anna C, which failed and caused other boats at the dock to break loose.

The Anna C sank, leading to Connors suing Carroll and Grace for damages from the loss of the barge, and the United States suing Carroll for the loss of the flour. At trial, Carroll and Grace argued that Connors was contributorily negligent because its employee was absent during the incident.

The trial judge found Carroll responsible for half the damage to the Anna C and all the loss of the flour, with liabilities subject to limitation. Grace was held liable for the other half of the damage to the Anna C, while Pennsylvania Railroad was secondarily liable.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Connors Company and United States filed lawsuits against Carroll Towing Co. and Grace Line for damages resulting from the sinking of the Anna C.
  2. The trial court found Carroll Towing Co. responsible for part of the damages and subjected to limitations, while Grace Line was held primarily liable for remaining damages.
  3. Both Carroll Towing Co. and Pennsylvania Railroad Company appealed the trial court’s decision.

I.R.A.C. Format


  • Whether Grace Line should be held liable for any part of the damages.
  • Whether the Conners Company can recover full damages despite its bargee’s absence during working hours.

Rule of Law

The liability of a barge owner for damages caused by their unattended barge is determined by weighing the probability of breakage (P), the gravity of potential injury (L), and the burden of taking adequate precautions (B), such that liability depends on whether B < PL.

Reasoning and Analysis

The court determined that the harbormaster employed by Grace Line had authority to judge the sufficiency of mooring fasts, making Grace Line liable for negligence.

Furthermore, it was decided that had a bargee been present during working hours, they could have taken action to prevent or minimize damage after the Anna C began leaking. Thus, the absence of a bargee contributed to the sinking damages.

The court articulated that while a bargee cannot be expected to be aboard at all times, it is reasonable to expect their presence during working hours in busy harbors like New York Harbor during wartime activity.

Based on these considerations, the court modified the decrees to allocate responsibility for collision and sinking damages among the parties involved, taking into account the absence of a bargee as a factor in reducing recoverable damages for Connors Company.


The appeals resulted in modifications to the original decrees, assigning various degrees of liability to Grace Line, Carroll Towing Co., and Connors Company based on their respective contributions to the accident and subsequent damages.

Key Takeaways

  1. The standard for determining a barge owner’s liability is based on a balance between probability of breakage, gravity of injury, and burden of precautions.
  2. A bargee’s absence during working hours can contribute to negligence and reduce recoverable damages for a barge owner.
  3. The court may modify decrees based on each party’s contribution to negligence in maritime accidents.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What factors determine the standard of care owed in a negligence claim?

The standard of care in negligence is determined by assessing the foreseeable risk of harm, the severity of potential harm, and the cost and practicability of taking precautions to mitigate the risk.

  • For example: A homeowner knowing children often cut through their property has a higher standard of care to fence off an uncovered swimming pool to prevent possible drowning incidents.

How does contributory negligence by a plaintiff affect the outcome of a lawsuit?

In cases where contributory negligence is established, the plaintiff’s damages may be reduced or denied entirely, depending on the jurisdiction’s rules regarding negligence (i.e., pure comparative negligence, modified comparative negligence, or contributory negligence statutes).

  • For example: If a pedestrian jaywalks and gets hit by a vehicle that was speeding, both parties’ negligence will be weighed to determine the pedestrian’s compensation.

What is the legal significance of a bargee's presence or absence in determining liability for damages in maritime accidents?

The presence or absence of a bargee can significantly impact liability assessments in maritime accidents. A bargee’s presence may demonstrate reasonable care in supervising a vessel, while their absence could imply negligence, especially during critical periods where oversight is expected.

  • For example: A shipping company may be held partially liable for cargo damage if their barge was left unattended during a storm warning when standard practice would be to secure the cargo and monitor conditions.


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