349 U.S. 85 (1955), 50, Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corporation

Docket Nº:No. 50
Citation:349 U.S. 85, 75 S.Ct. 629, 99 L.Ed. 911
Party Name:Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corporation
Case Date:May 16, 1955
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 85

349 U.S. 85 (1955)

75 S.Ct. 629, 99 L.Ed. 911



Inland Waterways Corporation

No. 50

United States Supreme Court

May 16, 1955

Argued February 28, 1955




1. A towboat owner may not validly contract against all liability for his own negligent towage. Pp. 85-95.

(a) This Court now accepts as controlling a judicial rule, based on public policy, which invalidates contracts releasing towers from all liability for their negligence. P. 90.

(b) The Steamer Syracuse, 12 Wall. 167, and The Wash Gray, 277 U.S. 66, followed. Pp. 86-92.

(c) Sun Oil Co. v. Dalzell Towing Co., 287 U.S. 291, distinguished. Pp. 92-94.

2. The rule against contractual exemption of a towboat owner from responsibility for his own negligence cannot be defeated by providing in a contract that all employees of a towboat shall be employees of the towed vessel, when the latter "employment" is purely a fiction. Pp. 94-95.

211 F.2d 401 reversed.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether a towboat may validly contract against all liability for its own negligent towage. Since there is no controlling statute, the question must be decided as a part of the judicially created admiralty law. Federal courts have disagreed as to whether

Page 86

there is or should be a judicial rule invalidating such contracts. Calling attention to this uncertainty, the District Court, sitting in admiralty, sustained a contractual provision exempting respondent towboat owner from liability for negligence and entered judgment accordingly. 114 F.Supp. 713. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 211 F.2d 401. We granted certiorari to settle the question. 348 U.S. 811.

The record including the findings of fact shows: Petitioner's oil barge Bisso, while being towed up the Mississippi River by the respondent's steam towboat Cairo, collided with a bridge pier and sank. At the time, the barge had no motive power, steering apparatus, officers, or crew, its movements being completely controlled by the Cairo. Negligent towage by those operating the Cairo caused the collision. Consequently, respondent, owner of the Cairo, would have been required to pay petitioner damages unless relieved of liability by certain clauses in the towage contract. One provides that the towing movement should be at the "sole risk" of the barge, and a second provides that masters, crews, and employees of the towboat Cairo should, "in the performance of said service, become and be the servants" of the barge Bisso. The Court of Appeals construed both these clauses as relieving respondent from liability for its negligence, and held both valid.

A "release from liability" clause in a towage contract was first considered by this Court in 1871 in The Steamer Syracuse, 12 Wall. 167. There, negligent towage by the Syracuse damaged a canal boat being towed. To escape liability, owners of the towboat relied on a contractual agreement that "the canal boat was being towed at her own risk." Notwithstanding the agreement, this Court held that the towboat "must be visited with the consequences" of its negligence.1 For many years, The Steamer Syracuse

Page 87

seems to have been generally accepted as either (1) construing a contract to "tow at own risk" as not including an exemption from negligence, or (2) holding invalid as against public policy a contract which exempts a tower from his negligence.2

In 1909, The Steamer Syracuse was repudiated by the Second Circuit in The Oceanica, 170 F. 893, 894. That court construed a contract requiring a towed [75 S.Ct. 631] vessel to "assume all risks" as exempting the tower from responsibility for its negligence; it also held, over strong dissent, that the contract was not invalid as against public policy. And, on rehearing, the court conceded that

the decision of the majority of the court as to the right of a tug to contract against her own negligence is a departure from previous decisions.

The court went on to express hope that the question would "be set at rest in this case by the Supreme Court." Certiorari was denied,3 however, and courts in the Second Circuit continued to follow the newly announced Oceanica doctrine.4 But other circuits continued

Page 88

to refuse to allow towboats by contract to escape liability for their negligent towage.5

It was in that state of inter-circuit conflict that this Court again, in 1928, considered the effect of a contract claimed to exempt a towboat from its negligence. The Wash Gray, 277 U.S. 66.6 The contract involved provided that the towboat should not be "responsible in any way for loss or damage" to the Wash Gray, the vessel being towed. This Court was urged to follow The Oceanica. But counsel for the Wash Gray, relying on The Steamer Syracuse, insisted that recovery for "actionable negligence is not barred by release in contract for towage."7 Without mention of The Oceanica, this Court said:

We do not think that the towing contract has the effect claimed for it by the companies. It did not release the [towboat] from any loss or damage to the Wash Gray due to the negligence of the master or crew of the towing vessel. . . . The rule laid down by the court in The Steamer Syracuse . . . covers the point.

277 U.S. at 73. The contracts in The Steamer Syracuse and The Wash Gray were worded quite differently, and there is little indication that the "rule" the Court had in mind was one of mere contractual interpretation. Rather, a public policy objection to such contracts was indicated by the Court's quoting from that part of The Steamer Syracuse

Page 89

opinion which pointed out that, despite the contract, there, the towboat had to bear the consequences of its negligence even though the law had not imposed on it the obligations resting on a common carrier.8

It is nevertheless argued that The Steamer Syracuse and The Wash Gray did not announce a rule of public policy against "release from negligence" contracts, but decided no more than what the towage contracts in those cases meant. Strong arguments can be made in support of this contention, but we think stronger arguments can be made against it. The Steamer Syracuse was decided in an era of manifest judicial hostility toward "release from negligence" contracts, particularly those made by businesses dealing widely with the public and having potential monopolistic powers.9 That hostility caused this Court, two years [75 S.Ct. 632] later, to declare that public policy forbade common carriers to make such contracts.10 The next year, telegraph company contracts were brought under the same ban, although the Court stated they were not common carriers.11 Largely because of this general judicial attitude and the influence of The Steamer Syracuse, no towage "release from negligence" clause appears to have been enforced by any court for 38 years. During that period and later, enforcement was refused in two ways -- either by giving

Page 90

such contracts a very narrow construction or by holding them to be against public policy. One court even expressly declared it to be "contrary to public policy to so construe" a contract that a tower could be allowed to go clear of all liability for his own negligence.12 When the Second Circuit belatedly departed from The Steamer Syracuse, other courts still refused to enforce towers' stipulations against their negligence. And when this Court was urged in The Wash Gray to repudiate The Steamer Syracuse by following The Oceanica, the answer was an emphatic reiteration and approval of the language and holding of The Steamer Syracuse. Viewed in light of this history, we think The Steamer Syracuse, The Wash Gray, and intervening lower court cases together strongly point to the existence of a judicial rule, based on public policy, invalidating contracts releasing towers from all liability for their negligence.13 Because of this judicial history and cogent reasons in support of a rule outlawing such contracts, we now, despite past uncertainty and difference among the circuits, accept this as the controlling rule.

This rule is merely a particular application to the towage business of a general rule long used by courts and legislatures to prevent enforcement of "release from negligence" contracts in many relationships such as bailors and

Page 91

bailees,14 employers and employees,15 public service companies and their customers.16 The two main reasons for the creation and application of the rule have been (1) to discourage negligence by making wrongdoers pay damages, and [75 S.Ct. 633] (2) to protect those in need of goods or services from being overreached by others who have power to drive hard bargains.17 These two reasons are no less applicable today than when The Steamer Syracuse and The Wash Gray were decided. And both reasons apply with equal force whether tugs operate as common carriers or contract carriers.18 The dangers of modern machines make it all the more necessary that negligence be discouraged. And increased maritime traffic of today makes it not less, but more, important that vessels in American ports be able to obtain towage free of monopolistic compulsions.

The practical result of leaving towers wholly free to contract against all liability for their negligence is strikingly illustrated in an English case. The Port of London

Page 92

controlled and operated all tugs in the harbor, and, by law, no ship could enter without the aid of Port Authority tugs. But no shipowner could get a Port tug unless he first signed a contract agreeing to be liable for all damages caused by the negligence of the tug's employees. Under such a contract, the court allowed the Port Authority to recover damages from a ship towed for injuries to the Port's tug caused by negligence of the Port's employees running the tug.19 Such a result would be impossible under...

To continue reading