US v Carroll Towing

US v Carroll Towing

US v Carroll Towing is one of Judge Learned Hand’s most famous tort opinions. Judge Learned Hand served on the second circuit court of appeals, and is often called the greatest circuit court judge. For more biographical information, here is a good article on Judge Learned Hand.

Contract with US Government

The case starts off in the New York City harbor during World War II. The Pennsylvania Rail Road was shipping flour owned by the United States government in its railway cars. When the railway cars arrived in New York City, the railroad rented the barge Anna C. from Connors Marine. They then moved the railway cars onto the barge in the harbor.

As part of their rental agreement, Connors Marine promised to provide a sailor. The sailor, or what the case calls a bargee, was supposed to be on the barge between 8 am and 4 pm every day. Because of wartime conditions, barges were daisy-chained to each other from the pier, extending out into the harbor.

The Scene

tug boats and barges, like the ones in US v Carroll TowingThe Anna C. was moored at pier 52 along with five other barges, all lashed one right next to the other. Over at the next pier, called the public pier, four barges were secured in the same manner. The captain of the tugboat Carroll found these two rows of barges and needed one of
the barges in the public pier next to the Anna C. But to get his barge he needed to remove a rope that connected the two rows of barges.

So the captain of the tug sent two employees onto the barges to remove the rope—the case calls one of the employees a bargee and the other a deckhand. They untied the rope and got their barge, but they forgot to retie the rope once they were done.

Drifting Boats

After a few minutes the rope that secured the Anna C. broke from the pier and all six barges started to float away. It was about 2:00 p.m.

After drifting for a few minutes, the Anna C. crashed into the propeller of a nearby tanker, ripping a hole in the Anna C.’s hull that could not be seen from outside the ship because the hole was under the water line.

The captain of the tugboat rushed back and secured the Anna C. to the pier, but he was unaware of the hole. The Anna C. filled with water and sank into the harbor, destroying all the flour owned by the United States.

It is clear that if Anna C.’s employee had been on board he would have found the hole and kept the Anna C. from sinking.


The issue in US v Carroll Towing is whether Connors Marine breached its duty of care by failing to have an employee on board the Anna C. during working hours, as required by its contract. (As an aside, check out this video for a little more help on issue spotting.)

Learned Hand used the following algebraic formula to explain breach of duty: B<PxL. B is the burden of taking adequate precautions; P is the probability of harm and; L is the gravity of the harm. For a more detailed explanation, you can watch a video the explains the Learned Hand formula in more detail.

As applied to this case, the burden for Connors Marine was keeping an employee on the barge during working hours. Next, we look at the probability of harm. In a busy wartime harbor with many barges being moved in and out, that is fairly high. Finally, we look at the gravity of harm. If a barge were to break loose, the harm would likely cause significant damage. Learned Hand held that Connors Marine, the barge owner, breached its duty of care and was therefore negligent for failing to have an employee on board the Anna C. when she sank.

If you are still struggling with the Learned Hand formula, you may want to use the elaborative interrogation technique,

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