Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Common Carrier Definition:

A carrier who accepts to transport goods or passengers indiscriminately.

Related Terms: Private Carrier, Carrier, Carriage, Air Law

The Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (of law), 2009, states:

"At common law a common carrier is one which holds itself out to the public as being ready to carry for hire, not as a casual employment but as a business, the goods of all persons who see fit to employ it, without retaining the right as to what or for whom it should carry or restricting shipments to full loads....

"A common carrier is one which professes to be ready to carry for everybody."

In Browne v SCR, Justice Karnezis of the Appellate Court of Illinois wrote:

"[A] common carrier is one who undertakes for the public to transport from place to place such persons or the goods of such persons as choose to employ him for hire.

"The test to distinguish a common carrier from a private carrier is whether the carrier serves all of the public alike. A common carrier is one who undertakes for hire to carry all persons indifferently who may apply for passage, so long as there is room and there is no legal excuse for refusal. A private carrier on the other hand undertakes by special agreement, in a particular instance only, to transport persons or property from one place to another either gratuitously or for hire. Further, a private carrier makes no profession to carry all who apply for carriage and is not bound to serve every person who may apply."

In Belfast Ropework, Justice Bailhache wrote:

"... to make a man a common carrier he must carry as a public employment; he must carry for all indifferently; he must hold himself out as ready to cary for hire as a business and not as a casual occupation.... he is sometimes described as a person who undertakes for reward to carry the goods of such as choose to employ him from place to place. To this I think I it would be safe to add the words at a reasonable rate.

"All other carriers by land are private carriers."

Halsbury's (2009) defines a common carrier as follows:

"A common carrier is one who exercises the public profession of carrying the goods of all persons wishing to use his services or of carrying passengers whoever they may be....

"To constitute himself a common carrier of goods, a carrier must hold himself out, either expressly or by his course of conduct, as willing to carry for reward, so long as he has room, goods of all persons indifferently who sends him goods to be carried at a reasonable price."

In Tri-City Drilling, the Court wrote that the carrier was not a common carrier but, instead, a private carrier:

"... the defendant had none of the characteristics of a common carrier in that: (a) He was not carrying on business as a public employment; (b) He did not undertake to carry goods for persons generally; (c) He did reserve the right to refuse shipments and consignments."

Or in Rolland Paper, Justice Maybank of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench:

"Whether a person, artificial or natural, is a common carrier is to be determined by his or its actions. The question is whether the person holds himself or itself to be that kind of person. It must be remembered that a common carrier must accept goods in commodities for transport. The textbooks speak of punishment by indictment in case of refusal to accept merchandise for carriage.

"The evidence in the instant case is that the cartage company defendant did not ordinarily carry on as a common carrier. It transported in the Winnipeg area a great deal of freight from and to the Canadian National Railway at Winnipeg, but it reserved the right to refuse shipments and consignments....

"A person is not a common carrier who, although inviting all to employ him, yet reserves to himself the right of accepting or rejecting offers of goods for carriage, being guided in his choice not by his ability to carry but by the attractiveness or otherwise of the particular offer."

As suggested by the above extracts, historically, a common carrier was of goods only. There was no such thing as a common carrier of passengers but now, as Halsbury states: "the distinction ... has dwindled in importance."

Thus, the 3rd Edition of A Dictionary of Law defines a carrier as follows:

"One who transports persons or goods from one place to another....

"A common carrier is one who publicly undertakes to carry gods or persons for payment on the route he covers.

"A common carrier is subject to three common law duties: he must, if he has space, accept any goods of the type he carries or any person; he must charges only a reasonable rate; and he is strictly liable for all loss or damage to goods in the course of transit."

Distinguished from a private carrier.


  • Belfast Ropework Company v Bushell (1918) 1 KB 210, at page 212
  • Browne v. SCR Medical Transportation Services, 826 NE 2d 1030 (2005)
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Bailment
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Carriage
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Carrier
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Private Carrier
  • Jones, M., editor, Canadian Encyclopedic Digest, online edition (2009), Title 23, "Carriers"
  • Martin, E., editor, A Dictionary of Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), page 54.
  • Rolland Paper Co. v CNR and National Cartage & Storage Ltd. (1957) 22 WWR 673 at page 680. Appeal dismissed at 25 WWR 497 (1958)
  • Tri-City Drilling Co. v Velie 30 WWR 61 (ABSC, 1959)


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