60 F.2d 737 (2d Cir. 1931).
One-Sentence Takeaway: A defendant’s reliance on general customs and practices is no defense to negligence for his failure to adapt feasible and applicable new technologies.
Summary: Two tug boats ran into high seas off the coast of Atlantic City and lost a pair of coal barges. The cargo owners sued the tug boat owner, arguing in part that the tug boats were not seaworthy because they were not equipped with radios and could not access weather reports, dire predictions that would have dissuaded a reasonable ship’s captain.
At the time, few ships were equipped with radio equipment, even though suitable sets were available and reasonably priced and crews almost always obtained radios at their own expense. Defendant argued that, notwithstanding the lack of radios, the tug boats were seaworthy — and Defendant was not negligent — because it was the general custom among operators of coastwise tugs not to equip the tugs with radios.
The district court ruled that the tugs were unseaworthy — and Defendant was negligent — because they lacked radios. The court of appeals affirmed.
Writing for the Second Circuit, Judge Learned Hand rejected Defendant’s “general custom” defense to negligence. He explained:
Indeed in most cases reasonable prudence is in fact common prudence; but strictly it is never its measure; a whole calling may have unduly lagged in the adoption of new and available devices. It may never set its own tests, however persuasive be its usages. Courts must in the end say what is required; there are precautions so imperative that even their universal disregard will not excuse their omission.