The Law of Towage at the Millennium: What Changes are Needed?

The law of towage dates from the first half of the nineteenth century, when the development of steam power permitted the first self-propelled tug boats. But modern towage law is largely defined by three United States Supreme Court decisions handed down in the first half of the Twentieth Century: Sacramento Navigation Co. v. Salz (1927), which created the “flotilla rule” to determine when the value of a towed vessel should be included in a limitation of liability fund; Stevens v. The White City (1932), which held that the tug is not the bailee of the tow; and Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corp. (1955), which held that exculpatory clauses in towage contracts are void and unenforceable. A fourth Supreme Court case, Ryan v. Pan-Atlantic Corp. (1956), although not a towage case, has led some courts to engraft a warranty of workmanlike performance or service onto towage contracts. This Article examines and criticizes these four doctrines, and is intended to provoke a lively debate on how towage law in these areas could be improved in the next millennium.