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S.O.S.-Salson, Inc. v. A Singh Transport, Inc.

03-593 (U.S. Dist. Ct. D. N.J. 2004) (Unpublished)

TRUCKING; CARMACK AMENDMENT—Under the Carmack Amendment, the shipper, as customer, bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case against a trucker that the goods were delivered the goods to the trucker in good condition and that the goods were damaged before delivery or were never delivered, regardless of cause.

An interstate goods shipper entered into an agreement with a motor contract carrier. The shipper then entered into a contract with a distribution company to deliver goods to its stores throughout the country. The shipper also arranged for the carrier to truck the goods to a few of the locations.

One day, the shipper picked up a trailer from the distribution company with 645 cartons of merchandise. It then took the trailer back to its own facility, where the goods were unloaded and segregated by destination. The trucker delivered an empty trailer to the shipper where it was loaded with the goods for delivery to the company’s stores. According to the shipper’s dock manager, who supervised the loading of the goods, all of the boxes were in good condition when they were loaded. As the trailer was loaded, each box was laser scanned, and the shipper sealed the trailer. It then relayed the loading information to the distribution company’s manager.

The goods never arrived at their destination. The empty tractor was later recovered in Brooklyn, New York, but the driver was never heard from or found. As a result of the disappearance of the goods, the shipper sued the carrier, alleging that it suffered damages representing the cost of the goods. It moved for summary judgment on its claim pursuant to the Carmack Amendment for the loss of the value of goods entrusted to the carrier as an interstate motor contract carrier. The Carmack Amendment provides that motor carriers are liable to the person entitled to recover the loss of property. The purpose of this amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act was to relieve shippers of the burden of searching out a particular negligent carrier from among the often numerous carriers handling an interstate shipment of goods. To recover from a carrier for damage to a shipment, the shipper bears the burden to establish a prima facie case by showing that the delivery was in good condition and that its arrival was in damaged condition. It also needed to prove its damages. Once that burden is met, to be relieved of liability, the carrier must then demonstrate both that it was free from negligence and that the damage to the cargo was due to an act of God, a public enemy, the act of the shipper itself, public authority, or the inherent vice or nature of the goods.

First, the shipper must show that it delivered the goods to the carrier in good condition. A “clean bill of lading” is sufficient to establish delivery to the carrier in good condition of cargo which is visible and open to inspection. However, when the goods are delivered to a carrier under seal, as they were in this case, the bill of lading can only attest to the condition of cargo ascertainable from the exterior of the container. As a result, this shipper had to present other evidence to show that its goods were delivered to the carrier in good order. The carrier argued that the shipper failed to meet this burden, pointing out that only the shipper handled the unloading and segregation of the goods in its warehouse.

The shipper relied on the affidavit of its dock manager. In it, he attested that he counted and laser scanned each box of goods, and supervised the loading of the carrier’s trailer. He also attested that the boxes were in good condition when loaded, and that the trailer was then sealed. The shipper also presented evidence that it had reimbursed the distribution company for the full cost of the goods. It argued that it would not have paid for the goods had it not loaded the goods onto the trailer. With that before it, the District Court held that a factfinder could reasonably conclude that the shipper had delivered the goods to the carrier in good condition. The carrier presented no evidence to the contrary.

Next, to prevail on its statutory claim, the shipper also had to demonstrate that the goods were damaged before final delivery or were never delivered. The carrier did not dispute that the goods were never delivered. Lastly, the District Court found that the shipper established the amount of damages as the amount it reimbursed the distribution company for the undelivered goods.

As a defense, the carrier suggested that its driver was the victim of foul play, and therefore the non-delivery was due to an act of the public enemy. The District Court found no evidence of foul play, and found no case law or other authority for the carrier’s understanding of what constituted an act of a public enemy. As a result, the District Court granted the shipper’s motion for summary judgment.

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