Do you have a bill of lading?

Henry Seaton is a lawyer who represents carriers in contract disputes, collection matters, cargo claims and insurance questions. E-mail hseaton@eTrucker.com.

Q Our company, a truckload carrier, was sued for $350,000 well over 2 years after we denied a claim. We asserted a statute of limitations, but the court ruled that the bill of lading did not contain a time limit. Is it possible that we might be forced to pay?

A It appears your company has learned a lesson the hard way. Truckload carriers need to incorporate standard terms of the bill of lading into their rules and contracts. A standard bill of lading is prescribed by regulation for rail carriers, and its terms and conditions have established the general rules of commerce that have been used in the trucking industry since the early 1900s.

These general rules of commerce include important concepts such as reasonable dispatch, a definition of cargo liability, consignor and consignee liability for freight charges and salvage rules. Included are rules requiring the filing of written claims within 9 months and the institution of suit within 2 years after declination.

The regulations applicable to motor carriers do not specify terms, however, they only state that a motor carrier must allow at least nine months for the filing of a claim and at least 2 years for bringing civil action if a claim is denied. If a carrier wants to bar lawsuits filed after 2 years, it must do so through some type of notice or agreement. The regulations offer no help.

Less-than-truckload carriers are virtually all members of a tariff bureau known as the National Motor Freight Traffic Association, which sponsors a uniform bill of lading that includes these important provisions. In 1995, Congress modified the transportation statutes to state that carriers that are not members of rate bureaus cannot use the provisions of their classifications and tariffs.

Very few truckload carriers are members of the NMFTA, so the argument is made that they cannot rely upon the NMFTA bill of lading without joining the bureau and paying the annual subscription dues. Moreover, shippers increasingly are tendering traffic on their own bills of lading that do not include the general rules of commerce found on the back side of the rail or NMFTA bill.

Every truckload carrier must address this issue to avoid the type of predicament you face. If truckload carriers do not wish to join NMFTA and pay its annual dues, they can get the same benefits of the general rules of commerce and the claims filing deadlines available to LTL carriers by adopting applicable portions of the regulatory language applicable to rail and water.

Using the front side of a bill of lading format proposed for use by shippers and the general rules and language of the regulations, I have prepared and edited a “Standard Truckload Bill of Lading,” which any carrier is free to use. Small carriers should get the standard terms of the back side of this bill incorporated into their rules circulars and tariffs and specify that their drivers sign nonconforming bills of lading as evidence of receipt of goods only.