Ship-to-Shore: Logistics and Liability

February 5, 2015

By Colin McRae and Brad Harmon, special to Elegant Island Living

If you have ever ordered an item online, bought a new iPhone, or picked up a ripe California orange at the grocery store, you have utilized the enormous web of logistics that transports cargo around the world. Generally defined, logistics is the movement of goods from point of origin to point of sale. The Port of Brunswick plays a vital part in this global endeavor, including its position as the second busiest port for total roll-on/roll-off (vehicle) cargo in the United States.

Every shipper, whether they are exporting agricultural goods or importing cars, must protect that cargo while it journeys from point A to point B. The liability of logistics is a complicated business, incorporating numerous factors as cargo moves from ship to shore. To make matters even more complex, the laws that govern goods in transit over water are different from those that govern goods in transit over land.

Maritime law, also referred to as admiralty law, presides over the transit of cargo at sea. Many different international laws may govern any particular shipment, including the Carriers of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA), the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (CISG; the Vienna Convention).

Under COGSA, ocean carriers are responsible for the items they transport, but that liability is limited to $500 per customary freight unit. For oversized cargo like boats, cars, and other large items—especially relevant in a port that is ranked number one for the import of new vehicles—the limitation of liability may vary according to the size or weight of the cargo in question. It is worth noting that the statute of limitations is shorter for ocean cargo claims; in the case of COGSA, it is a maximum term of one year.

Once cargo rolls off of a ship arriving at the Port of Brunswick, liability is no longer governed by maritime law. The bill of lading—the document that details a shipment of merchandise—is classified by how liability has been assigned, and generally places risk of loss on the land carrier (although there are exceptions).

Inland logistics liability is typically covered by the Carmack Amendment, whether that cargo moves by rail or motor. Passed in 1906, the Carmack Amendment has evolved to effectively serve as a unified national code of liability for interstate carriers. This places the burden of responsibility on carriers for cargo loss, but incorporates many complex factors and again comes with its own statute of limitations.

At the thriving Port of Brunswick, with goods moving in and out at ever higher volumes, protecting that cargo is a top priority for all parties involved. Shippers, carriers, warehouses, importers, and exporters deal with many moving parts, and each of those carries an aspect of liability. Staying up to date with the complex maritime and civil laws that affect liability is the greatest defense against logistical difficulties or damages that could arise at any point in cargo transit.

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