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A Primer on “Carmack Claims”

By: Amy Agnew and William Allred

What is a “Carmack claim”?  It is a claim for damaged freight that can arise for numerous reasons, including accidents and extreme weather-related incidents.  A shipper can bring this claim for damaged freight pursuant to the Carmack Amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act, codified in 49 U.S.C. § 14706.  Congress enacted this statute in 1906 to govern interstate carriers’ responsibility for the goods they transport.  The Carmack Amendment applies only to interstate transportation, not intrastate transportation.   As discussed further below, a carrier does have some defenses to Carmack claims.

The Carmack Amendment allows for a shipper to recover damages from a carrier for the “actual loss or injury to the property” resulting from the transportation of cargo in interstate commerce.  National Hispanic Circus, Inc. v. Rex Trucking, Inc., 414 F.3d 546, 549 (5th Cir. 2005).  It presents a uniform guideline, designed to remove uncertainty regarding a carrier’s liability when a shipper’s interstate shipment suffers damage.  See Distribuidora Mari Jose, S.A. de C.V. v. Transmaritime, Inc., 738 F.3d 703, 706 (5th Cir. 2013).  The statute is structured like a strict liability claim—that is, it allows a shipper to collect from a carrier regardless of fault.  Id.

A “carrier” or “motor carrier” is “a person providing motor vehicle transportation for compensation.”  See 49 U.S.C. § 13102(14).  Under the Carmack Amendment, a carrier is liable “for the actual loss or injury to the property caused by (a) the receiving carrier, (b) the delivering carrier, or (c) another carrier over whose line or route the property is transported.”  See 49 U.S.C. § 14706(a)(1).  However, a Carmack claim may not be brought against a broker.  See Wise Recycling, L.L.C. v. M2 Logistics, 943 F. Supp.2d 700, 702 (N.D. Tex. 2013).  A broker is a person who sells or arranges for transportation by motor carrier, as opposed to the motor carrier itself.  Id. at 703.

By limiting a carrier’s liability to the actual loss or injury to the transported property, Congress intended to provide certainty to both shippers and carriers, and to enable carriers to assess their risks and also predict their liability for damages.  See N.Y, New Haven & Hartford R.R. v. Nothnagle, 346 U.S. 128, 131 (1953) (“With the enactment in 1906 of the Carmack Amendment, Congress superseded diverse state laws with a nationally uniform policy governing interstate carriers’ liability for property loss.”).

The Carmack Amendment provides an exclusive remedy for a breach of contract of carriage provided by a bill of lading.  Air Products & Chem., Inc. v. Ill. Cent. Gulf R.R. Co., 721 F.2d 483, 484-85 (5th Cir.1983).  Therefore, Carmack claims pre-empt state law claims arising out of the shipment of goods by interstate carriers, and these claims can be removed to federal court. 

The statute imposes a minimum time period for the filing of Carmack claims.  See 49 U.S.C. § 14706(e)(1).  The carrier can limit the time period for a claim to be filed against the carrier; however, the period can be no less than nine months for the filing of a claim and no less than two years for bringing a civil action.  Also, the time period for bringing a civil action runs from the date the carrier gives an individual written notice that the carrier has disallowed any part of the claim specified in the notice. 

For the shipper to establish a prima facie case of negligence under Carmack, the shipper must demonstrate:  (1) delivery of the goods to the carrier in good condition; (2) receipt by the consignee of damaged or lost goods; and (3) the amount of damages.  See Man Roland, Inc. v. Kreitz Motor Exp., Inc., 438 F.3d 476, 479 (5th Cir. 2006).  A bill of lading is prima facie evidence of delivery of goods in good condition.  When a bill of lading contains an “apparent good order” clause, that is considered evidence of delivery of the goods in good condition, but only as to those portions of the shipment that are visible and open to inspection.  See Accura Sys., Inc. v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 98 F.3d 874, 877 (5th Cir. 1996).  For any goods not available for inspection on delivery, the plaintiff bears the burden to submit other substantial and reliable evidence that the goods were tendered to the carrier in good condition.  See Fraser-Nash v. Atlas Van Lines, Inc., 534 F. Supp.2d 729, 732 (S.D. Tex. 2008). 

When the shipper establishes a prima facie case, it creates a rebuttable presumption of negligence on the part of the carrier.  Man Roland, Inc., 438 F.3d at 479.  The carrier can rebut the presumption of negligence by proving: (1) it was free from negligence, and (2) the damage to the loss or cargo was caused by (a) an Act of God, (b) the public enemy, (c) the act of the shipper himself, (d) public authority, or (e) from the inherent vice or nature of the goods.  See Mo. Pac. R.R. v. Elmore & Stahl, 377 U.S. 134, 137 (1964).  Even if the shipper gives faulty instructions on how to ship the freight, the carrier still must exercise reasonable care to protect the freight from damage.  See Man Roland, 438 F.3d at 479-80; see also Trautmann Bros. v. Missouri Pacific R.R., 312 F.2d 102, 104 (5th Cir. 1962) (“So long as the carrier has discharged its duty of reasonable care, it is not liable for damage to a shipment caused ... solely by the acts or directions of the shipper.”).

Finally, attorney’s fees are not available in Carmack claim cases.  Advantage Transp., Inc. v. Freeways Exp., L.L.C., No. 4:08-CV-206, 2008 WL 5062672 at *3 (N.D. Tex. 2008) (unpublished).  A claimant is, however, entitled to recover prejudgment interest and interest on the damages award.  See La. & Ark. Ry. Co. v. Exp. Drum Co., 359 F.2d 311, 317 (5th Cir.1966).


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