Phoenix Team Obtains Summary Judgment for Interstate Moving Company in Damaged Goods Dispute

Phoenix, Ariz. (September 21, 2023) - Phoenix Partner Julie E. Maurer, Chair of the National Cargo & Logistics Practice and co-Chair of the Transportation Practice, and Partner Andrew Kleiner recently obtained summary judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida on behalf of their client, an interstate moving company, when the court ruled that their client properly limited its liability to $0.60 per pound per article for damage and loss that occurred during the interstate transport of the plaintiff’s goods.

In this case, the plaintiff hired the interstate moving company to transport his household goods and personal property from California to Florida. The bill of lading contract stipulated a bound weight of 13,499 pounds for the shipment and outlined the plaintiff's selection of reduced rate valuation coverage at $0.60 per pound. During the move, a portion of the plaintiff’s shipment was damaged. Instead of accepting the contractually owed damages under the moving company’s bill of lading contract based on the reduced rate valuation of $0.60 per pound he selected, he filed suit.

Despite multiple amendments, Lewis Brisbois successfully secured dismissals through various motions to dismiss, with the court ruling that the Carmack Amendment preempted all plaintiff's state law claims. Following this, Lewis Brisbois pursued partial summary judgment regarding the application of the limitation of liability, capping damages at $0.60 per pound. They emphasized proper limitation of liability in accordance with the Hughes test, a four-part assessment adopted across the nation. See Hughes v. United Van Lines, Inc., 829 F.2d 1407 (7th Cir. 1987). Under this test, which has been adopted by the Eleventh Circuit, a moving company must establish: 1) compliance with tariff guidelines (now obsolete); 2) obtaining written agreement on liability choice from the shipper; 3) offering the shipper a reasonable opportunity to choose between liability levels; and 4) issuing a bill of lading prior to shipment. See Essex Ins. Co. v. Barrett Moving & Storage, Inc., 885 F.3d 1292, 1306 (11th Cir. 2018); Werner Enterprises, Inc. v. Westwnid Mar. Int’l, Inc. 554 F.3d 1319, 1326 (11th Circ. 2009).

In response, the plaintiff contended that he did not receive a copy of the tariff despite alleged requests and claimed inadequate disclosure about waiving full value replacement. However, the Court rejected these arguments, stating that the plaintiff’s self-serving and unsupported affidavit was contradicted by the record.

Pertaining to the issue of the tariff, the court ruled that the plaintiff signed the bill of lading contract a week before his goods were packed and loaded for storage and did not request the tariff until at least one week after he entered the contract with the moving company, in which he agreed to pay less for limited liability protection. Given this, the court ruled that the tariff would not have altered the information available to the plaintiff at the time he contracted for a lower price and coverage. Nor would it have impacted his ability to choose between liability coverage options.

In addition, the court found that the moving company provided the plaintiff with instructions for accessing the tariff prior to executing the bill of lading contract. Most importantly, the court ruled that the bill of lading contract was the best evidence refuting the plaintiff’s claims, since it clearly explained to the plaintiff how to indicate precisely a desire for full value coverage. Accordingly, the court ruled that the plaintiff failed to create a genuine issue of fact on this issue.

Furthermore, the court determined that the bill of lading contract wholly refuted the plaintiff’s affidavit because it clearly demonstrated that the contract explained full value replacement and the minimum option of $0.60 per pound. Because the bill of lading contract provided two, well-explained, coverage value options, there was no genuine issue of fact on this point either.

Accordingly, the court entered summary judgment for the moving company finding that the moving company limited its liability to $0.60 per pound for plaintiff’s damaged goods.

Ms. Maurer is a Partner in Lewis Brisbois’ Phoenix office, chair of the firm’s National Cargo & Logistics Practice, a co-chair of the National Transportation Practice, the co-chair of the Autonomous Vehicles Practice and a member of the Complex Business & Commercial Litigation as well as Marine & Energy Practices. She routinely serves as national litigation counsel, representing clients in jurisdictions throughout the United States in the areas of transportation and complex commercial litigation. Ms. Maurer has extensive experience as lead chair in bench and jury trials in state and federal courts as well as AAA arbitrations throughout the country. She has represented clients in trials identified as Arizona’s most significant defense verdicts. 

Mr. Kleiner is a Partner in Lewis Brisbois’ Phoenix office of and a member of the firm’s Complex Business & Commercial Litigation, Autonomous Vehicles, Cargo and Logistics and Transportation Practices. He has extensive experience in all phases of litigation including trials, arbitrations, and administrative evidentiary hearings before public agencies.

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