Lewis Brisbois’ Specialized Cargo Team Prevails on Summary Judgment Upholding Household Goods Limitation of Liability

October 15, 2020

Phoenix Partner and Co-Chair of Lewis Brisbois’ Transportation Practice Julie E. Maurer and Associate James M. Duncan recently prevailed on a motion for partial summary judgment when the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah upheld a contractual limitation of liability for a household goods mover.

Phoenix, Ariz. (October 15, 2020) - Phoenix Partner and Co-Chair of Lewis Brisbois’ Transportation Practice Julie E. Maurer and Associate James M. Duncan recently prevailed on a motion for partial summary judgment when the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah upheld a contractual limitation of liability for a household goods mover. 

Underlying Facts & Summary Judgment Motions

In this matter, the plaintiff shipper sought nearly $500,000 for alleged damages to her household goods, which occurred during an interstate move from New York to Utah. Lewis Brisbois moved for partial summary judgment under the Carmack Amendment on behalf of the initiating carrier. Specifically, Ms. Maurer and Mr. Duncan argued that the limitation of liability included in the applicable bill of lading was enforceable, noting that the plaintiff had expressly agreed to the $0.60 per pound per article limitation, which limited her recovery to less than $5,000. 

The plaintiff then filed a counter motion for summary judgment, arguing that the court should rule that the limitation of liability was unenforceable as a matter of law, and hold both interstate carriers strictly liable for the full value of her damaged goods. She asserted that the initiating carrier failed the four-prong test to limit liability under the Carmack Amendment because it did not properly maintain or incorporate its tariff, and declined to provide a copy of the tariff upon request. The plaintiff also argued that the carrier failed to provide her with a reasonable opportunity to choose between two or more levels of liability. She further contended that there were significant ambiguities in the bill of lading and tariffs and that the carrier (1) misrepresented the legal significance of the limitation of liability, (2) failed to comply with dozens of federal regulations, and (3) issued the bill of lading too late or after the shipment was loaded. 

In response to the plaintiff’s assertions, Ms. Maurer and Mr. Duncan pointed out that (1) the carrier’s bill of lading clearly provided the plaintiff with an opportunity to select full replacement value protection, (2) the plaintiff clearly initialed and signed the $0.60 per pound per article option, and (3) the carrier encouraged the plaintiff on multiple occasions (e.g., before, during, and after her goods were picked up) to insure her shipment. They also argued that the plaintiff’s request for rates could not be construed as a request for the carrier’s tariff and that there was no legal basis to invalidate the carrier’s effective liability limitation based on alleged failure to comply with unrelated federal regulations. Finally, Ms. Maurer and Mr. Duncan submitted that the bill of lading was timely issued before the actual move took place.

Court’s Analysis

The court granted Lewis Brisbois’ motion for partial summary judgment and denied the plaintiff’s counter motion, holding that the carriers successfully limited their liability under the Carmack Amendment. In its analysis, the court first confirmed that nothing in the record indicated that the plaintiff had requested a copy of the carrier’s tariff, particularly given that there was no evidence the plaintiff had any interest in declaring a higher value or exploring the relative cost to do so. Next, the court explained that between the clear language of the binding estimate and bill of lading, there was no question that the plaintiff was presented with an opportunity to select full replacement value coverage. 

Noting that the plaintiff was offered a reasonable opportunity to protect her goods, as evidenced by her rejection of the carrier’s repeated suggestions that she purchase insurance, the court reasoned that “the question is not whether Plaintiff had a perfect understanding of her choices, sophistication about moving, or unlimited time to choose between levels of liability, but rather whether she had a reasonable opportunity to declare a higher value,” which “[s]he did.” Moreover, the court expressly declined to give any weight to the plaintiff’s arguments that the carriers failed to comply with all federal regulations, explaining that “[t]his is not a case about ambiguities, misstatements, or regulatory missteps leading a Plaintiff to mistakenly fail to select greater coverage for a higher price.” As such, the court ultimately held in favor of Lewis Brisbois’ client, determining that “because Plaintiff decided explicitly, in writing, to waive greater coverage and not to declare a higher value and pay an additional fee, she did not obtain the coverage she now seeks in court.”

Ms. Maurer routinely serves as national litigation counsel, representing clients in jurisdictions throughout the United States in the areas of transportation, commercial litigation, contract and tort defense. In addition to serving as the co-chair of Lewis Brisbois’ Transportation Practice, which maintains a unique specialty in cargo transportation law, she is also a member of its Complex Business & Commercial Litigation and Marine & Energy Practices. Ms. Maurer has extensive experience as lead chair in bench and jury trials in state and federal courts as well as in AAA arbitrations throughout the country. She has represented clients in trials that resulted in defense verdicts identified as Arizona’s most significant.

Mr. Duncan represents commercial clients in a broad range of business disputes, including breach of contract, allegations of bad faith, and real estate matters. His transportation practice focuses on freight loss and damage claims as well as matters related to tariff and transportation charge collections. He also has extensive experience litigating general liability cases, primarily in claims related to premises liability, professional liability, and products liability.

You can read the full court opinion in Cook v. N.Y. Moving & Storage, Inc., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179954 (D. Utah Sep. 28, 2020) here. Learn more about Lewis Brisbois’ Specialized Cargo and 24/7 Rapid Response Teams on our Transportation Practice page.