Carmack Amendment and Preemption of State Laws

Kevin Anderson Cargo Liability, Transportation

A federal court in New Jersey was recently tasked with deciding whether a Carmack Amendment claim should be dismissed as preempted, even when the claims made were not specific. This case shows why expert counsel is so important when it comes to litigation involving transportation law issues.

Again and again we see examples of attorneys and plaintiffs proceeding pro se and pleading the wrong claims in court for lost or damaged goods. The reason: few attorneys and non-attorneys really understand the framework for interstate claims, whether for damaged or lost goods. In this case, the person decided not to hire an attorney, and now faces the prospect of continuing without one in her case.

What Happened in This Case

In Soares v. Bekins Van Lines, Co., et al., No. 15-4242 (D. Ct. New Jersey 2016), the shipper hired a well known company to move her household goods across state lines to New Jersey. But as her claims states in the complaint, only a fraction of her goods actually got to the end point, and of those, thousands of dollars of damages resulted in transit.

Following her experience with the company she chose to move her goods, this shipper decided to sue to recover for her damages. In her lawsuit, she claimed breach of contract, negligence, and violation of title 49 of the U.S. Code, but did not use the words Carmack Amendment in her complaint. Understandably, the defendants in the case moved to dismiss the case because all of her claims could have been construed as state law claims, and the Carmack Amendment preempts state law claims for lost or damaged goods when shipped across state lines.

The judge was understanding of the situation, and did not dismiss the case. When a court is ruling on papers where pro se litigants are involved, they typically construe the pleadings liberally so as to not allow for a technical victory by learned attorneys. And that is what the court did here, in its ruling, the court barred all the state law claims as preempted by the Carmack Amendment, and allowed the case to go forward as a Carmack Amendment claim.

There are lessons in this case for anyone involved in the transportation industry. The lesson is this: when it comes to transportation law, it is better to have a qualified attorney who works in that area deal with the case, versus going with a less experienced attorney, or going it alone. Transportation law is notoriously complex and difficult to deal with. This is so because of the numerous federal and state laws involved, not to mention federal and state regulation.

At Anderson and Yamada, P.C., our team of transportation law professionals can help guide your company through whatever legal needs it has. We have the experience and talent that your company needs to understand the legal challenges that transportation companies are constantly facing. Contact us so we can go over your legal needs and how we can help.