The Carmack Amendment and Summary Judgment

Kevin Anderson Cargo Liability, Transportation

A recently decided case from the east coast gives a good example of how summary judgment can be applied in a Carmack Amendment case. In federal court, summary judgement comes from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure – rule 56. In a nutshell, summary judgement is a way for a judge to decide an issue without it having to go to trial.

Rule 56 provides that a judge “shall grant” summary judgement when there is no genuine dispute of material fact. That means that while the two sides argue about how the law should apply, the facts are so clear that a jury is not needed to decide the issue. This rule of summary judgement can apply in Carmack Amendment cases as well.

Facts of This Case

The case we are discussing in this blog was decided by a federal judge in New York. This case has an interesting set of facts, because it does not involve the traditional shipper relationship. It all began in 1995 when the plaintiff bought a particular safe from the defendant where he could store his valuable opals. In 2011, the plaintiff locked his most valuable opals in that same safe, but could not unlock it to get them out.

The plaintiff called the defendant and asked for help to unlock the safe. But the plaintiff insisted that the defendant not use a torch or heat to open the safe because it would destroy the opals. So the defendant went and got the safe in New York and took it to New Jersey where he used a torch to open it. As a result, the opals were destroyed and lost their value.

Plaintiff Loses Carmack Amendment Claim on Summary Judgment

Part of the plaintiff’s claim was that he was entitled to damages under the Carmack Amendment because the opals were transported to New Jersey from New York, and destroyed. But the federal judge in this case did not agree with that logic.

To establish a Carmack Amendment Case a plaintiff must show three things:

  • that a carrier received goods in fair condition;
  • that the goods arrived at its destination in damaged or lost condition; and
  • the amount of loss involved.

This case was easily decided by the court on summary judgement because the opals were not damaged in transit from New York to New Jersey. In fact, they were only damaged (allegedly) after they had arrived in New Jersey and the defendant tried to open the safe using a torch. The analysis could have changed if the opals were going to be stored in New Jersey and then were destroyed, but that is not what happened here.

In situations such as these, it is not difficult for a federal judge to look at a case and grant summary judgement. The law on Carmack Amendment claims clearly sets out what one must show to be successful, and the plaintiffs failed to do that in this particular case. That is not to say they lost the case entirely, because there are still a number of claims that remain to be solved.

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