Master of the Billing Domain

Q: I know you’ve written before that a carrier has no obligation to pick up two shipments on separate bills of lading from the same location that also are going to the same destination, yet consider them as one consolidated bill of lading so the shipper is provided a lower rate based on the larger weight (Fort Valley, VA: Loft Press, “Transportation Questions & Answers,” vol. 31, 2001, p. 20).

You said the law specifies that the bill of lading is the presiding document and must be adhered to unless we (the shipper) provide a master bill of lading they then must follow.

I have a twist on that same provision. What if the shipper provides two shipments on different B/Ls? Is the carrier permitted to create its own master bill and then invoice based on that?

We had a case where two shipments were to be picked up at different times during the day by the same carrier. The carrier came through late that day and picked up both shipments at once, and then created a master bill. It later invoiced based on the master at an amount considerably higher due to violating a linear foot rule provision, a provision that would not have been enforceable based on either B/L on its own.

Your thoughts?

 

A: “Son,” a father said to his boy one day, “someday you’ll be sitting at a table minding your own business and a man will come along, lay a one-dollar bill on the table, and offer to bet you he can make George Washington jump off that dollar bill and spit cider into your ear.

“And son,” the father continued, “do not bet with that man unless you want an ear full of cider.”

You got an ear full of cider, and you didn’t even accept the bet. The fact that you didn’t accept the bet makes this an improper ear full of cider, unenforceable as a matter of law, but there’s still all that cider in your ear.

Oh, I suppose it’s remotely possible that some obscure provision of the carrier’s tariff or your contract with it — you don’t say which applies — allows the carrier to combine the shipments as it did. But I’ve never run across such a provision in my half century in the industry, so I kind of doubt it.

The point is that the shipments were tendered separately by you on two unassociated B/Ls. Unbeknownst to you, and without your participation, the carrier then forced a “master” bill combining them, resulting in significantly higher charges. Under what authority may it hold you liable for the added charges resulting from its unilateral action?

What you face, however, is the problem of convincing the carrier to accept the reality that it’s gone beyond the realm of what’s proper. Now that it’s billed this way, its billing people, and its computer, are convinced you owe according to its billing, and getting such an error removed from the system won’t be easy.

The course I’d suggest is for you to pay on the (accurate) basis of two separate shipments, attaching a polite note of explanation, and then stand fast. Or, if you’ve already paid prior to discovering the carrier’s action, then deduct from a future freight bill, again with an explanatory note.

Now, in the best of all worlds, the carrier will accept your explanation, extend its apologies and take the necessary internal steps to delete the overcharge from its records. More likely, though, it’ll just keep dunning you for the unpaid balance, which is apt to get annoying.

So there’s a real possibility that sooner or later you’ll have to stop doing business with this carrier or give up and acquiesce to the overcharge. That’s not, of course, the most satisfactory state of affairs, but it may be the outcome.

Sure, you could take the disagreement to court. So, for that matter, could the carrier after you’ve short-paid. Either way, the result almost surely would favor you; but the money both of you’d spend on litigation would considerably exceed the amount in dispute, which makes this impractical. A marketplace solution is the only realistic course.

Ironically, the carrier may have originally thought it was doing you a favor by combining the bills; usually, that’ll produce lower, not higher, charges. But its motivation is beside the point now, and getting it to rebill properly after the fact is likely to be difficult.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, SC 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

 

 

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