Caring For ''Astray'' Freight

Caring For ''Astray'' Freight

Copyright 2007, Traffic World, Inc.


My mother passed away not long ago. Even at the age of 94 she''d lived in her own home, and she left a lot of furniture, housewares, etc.

I chose to have most of her things shipped to my own home some distance away, where I could deal with them at leisure. I hired a local mover to pack and load them.

The first problem was that I live in a fairly remote rural area. My mother''s stuff was only a partial load and, even though it was affiliated with one of the major van lines, the mover had trouble finding other shipments with which to consolidate mine. It ultimately took nearly a month, and several increasingly annoyed phone calls to the mover, to get my shipment delivered.

Several days after delivery my wife and I got to the last box. It was one of those oversize flat cartons for wall hangings - paintings, mirrors, etc. - and when we opened it we found a mirror that wasn''t ours at all, but was part of somebody else''s obviously expensive bedroom dresser set.

I called the mover to let them know they''d mistakenly unloaded a box from another shipment. They didn''t want to divert a truck to pick it up. They asked me to ship it to them via parcel carrier, but it was too big and also we''d damaged the carton beyond repair in opening it.

Months - literally - went by. The mover didn''t come and didn''t contact us, and we had this mirror still sitting around.

What''s my responsibility here? Do I have to keep this mirror indefinitely until the mover comes to get it (if it ever does, which I now doubt)? Should I try to find a way to ship it back? I know that someone''s bedroom suite is incomplete, but I don''t even know who it belongs to. What should I do?


The questions I answer in this column are real ones, from readers who telephone or e-mail or fax or occasionally snail-mail me. Mostly.

This one is real, all right, but it didn''t come from a reader. It was my wife and I who found ourselves the involuntary custodians of the described mirror in the circumstances I''ve described. But I''m pretty sure our situation is far from unique, and so have elected to include it here.

Our home was indeed remote; Morganton, Georgia, is deep in Appalachia far off the beaten track, and we were situated on a one-lane gravel road unnavigable by any 18-wheeler (the load had to be relayed in from a parking lot nearly a mile away). I can sympathize with the mover''s reluctance to come get the misdelivered mirror.

My sympathy, though, didn''t solve my problem. I''m sure the mirror was cherished by the owner of that costly bedroom suite, but it was just a large piece of clutter to us.

So I put my legal knowledge to work. In law my wife and I were the "gratuitous bailees" of this piece of astray freight. That is, we were receiving no benefit whatever from keeping it; the only beneficiaries were the owner and, presumably, the carrier who would be liable for a claim for the mirror''s disappearance.

As gratuitous bailees, we owed only a duty of "slight" care for the mirror. In fact, as a practical matter we didn''t even have to go that far; we could have trashed the thing immediately, denied ever having it if anybody thought to ask, and that would have been the end of it. But we took the responsible course of notifying the mover, and thereby assumed that slight-care obligation.

Slight care, however - as the phrasing indicates - has its limits. When the mover kept stalling and stalling about retrieving the mirror, and ultimately wouldn''t even return my phone calls about it, I finally felt my obligation had been adequately discharged.

In the end I gave the thing away, to a friend of my wife''s who said she could use it. That''s admittedly outside the bounds of even slight care, but our home wasn''t a warehouse, I''d waited more than a reasonable time for the mover to retrieve the mirror, and I felt I was both legally and morally entitled to dispose of it as I chose.

As for the mirror''s owner(s), I presume he, she or they duly claimed against the mover, which I guess found it cheaper to pay than to come fetch the thing. I hope the payment was for full value, but it troubles me that such might not have been the case.

Household goods not uncommonly move at a "released" value, a ceiling of a few dollars (as low as $1.25, or even a mere 60 cents if the shipper asks) per pound. If the shipment from which the mirror disappeared was in that category this may well have encouraged the carrier''s decision.

Strictly speaking the mover wouldn''t have been entitled to that benefit. Liability limits are voided if a carrier is guilty of conversion, and the mover''s failure to retrieve the astray freight qualifies as that. But because I couldn''t notify the (unknown to me) owner(s) directly, he, she or they weren''t aware the carrier knew where the missing mirror was and chose for economic reasons not to come get it. It''s unfortunate, but an item that''s simply lost can be legally worth a lot less than one whose location is known.

-- Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, (706) 851-5679; fax, (706) 374-7202; e-mail, Contact him to order the 536-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2001, at $80 plus shipping.