Time limits for filing amended freight claims

Time limits for filing amended freight claims

Copyright 2007, Traffic World, Inc.

Q:

We use a freight bill post auditor. They filed claims with an LTL carrier for an incorrect discount on some freight bills within the 180-day time limit specified in 49 U.S.C. ? 13710(3)(B).

The carrier was able to show the discount billed was correct and declined the claims.

The auditor then discovered the carrier billed the incorrect freight class based on a freight-all-kinds rating we have in our pricing and refiled the claims as amended claims.

The carrier declined these amended claims based on the fact that they were received after the 180-day period. They advised that the amended claims were really new claims, because they were filed for a different reason.

Our auditor contends that since they involve the same freight bills and the original claims were within the 180-day limit, these amended claims are not estopped by the 180-day rule.

Please advise.

A:

I can''t tell you for sure, and neither, I''ll bet, can anyone else. So far as I''m aware this particular issue has never been litigated, certainly not in any court high enough that its rulings would have value as precedent.

But if you''re looking for an opinion, mine is that the carrier is right. In your shoes I wouldn''t be willing to take this issue to court unless you have a very large sum of money at stake.

Let''s look to the specific language of section 13710(3)(B):

"If a shipper seeks to contest the charges originally billed or additional charges subsequently billed [by the carrier], the shipper ? must contest the original bill or subsequent bill within 180 days of receipt of the bill in order to have the right to contest such charges."

OK, one reading of this is that any protest at all is sufficient to toll the limit and keep your rights alive no matter on what basis you subsequently file your claim. That''s the view your auditor is trying to advance.

It''s not at all an unreasonable position, and I''d be prepared to argue it if I had to. But let''s look a little deeper.

Suppose this position were upheld in court. In that case, as a prudent shipper, I''m tempted to dispute every single freight bill that hits my desk. I simply develop a form letter saying "we dispute the charges in freight bill XXX," and send it out wholesale.

Now, by the position your auditor takes, I''ve preserved my rights for each bill beyond the 180-day limit. I can now take my time in preparing any actual claims and file them at my leisure without regard to the time limit.

Basically, that is to say, I''ve made a mockery of this provision of the law, rendering it utterly inapplicable to every last one of my freight bills.

And most courts aren''t partial to technicalities that effectively invalidate statutes enacted by Congress. I have to say that I''m not really thrilled with them either; like most legal advocates I''ll use them when available to support the interests of a client, but not with any sense of moral or legal rectitude.

In this instance, though, I''m not advocating a client''s interests. You''ve asked me for an independent, objective opinion, and on that basis I have to say I don''t think this is a proper reading of the law.

If you re-read the statute and look into its legislative history, I think its underlying point is that the specific issue(s) in dispute are supposed to be joined within the 180-day period. That is, a generalized statement of dispute such as I''ve hypothecated above isn''t enough; the shipper has to give a reason.

And if that''s what Congress intended with this law, as I believe it did, it follows logically that the disputant can''t change horses in midstream. Oh, it can offer a second basis for claim if it wants; but that basis, too, must be presented within the 180-day limit. The first, unrelated claim doesn''t toll the limit for the follow-up claim based on completely different reasons.

Which is to say, your auditor''s "amended" claim is, as the carrier says, actually a brand-new one. It wasn''t filed within 180 days of your receipt of the disputed freight bill; therefore it''s time-barred notwithstanding the prior filing of an earlier claim.

As I wrote to start, this is strictly my opinion. I''ve seen no significant litigation on the question, the little the Surface Transportation Board wrote (some years ago) on the statutory provision doesn''t touch on the question you raise, and it''s possible you could prevail if you took the carrier to court.

For the reasons given, though, I doubt it. I''d recommend that you write this off, chalk it up to experience and suggest to your auditor that it be a little more thorough in reviewing future freight bills. Your own attorneys may have a more optimistic view of your chances, and if so I wish you and them good luck. For myself, though, I''d be a lot more comfortable arguing the carrier''s case than yours.



-- Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at P.O. Box 76, Morganton, Ga. 30560; phone, (706) 374-7201; fax, (706) 374-7202; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the 536-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2001, at $80 plus shipping.