In a case involving an alleged theft of jewelry by a Mover hired to pack load and transport an Individual Shipper’s household goods and personal effects from Connecticut to Maryland, a Federal court in Connecticut held the Shipper’s State law claims (including statutory theft, conversion and Connecticut’s unfair trade practices act) are completely preempted by the federal law known as the Carmack Amendment and, removal of the suit from the State court in Connecticut to Federal court proper.
The case highlights the importance of immediately forwarding any lawsuit asserting claims against the carrier for loss/damage to personal property to a lawyer knowledgeable in transportation law. This is because the deadline to seek to remove such a suit from State to Federal court is short. The defendant does not want to miss this deadline. Missing the deadline may mean the carrier is required to defend the suit in what is typically a hostile state-court environment. In our practice, the typical process includes tendering the suit to the carrier’s insurer demanding a legal defense and indemnification, if appropriate.
The case also serves as a reminder that concepts of interstate transportation of property, the Carmack Amendment and the Shipper’s intent fixing the character of the shipment as interstate in nature are broad in scope. What at first glance may seem to be limited to a so-called “local” or intrastate move is, as a matter of federal law, interstate transportation – subject to federal laws which comprehensively and uniformly regulate carrier liability for loss/damage regardless of State laws.
The complaint alleged the Individual Shipper hired the defendant Mover “to bind, load and deliver” household goods and personal effects from Connecticut to Maryland and that when defendant packed and loaded some items on its truck, it failed to load the Shipper’s Tiffany and Co. diamond jewelry and other precious metals. 5 months after delivery, the Shipper reported the alleged theft to the West Hartford police department. A statement was taken down by the officer. In it, the officer wrote in part that, “the [Shipper] hired the [Mover] to move all of her belongings in the house. [The Shipper] stated her house was supposed to be empty by the time [the Mover] finished.”
The parties’ arm-wrestled over whether the lawsuit belonged in the plaintiff-friendly State court or, because the subject-matter of the suit – interstate transport of household goods – the Carmack Amendment completely preempts the State law claims leaving any claim that Shipper may have against the Mover subject to subject-matter jurisdiction in Federal court; to be resolved in accordance with Federal law.
The Shipper argued the suit should be remanded back to State court because the missing jewelry was not listed on the bill of lading and therefore as to the jewelry, the Carmack Amendment does not apply. The court rejected the argument noting that because liability placed on the motor carrier by the Carmack Amendment is unaffected by whether a bill of lading is even issued, logically then, the failure to list items on a bill of lading would not affect carrier liability or otherwise exempt a transaction from the coverage of the Carmack Amendment.
The Shipper also argued remand to State court is appropriate because the jewelry was allegedly stolen at origin and ostensibly never left the State of Connecticut, thus never triggering Carmack. Based on the allegations set out in her complaint, the court rejected the argument noting that the Shipper “fails to acknowledge the broad definition of ‘transportation’ under the Carmack Amendment, which includes . . . ‘services related to the movement of property, including arranging for, receipt, delivery, . . . handling, and packing.’”
In this writer’s opinion, the court correctly ruled that “because [the Shipper] alleges that the theft occurred during the loading and packing portion of her interstate move, whether the jewelry ever left Connecticut is irrelevant to the question of preemption under the Carmack Amendment.” While not stated in the opinion, the clear undercurrent supporting Federal court subject-matter jurisdiction is the well-settled principle that the Shipper’s intent to move her belongings from Connecticut to Maryland – fixes the transportation as an interstate movement of household goods, subjecting all claims arising out of the shipment to resolution according to Federal law.
The court rules all Shipper’s State law claims are completely preempted by the Carmack Amendment, removal of her case to the Federal court was appropriate and gives the Shipper a brief opportunity to replead her claim under the Carmack Amendment.
When it comes to interstate transport – particularly transportation of household goods – the preemptive impact of the Carmack Amendment cannot be overstated. In this case, the court’s ruling that numerous State law claims (including statutory theft, conversion and Connecticut’s unfair trade practices act, negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligent hiring, training and supervision) are completely preempted in effect recasts the lawsuit to one of recovery for the actual loss or injury to goods in transit if the shipper is able to establish her prima facia case for affixing liability on the carrier.
Critical to mounting a proper defense however, is the ability to spot the Carmack issues and react quickly by turning the State lawsuit over to competent transportation counsel.
Dated: Sudbury, MA
December 20, 2021
Andresen & Borovick, LLP
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 Shields v. United Van Lines, No. 21-1287 Ruling on Motion to Remand to Superior Court (D. Ct. Dec. 9, 2021).