A federal judge in Boston recently ruled an individual shipper’s suit against a California-based moving company following his move from San Francisco to Cambridge is governed exclusively by the Carmack Amendment to the ICC Termination Act of 1995. With this ruling, the district of Massachusetts is now firmly with other Federal circuits, such as the Fifth and Ninth, which recognize Congress’s intent that the Carmack Amendment is the exclusive cause of action in consumer suits alleging loss or damage to household goods arising from the interstate transportation of those goods by a carrier.
The principal purpose of the Carmack Amendment since enactment in 1906 and all subsequent iterations ever since, was to achieve national uniformity in the liability assigned to carriers for loss and damage to cargo arising from the interstate transportation. As the First Circuit has noted, “[t]he importance of uniformity has frequently been stressed” in Supreme Court opinions since the seminal case delineating the sweeping, comprehensive scope of Carmack preemption and uniformity of treatment, regardless of state laws – Adams Express Co. v. Croninger, 226 U.S. 491 (1913). Without the Carmack Amendment’s preemptive scope, to allow state regulations to affect the liability of interstate motor carriers for loss and damage arising from interstate transportation “would be to revert to the uncertainties and diversities of rulings which led to the [Carmack] amendment.”
While the First Circuit has long held that the Carmack Amendment preempts individual shippers’ state-law negligence, misrepresentation and Chapter 93A consumer protection claims, the Skakov court expands the legal effect of the Federal statute by holding Carmack preemption of state law is jurisdictional; not limited to a waivable defense that must be affirmatively raised by the motor carrier in its answer to the complaint. The preemptive scope, so construed, bars the court from considering state law claims, including remedies available under Chapter 93A even where, as in this case, the mover was defaulted by the court because it failed to answer or otherwise defend the suit and thus waived its ability to assert preemption as an affirmative defense.
Adopting a theory known as the “complete preemption doctrine,” the Skakov court holds “the Carmack Amendment completely preempts state law, and is a jurisdictional barrier to plaintiffs asserting state-law claims against carriers for damages incurred in interstate transportation.”
Because the mover defaulted, the ruling was based on Plaintiff’s allegations in his complaint and affidavit from his attorney. This summary is limited to the Carmack preemption issue as it relates to the mover – a household goods motor carrier. The other parties involved in the litigation; each having roles in the move resulting in separate, differing rulings and dispositions which while interesting in their own way, are not considered here.
Plaintiff relocated from San Francisco to Cambridge after booking his move with Black Bear Moving and Storage (“Black Bear”). Black Bear promised to load between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on July 27, 2020, with delivery in Cambridge by August 13, 2020. Black Bear did not arrive on time; instead arriving at 11:30 p.m. and completed packing at about 3:00 a.m. on July 28. Black Bear did not issue a bill of lading to the Plaintiff at the time of receipt of the property.
Black Bear arrived in Cambridge a day late. Plaintiff reported the missing and damaged property to Black Bear’s customer service agent. The agent acknowledged the missing and damaged articles and that Black Bear bore responsibility for locating the missing items. Some articles were found and returned, but one item was not. The returned property was delayed because Black Bear did not have any scheduled trips between the warehouse and Cambridge.
Plaintiff sent a demand letter to Black Bear and two other defendants. It would appear the demand letter was a pre-suit demand otherwise necessary prior to commencing suit by a consumer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts pursuant to M.G.L. c. 93A to permit recovery of multiple damages and attorney’s fees under that statute because “no party tendered [Plaintiff] a reasonable settlement offer in response to this letter” – a requirement under Chapter 93A when responding to consumer demand letters.
Complaint Sets Forth Prima Facie Claim for Liability Against Carrier Under Carmack Amendment
The court finds Plaintiff asserted a prima facie cause of action under the Carmack Amendment – (1) delivery to the carrier in good condition, (2) arrival in damaged condition, and (3) amount of damages caused by the loss.
Because Black Bear did not defend, it is unknown whether the carrier perhaps had available defenses under Federal law such as whether a sufficient written claim was timely filed, whether the carrier’s liability for loss or damage was limited, whether the existence of one of the five so-called “excepted” causes of loss exempted the carrier from liability, among others.
Damages Available Under Carmack Amendment
Carmack makes the carrier liable for “actual loss or injury to the property” delivered to it. Punitive damages and damages unrelated to the property at issue are not available for recovery. In this case, the court concludes the attorney’s affidavit on damages was too speculative and lacked needed information about the lost and damaged items to make a judicial assessment. Consequently, the court denied the motion without prejudice, permitting Plaintiff another bite at the apple so as to adequately support his damages under the applicable legal standard.
The carriage of goods in interstate commerce requires a Federal scheme providing carrier certainty in ascertaining its legal liability for loss or damage in transit. Carmack preemption in such cases, to the exclusion of any state law which would in any way enlarge the responsibility of the carrier for loss or at all affect the ground of recovery, or the measure of recovery is necessary to preserve the uniformity of the Federal scheme by protecting the Federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction over the shipper-carrier relationship as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held since 1913.
This ruling will no doubt prove useful, buttressing well-established case law in countering pre-suit demands and allegations of, among other state-law claims, claims of unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of M.G.L. Chapter 93A, the Commonwealth’s Consumer Protection Act and its statutory remedies, including multiple damages and attorneys’ fees when brought against a motor carrier arising from cargo loss on interstate moves.
In this writer’s experience, movers sometimes overlook or may waive otherwise valuable defenses under federal law – particularly in circumstances involving storage and the handling of goods by multiple parties – transactions which in isolation, may not obviously appear to fall into the category of interstate transportation.
Perhaps when in doubt as to the status of the shipment, it may make sense to review your matter with an experienced transportation lawyer for advice on your next move.
Dated: Sudbury, MA
December 27, 2022
Andresen & Borovick, LLP
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Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776
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 Skakov v. Black Bear Moving and Storage, No. 21-cv-11412 Memorandum and Order, slip op. at 1 (D. Mass., Dec. 9, 2022).
 Rini v. United Van Lines, Inc., 104 F.3d 502, 506 (1st Cir. 1997).
 Rini, 104 F.3d at 504 (quoting Adams Express Co. v. Croninger, 226 U.S. 491, 506 (1913)).
 Skakov, slip op. at 7.
 Skakov, slip op. at 3.