Changes Made to The Universal Bill of Lading

Written by Neal Willis

iStock_13771084_MEDIUM.jpgThere were some wording changes made to the Universal Bill of Lading by The National Motor Freight Classification® effective August 13, 2016. One of the most notable changes made to the UBOL is the shifting of responsibility of proving carrier negligence to the shipper, as opposed to the carrier having to prove it was not negligent. This is apparently only semantics on the surface; however, carriers could attempt to use this new wording to their advantage.

Generally speaking, at no point in time are shippers afforded an opportunity to observe the carrier’s dock and/or terminal operations to look for instances of negligence. On the contrary, carriers are afforded the opportunity to observe a shipper’s dock operations for each and every shipment. Conceivably, the claimant would need to produce concrete evidence, such as a picture, to verify that a shipment was tendered to the carrier in good condition and to prove carrier negligence. Given the fact that a shipper is generally blind to shipment movement within a carrier’s internal network, it seems that having the shipper/claimant bear responsibility for proof of carrier negligence could be more of a difficult job than having the carrier prove that it was not negligent.

Another cause for concern with the changes made to the wording on the universal bill of lading is the elimination of “reasonable dispatch”. By disposing of the reasonable dispatch timeframe, there’s no longer a standard by which a reasonable timeframe for delivery can be measured, such as the typical carrier published transit times for specific lanes which can give a shipper a reasonable expectation as to what they’re dealing with in terms of a loss. It also further convolutes the timeframe carriers have to find a shipment. The way most shippers see it, the carrier simply has one more excuse to stall on a claim settlement and more leverage to bully a smaller shipper with claim denials.

iStock_18521419_MEDIUM.jpgIn the absence of a shipper-carrier agreement, the Bill of Lading is the legal binding agreement for transportation. As it stands right now, shippers don’t have to use the new UBOL. Using the new BOL is not a requirement. Shippers can use whatever BOL they want and/or agree upon with their carrier(s). Unless and until someone uses the new Universal Bill of Lading, seemingly, they will not be affected by the changes.

The problems will most likely be with the smaller shippers that don’t really have their own BOLs. Large shippers under contract with carriers will most likely not have many, if any, issues at all because they normally have their own contractual agreements and tariff concessions direct with carriers that can include (or exclude) certain changes such as these.

The larger and more alarming issue at hand appears to be the fact that nobody really understands or knows whose authority it is to oversee and regulate these changes that were made by an autonomous body of motor carriers. The Surface & Transportation Board is currently accepting pleadings as to whether or not it even has the authority to investigate the changes.

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