Has your company ever received a bill from an express carrier for a past shipment, claiming that it believes you shipped more packages than were billed? These additional bills have been known to appear as many as two or three years after the original shipment. At least one parcel carrier appears to be engaged in a nationwide project that could cost the parcel shipping industry mega bucks if customers just pay these bills, unaware of their rights to demand justification, more importantly, the legal time limit to submit bills.
The sunsetting of regulatory agencies and the decline of competition due to carrier mergers seem to have caused some parcel express carriers to believe that they are really deregulated and completely free to treat their customers as they wish. But there are laws that still apply to parcel express carriers! For starters, all common carriers are subject to statutes of limitations with regard to their billings for charges.
There are two statutes of limitations that apply to all motor carriers including parcel express carriers. One limits carriers suits to collect freight charges to 18 months from the delivery date. Therefore, if the carrier failed to bill a customer and discovers that omission two years after delivery, it is too late to collect that amount, as its right to collect has expired.
The other statute governs an amount that the carrier seeks to charge in addition to the original bill. Carriers have only 180 days within which to render a bill for additional charges. Some carriers are systematically ignoring these statutes of limitations and are attempting to collect fees well past the legal time limit
When a shipper disputes bills that are rendered within the time limit, Congress has given shippers a special statutory right to refer these billing disputes to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) for a determination as to whether the carriers bills must be paid. The STB is the designated expert agency that will arbitrate a dispute for a filing fee of only $150, considerably less than fees charged by professional arbitration panels. However, a shipper must protest the additional charges to the carrier within 180 days of its receipt of the additional bill in order to refer the matter to the STB.
In addition, some carriers have taken the extraordinary position that if the charges sought are not paid, they will discontinue serving the shipper. In many cases, the carrier has been unable to furnish documentation to substantiate the charges being demanded, but pick-up service has been discontinued nevertheless.
In one pending court case, the shipper was forced to close its doors due to its dependence on this carriers nationwide service not available from other carriers. A federal statute requires common carriers to serve the shipping public on reasonable request. The question is: Will the court find that it is reasonable to discontinue service when a shipper will not pay charges alleged to be due, many of which are either unsubstantiated or time-barred?
Another area in which carriers do not have a free hand in enforcing their own policies is for loss and damage claims. All common carriers in the motor carrier and parcel express industry are subject to the Carmack Amendment and to the claim processing regulations promulgated by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). These regulations are now administered by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Some carriers act as if there were no regulations governing their acknowledgement or disposition of claims. In fact, all claims must be acknowledged within 30 days, disposed of within 120 days or the carrier must at least give a status report every 60 days.
There are other roadblocks carriers can and do throw up to discourage claims. At least one parcel carrier insists that the shipper must file the claim, even when the sale was made on an FOB Origin basis where the risk of loss was on the buyer. In cases like this, the buyer should be the party that must file the claim.
One carrier also sells a shippers interest insurance policy for values that are over $100 per package, but then administers the claims in house, using common carrier defenses in lieu of the terms of the cargo insurance coverage that the shipper purchased.
The shipping community apparently has been so brainwashed about deregulation and the sunsetting of the Interstate Commerce Commission that no one seems to know that the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Surface Transportation Board continue to have jurisdiction over the motor carrier and parcel express industries. Granted, their powers have been greatly diminished, but Congress wisely retained some control over carriers.
In addition, these carriers are subject to the federal laws prohibiting deceptive, fraudulent practices, monopolies in restraint of trade and limits on foreign control and ownership of US corporations engaged in transportation. The recent waive of acquisitions of parcel mailing stores, parcel insurance companies, motor carriers and foreign freight forwarders by the major express carriers may spell trouble for parcel shippers in the future. Consolidations of carriers into a few national networks such as those that have occurred in the railroad and airline industries are not in the shipping or travelling communitys best interest. Remember the disruption in distribution systems caused by the Union Pacific Railroads meltdown, the first UPS nationwide strike by the Teamsters, the United Airline pilots strike, etc.?
A greater concentration of carriers and related businesses in the parcel express industry will likely result in more dictatorial policies and practices from parcel carriers. There will be less reason for them to maintain a shipper friendly environment, particularly in the new belt-tightening atmosphere, due to the slow-down in the economy. Shippers can expect more unreasonable claim denials, less discounting, higher rates despite growing profits, higher accessorial charges, tougher negotiations and more restrictions on the refunding of charges under money-back guarantee programs. Given the political clout of these carriers and the apathy of the shipping public, there does not appear to be any relief on the horizon unless shippers become more educated in the remaining laws governing motor and express carriers and assert their rights, either before the DOT or STB or in the federal courts.
If and when the parcel shipping community becomes sufficiently incensed at the monopolistic environment in which it must ship, Congress may be convinced that it must intervene and enact legislation similar to that used to retain governmental oversight of the household goods moving industry. There is justification for treating parcel express carriers in the same manner as household goods carriers; many of the users of household movers are unsophisticated transportation consumers who are easily taken advantage of by sophisticated carriers.
With the tremendous growth of the parcel industry, particularly with the advent of e-commerce, there are similarly many unsophisticated shippers new to the business. The reason for Congress retention of statutory and regulatory controls over household goods carriers by the ICC, and now the DOT, was the thousands of consumer complaints received about household goods carriers treatment of their customers. Will they start receiving similar complaints from parcel shippers?
One wonders how many complaints would be received by the DOT if a special complaint telephone number or e-mail address were to be created for parcel express complaints. Until such a hotline is established, this writer would welcome such complaints in the interest of determining the extent of these objectionable practices.