We last looked at this topic in the November 2008 issue of PARCEL. As reported there, a Google search using the term “transportation law” yielded over 12,000,000 results. The same search now yields 1,010,000,000 results! Whatever the reasons underlying this dramatic increase, one thing is clear — this is too much information to be helpful.
The starting point for actual useful information is an understanding of what comprises “transportation law.” There are two broad categories. The first is comprised of statutes, regulations, and international treaties.
Statutes are laws passed by either Congress at the federal level or by an individual state. For parcel shippers, the laws passed by Congress governing interstate commerce are the most significant. These statutes directly govern the conduct of transportation providers such as motor carriers and air carriers and also intermediaries such as transportation brokers and air freight forwarders. The rights and obligations of their shipper customers are also affected as these statutes deal with matters such as liability for loss and damage to cargo.
Regulations are rules passed by federal or state administrative agencies which have the responsibility for administering a certain set of laws. For example, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and its predecessor agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), have promulgated a set of rules relating to interstate commerce.
For the parcel shipper, the federal statutes and regulations are more relevant to the relationship between the transportation providers and the shipper. This is because in 1994, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA) which preempted, or took away, the ability of states to regulate a carrier’s “rates, routes, or services.”
Two international treaties apply for international shipments: The Montreal Convention for air and the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA) for ocean.
When one is trying to find “transportation law” to understand or solve a problem, the most important PRINCIPLE is to go to the actual source, i.e., the language of the statute, regulation, or treaty itself.
The second broad category of transportation law is the decisions of courts and administrative agencies. These include the decisions of the U.S. District Courts, U.S. Courts of Appeal, and the United States Supreme Court. With respect to states, these are the decisions of each of the 50 states within their own court systems.
While the text of a statute or regulation is the ultimate source as to what they actually say, the decisions of courts and administrative agencies interpreting the statues and regulations cannot be relied upon to the same extent. This is because court decisions could be wrongly decided, could be overruled by later decisions, or in conflict with what other courts have said to answer the same question.
To sort through this, one needs to know that there is a ranking order of the courts. For instance, within the federal system, decisions of the United States Supreme Court take precedence over a differing decision of a lower federal court, e.g., a Circuit Court of Appeals or a U.S. District Court.
The following government websites will take you to the actual sources:
(1) The United States Code (statutes): http://uscode.house.gov/search/criteria.shtml
(2) The Code of Federal Regulations: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/browse/collectionCfr.action?collectionCode=CFR
(3) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) for laws relating specifically to transportation: https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov
(4) One free website for legal information is that of the Cornell University School of Law Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu. Cornell’s website has a vast number of legal opinions, statutes, regulations and publications.
And finally, I have to add that just because someone writes something and posts it on the internet, with others then reposting it multiple times, doesn’t make it actually so!
All for now!
Brent Wm. Primus, J.D., is the CEO of Primus Law Office, P.A. and the Senior Editor of transportlawtexts, inc. Previous columns, including those of William J. Augello, may be found in the “Content Library” on PARCELindustry.com. Your questions are welcome at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the July/August, 2023 issue of PARCEL.