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One Step Up, Ltd. v. J.B. Hunt Transp. Services

November 22, 2006

ONE STEP UP, LTD., PLAINTIFF,
v.
J.B. HUNT TRANSPORATION SERVICES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Naomi Reice Buchwald, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

One Step Up, Ltd. ("plaintiff or "One Step Up"), a New York corporation, brings this action under both federal law and diversity jurisdiction against J.B. Hunt Transportation Services, Inc. ("defendant" or "J.B. Hunt"), a company based in Arkansas. Plaintiff seeks damages arising from defendant's alleged failure to satisfactorily deliver three shipments of women's wear apparel to a Wal-Mart distribution center. Defendant moves for summary judgment against plaintiff; plaintiff, in turn, cross-moves for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, defendant's motion is granted, and plaintiff's cross-motion is denied.

BACKGROUND*fn1

Plaintiff One Step Up is an importer, manufacturer, and distributor of women's wear apparel. Joint Stipulation ("JS") ¶ 1. Defendant J.B. Hunt is a motor carrier, engaged in the provision of trucking and transportation services. Defendant's Rule 56.1 Statement ("Def. 56.1 Stmt.") ¶ 1; Plaintiff's Rule 56.1 Statement ("Pl. 56.1 Stmt.") ¶ 1. At issue in this case are three shipments (the "July", "August" and "September" shipments, or shipments #1-3, respectively) of women's wear apparel, purchased by Wal-Mart from plaintiff, that defendant was retained to deliver to a Wal-Mart distribution center in Sharon Springs, New York. JS ¶¶ 2-3. Wal-Mart hired Transplace, a shipping logistics company, to arrange for the transportation of the loads from Miami to the distribution center; Transplace then hired J.B. Hunt to transport the shipments. Id. at ¶ 3-4. Wal-Mart found shortages in each shipment delivered, and took exception at the time of their delivery. JS ¶ 8. Wal-Mart noted these exceptions on the bills of lading and/or the delivery slips of each of the shipments. Id. Plaintiff One Step Up did not file claims with J.B. Hunt directly for any of the cargo shortages. Instead, Transplace and Wal-Mart filed claims relating to shipping shortages to J.B. Hunt. The claims for shipments #1 and #3 were withdrawn and J.B. Hunt rejected the claim for shipment #2 on the basis of the sealed nature of the cargo. After claims for shipments #1 and #3 were withdrawn by the claimants, and after J.B. Hunt rejected the claim for shipment #2, Wal-Mart adjusted its accounts with plaintiff One Step Up to reflect the losses in cargo. Plaintiff then brought this case to seek compensation from defendant for the losses caused by Wal-Mart's deduction in its accounts resulting from shortages in the shipments. Since the timing of the events related to each of the three shipments is relevant to our discussion, each shall be described in turn.*fn2 A. July Shipment ("Shipment #1")

J.B. Hunt picked up the July shipment, containing 3,521 cartons of apparel goods, on or about July 8, 2003, and delivered them to Wal-Mart on July 15, 2003. Plaintiff's Complaint ("Pl. Compl.") ¶ 5; Declaration of Robert Briere ("Briere Decl.") ¶ 5 & App. D; Affidavit of Victor Abriano ("Abriano Aff.") ¶ 9. According to plaintiffs, on September 23, 2003, Wal-Mart deducted $32,630.40 in connection with plaintiff's invoicing for the July shipment, to reflect the agreed price and invoice value of 618 cartons which were missing from the shipment upon arrival; however, upon plaintiff's protest, Wal-Mart reversed this deduction on November 12, 2003. Fl. Compl. ¶ 6; Abriano Aff. ¶ 10. Wal-Mart, it appears, then attempted to recoup its losses from J.B. Hunt directly. On December 15, 2003, defendant received a notice of a claim filed by Wal-Mart for the July shipment in the amount of $32,683.20; subsequently, on January 21, 2004, defendant received written notice from Wal-Mart, dated January 16, 2004, indicating it was withdrawing its claim against J.B. Hunt with regard to the July shipment. Briere Decl. App. G, Bates No. 2; Deposition of Tracy Kremer ("Dep. Kremer") at 21. On February 2, 2004, J.B. Hunt received written notice of a claim filed by Transplace, dated January 30, 2004, for the July shipment in the amount of $32,683.20. Declaration of Tracy Kremer ("Decl. Kremer") Ex. A. Then, Wal-Mart, for the second and final time, on December 22, 2004, deducted $32,630.40 from its account with One Step Up to reflect the shortages associated with the July shipment. Abriano Aff. ¶ 18, Ex. D. On January 7, 2005, defendant J.B. Hunt received written notice that Transplace's claim relating to the July shipment had been cancelled as well. Decl. Kremer ¶ 5, Ex. B.

B. August Shipment ("Shipment #2")

The August shipment consisted of 2,985 cartons of apparel goods. Pl. Compl. ¶ 6, Abriano Aff. ¶ 10. Defendant J.B. Hunt picked up the August shipment from plaintiff on or about August 26, 2003, and delivered it to Wal-Mart on or about September 5, 2003. Pl. Compl. ¶ 6, Briere Decl. ¶ 6, App. E & G. On February 25, 2004, defendant received notice of a claim for the August shipment filed by Transplace in the amount of $7,397.76. Dep. Kremer at 19, Decl. Briere App. G. Transplace sent to J.B. Hunt a series of letters, dated March 25, April 26, and May 24, 2004, requesting resolution of its claim. Pl. Ex. 12, 13, 15. J.B. Hunt then sent written notification to Transplace on September 21, 2004 denying its claim on the basis of a continuous seal delivery. Pl. Ex. 5; Dep. Kremer at 19; Decl. Briere App. G. On September 30, 2004, the cargo claims manager of Transplace sent the cargo claims manager of J.B. Hunt a letter stating that Transplace could not "accept this denial based on the fact that this was a Driver Count load and the driver signed for 2,985 pieces. Only 2,940 pieces were received." Pl. Ex. 18. Subsequently, on April 12, 2005, Wal-Mart informed One Step Up that it had received 61 cartons fewer than had been picked up by J.B. Hunt)*fn3 Pl. Compl. 9; Abriano Aff. ¶ 19. Wal-Mart then charged back and debited One Step Up's account with Wal-Mart a sum of $4,157.76, reflecting the agreed price and invoice value of the apparel goods which Wal-Mart did not receive in the August shipment. Id. at 20.

C. September Shipment ("Shipment #3")

Defendant picked up the September shipment, which consisted of 2,782 cartons of apparel goods, from plaintiff on or about September 22, 2003, and delivered it to Wal-Mart on or about October 2, 2003.*fn4 Pl. Compl. ¶ 7; Abriano Aff. ¶ 11; Briere Decl. ¶ 6 & App. E. According to plaintiff, on December 15, 2003, Wal-Mart advised One Step Up that it had received 984 cartons fewer than J.B. Hunt had picked up, and as a result it deducted $34,516.80 in connection with plaintiff's invoicing for the September shipment for cargo shortages. However, again upon protest by plaintiff, Wal-Mart reversed the deduction on January 15, 2004. P1. Compl. ¶ 10; Abriano Aff. ¶ 21. On March 9, 2004, J.B. Hunt received notice of a claim filed by Transplace with regard to the September shipment in the amount of $60,220.80. Dep. Kremer at 20; Decl. Briere App. G. Transplace followed its claim with letters dated May 7, June 8, and July 6, 2004, to J.B. Hunt demanding that it resolve the open claim. P1. Ex. 14, 16, 17. The last of these letters, dated July 6, 2004, noted that federal regulations required resolution of claims within 120 days, and that if a claim could not be processed within that stated period, the carrier must write to the claimant every 60 days to advise the claimant of the status of the claim and the reasons in delay. Pl. Ex. 17. Eventually, Wal-Mart deducted $60,220.80 from its account with One Step Up on December 8, 2004 due to the shortages associated with the September shipment. Abriano Aff. ¶ 22. Transplace then notified J.B. Hunt, in a letter dated December 14, 2004, that the claim for the September shipment had been cancelled. Dep. Kremer at 23; Decl. Briere App. G, Bates No. 18.

D. J.B. Hunt's Processing of Claims

Defendant deposed Tracy Kremer, Cargo Claims Manager at J.B. Hunt, with regard to the documentation and the processing of the claims for the shipments at issue here. As a matter of course, for claims filed against J.B. Hunt less than nine months after the date of delivery, a J.B. Hunt claims clerk creates a physical file folder for the claim and enters the claim into a computer, which assigns a claim number. Dep. Kremer at 9-10. Claims filed more than nine months from the date of delivery are not entered into the regular claims system, as the load order number has already been archived from J.B. Hunt's system; instead, they are entered into a separate spreadsheet. Id. at 10-11. Claims are then taken to the claim adjuster, who begins an investigation by pulling all order documents in the J.B. Hunt system relating to the load, and then evaluates the documents to determine if the carrier should pay the claimant or deny the claim. Id. at 11-12. Claims in excess of $5,000, including the three shipments at issue here, are adjusted by Ms. Kremer herself. Id. at 13. On average, claims take between 60 to 90 days from the date the claim is filed until the payment or denial of the claim. Id. If a claim remains open 120 days after it was filed, J.B. Hunt notifies the claimant of the status of the claim, and again every 60 days thereafter. Id. at 15. This notice takes the form of monthly reports, printed every 30 days on the first of each month, detailing each claimant's new claims filed since the previous report, any claims they already had on file, and the status of claims, including those which have been open for more than 120 days. Id. at 15-16. However, J.B. Hunt did not retain a copy of these notices, and thus they did not become part of the claim files.*fn5 Id. at 29. Ms. Kremer noted that she was unaware of any requirement that a copy of these notices be retained. Id. at 30. Plaintiff has submitted letters, mentioned above, from Transplace to J.B. Hunt demanding resolution of the second and third claims. Pl. Ex. 12, 13, 15 (letters regarding shipment #2); P1. Ex. 14, 16, 17 (letters regarding shipment #3). These letters do not indicate whether Transplace had received notification from J.B. Hunt via monthly reports, as Ms. Kremer suggests would have been the case for claims open longer than 120 days; instead, they request that J.B. Hunt resolve the claims expediently. E. The Present Controversy

This complaint was originally filed in the Supreme Court, New York County, on July 19, 2005; it was subsequently removed to this Court on August 10, 2005 pursuant to 28 USC §§ 1441, 1445, on the basis of the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1337, which confers original jurisdiction to this Court over any civil action or proceeding arising under any Act of Congress regulating commerce or protecting trade and commerce against restraints and monopolies, and pursuant to 49 U.S.C. §§ 10101 et seq., which regulates interstate transportation via railways.*fn6 Notice of Removal ¶ 7. Both parties jointly stipulated that the time limitations as set forth in the Uniform Straight Bill of Lading, which specifies that "[c]laims for loss or damage must be filed within nine months after the delivery of the property (or, in the case of export traffic, within nine months after delivery at the port of export), except that claims for failure to make delivery must be filed within nine months after a reasonable time for delivery has elapsed." JS ¶ 7; National Motor Freight Classification Uniform Straight Bill of Lading § 3(b). Defendant moves for summary judgment on the basis that plaintiff did not file written claims against defendant within the nine month limitation, and is thus time barred from pursuing the present action. Plaintiff responds by asserting that defendant failed to respond to the claims filed by Wal-Mart and Transplace in accordance with 49 C.F.R. § 1005.5, and thus is estopped from insisting on plaintiff's compliance with the nine month requirement for filing claims. Plaintiff also cross-moves for summary judgment, asserting that it has established a prima facie case under the Carmack Amendment, codified at 48 U.S.C. §§ 14706 et seq. (governing liability for interstate transportation carriers), and that defendant has failed to show it was not negligent, nor that the damage or loss was due to one of the excepted causes which relieve a carrier from liability.

DISCUSSION

A. Standard for Summary ...


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