Whether you’re moving your home or shipping something for your business, there is always the risk that something will be lost or damaged. Here are a few tips to protect yourself when dealing with movers or carriers.
If you’re only going within one state, that state’s laws apply. Both Oregon and Washington require intrastate movers and carriers to register; the registries are located at http://cms.oregon.gov/ODOT/MCT/Pages/MOVERS.aspx#Authorized_Movers for Oregon, http://tinyurl.com/8ccsa3w for household carriers in Washington, and http://tinyurl.com/9o8letw for commercial carriers in Washington. Washington also requires all movers and carriers to register with the federal government. The Better Business Bureau is a good resource for carriers’ reputations, as the industry generates complaints from time to time.
In Oregon, if you’re having household goods moved and something is lost or damaged, you can be compensated depending on the rate of coverage you buy. The base coverage level is 60 cents/pound, which is included in your original quoted fee. There are also two additional levels that you can purchase from the mover: the greater of $1.25/pound or declared depreciated value, or the greater of $3.50/pound or replacement value ($10,000 or more) without depreciation. (Some carriers have been authorized by the state to offer even more levels. Ask what they offer.) You need to ask the mover what a higher level will cost. If they don’t offer the required levels, don’t use that mover and complain to the Oregon Motor Carrier Transportation Division at 503-378-5849. Also, if you don’t get a statement called “General Information for Moving Household Goods in Oregon” at your first meeting with the carrier, don’t use that mover and complain.
Remember that if you want a higher level than the 60 cent base, you need to get it in writing. Look for a “limitation of liability” clause, statement of the value of the shipment, or something similar in your bill of lading or other documents – and remember that sometimes the details will be printed on the back.
You have only three months to file a claim with the mover or carrier. In turn, they have 30 days to acknowledge receipt of the claim and 120 days to respond (unless they send a “we’re still investigating” letter, in which case they have to update their response every 60 days). You have two years from the date of a denial letter to sue.
In Oregon, commercial carriers have the option to opt into a liability scheme similar to the household system, except that customers have nine months to present their claims. In general, the order approving the carrier’s license will set forth what the carrier is entitled to offer. The bill of lading, in turn, will indicate the options available. As a result, this is an area where you may be able to negotiate protection if you want it.
In Washington, there are three levels of coverage available for household goods moved. The base level (“Option One”) is again 60 cents/pound, which is included in your original quoted fee. The second level (“Option Two”) is replacement value of the greater of your stated value or $5/pound with a $300 deductible; under the current regulations, this costs 55 cents to $1.15 per $100 coverage, depending on the carrier. The highest level (“Option Three”) is replacement value without deductible, minimum $5/pound, which costs 66 cents to $1.40 per $100 coverage, depending on the carrier. Options Two and Three are not available in Washington for antiques, fine art, and similarly irreplaceable items, or for collections and similar items that gain value from age or history. You will probably need to buy special insurance for these.
Washington also exempts carriers from liability for several classes of goods:
- Money, checks, letters, deeds, and other valuable papers.
- Gems, jewelry, and precious metals.
- Extraordinarily valuable items.
- Items requiring temperature control.
- Pets and live plants.
- Perishable items.
- Pressboard and particleboard furniture.
For very valuable items, you may want to consider hiring Brinks or a similar service. For pets and similar items, you’ll probably want to carry them yourself. That way, you’ll know someone fed the cat.
There are about ten categories of loss that movers are not liable for in Washington:
- Breakage of goods you pack yourself, unless the carrier is negligent;
- Internal damage to electronics you pack yourself or that do not show external damage;
- Damage from insects, fungus, mold, etc. resulting from a preexisting condition;
- Damage to items in obvious disrepair if noted in the inventory;
- Damage resulting from shipping explosives or dangerous goods (you’re not supposed to use movers for these);
- Defectively designed items (you’re supposed to go after the manufacturer);
- War, terrorism, or similar unrest;
- Government seizure;
- Labor disputes; and
- Acts of God (natural disaster).
If a mover pays full compensation for a damaged item, it may be entitled to keep that item.
If something is lost or damaged, you have nine months to file a claim with the mover. The mover then has 10 days to acknowledge receipt and 90 days to respond. If you need to sue, you have two years from the date of the claim. The Washington Utilities and Transport Commission also has a consumer assistance hotline at 888-333-9882.
Washington has chosen to follow federal law, which is detailed below, for commercial carriers.
Interstate – Federal Law
Household and Commercial
If you’re dealing with an interstate move or shipment, there is a federal registry at http://li-public.fmcsa.dot.gov/LIVIEW/pkg_menu.prc_menu. In addition, if you have complaints, there is a federal hotline at 1-888-368-7238 and an online complaint form at http://nccdb.fmcsa.dot.gov/HomePage.asp. These do not substitute for making a claim directly with the carrier if you suffer a loss that you want covered. You must follow up with the carrier.
Federal law covers all issues involving loss or damage. Basically, if something is lost or damaged, you are generally entitled to recover the loss unless the mover can show you mishandled or misrepresented things, or if there was an unexpected problem, such as a natural disaster. There is not much difference between commercial and household shipments. Be aware, however, that if the goods are going to Alaska, Hawai’I, or somewhere else that will require part of the job to be sent by water, this doesn’t necessarily apply and you’ll need to read the documents carefully to learn your rights.
There is one significant limit to your protection. Again, read the bill of lading for “limitation of liability” clauses. You will usually find a statement that the value or limit of liability is about $25,000, or some value per pound. If the limit is less than the actual value of what you are sending, you are allowed to ask for a higher limit, but you have to ask and you’ll have to pay more. This is similar to postal insurance, which covers $100 automatically and costs more if you want higher value. If you aren’t offered a higher limit, or your request is refused, you probably should call someone else. In theory, you can get the full value, but it’s difficult to convince a court if the documents are written to allow for the change and don’t have the necessary amendments. If the price for full value seems too high, consider shopping for a better deal.
Practical Tips for All Moves and Shipments
Once the deal is agreed, you need to prepare the shipment in a way that will protect you. This means two major steps: packing safely and preparing an accurate manifest.
In packing, your job is to get the goods to the carrier in good condition. If you are doing the actual loading, you will be expected to do it properly. If the carrier is doing the loading, all you need to do is deliver the boxes, and it will be their job to load safely.
The manifest is the actual list of what is being moved or shipped. In Washington, the carrier is required to take an inventory for an in-state move and give it to you, but doing your own for an immediate double-check is always a good idea. Count and label your boxes accurately and log the contents and value of each of them. For anything valuable, you probably should take a picture before loading so that you can prove its condition and value later. A complete copy of the manifest should be given to the mover and attached to the bill of lading, as this is the list you will be checking against at delivery. If it’s not on the list, it will be hard to prove you sent it.
On delivery, take a full inventory and notify the carrier of a loss as soon as possible. Writing any problems on the bill of lading is usually a good idea, as this will help prove the loss. (If you’ve sent a business shipment, your customer will usually notify you of a problem, and you should be able to get their notes to show the carrier.) Most of the time, there is a nine month limit to make a claim; this should be on the carrier’s form whenever possible and include copies of the bill of lading, manifest, and any notes of problems. The time to respond is the same as for Oregon in-state moves and shipments. If they don’t respond, or if they deny the claim, consider seeing a lawyer. If you’ve given everything to the mover in good condition with an accurate manifest, and received it in less than good condition, they usually have to show that you did something wrong, or something unusual that was neither of your fault happened. You have two years from the denial to sue.