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What are "switch" bills of lading?
“Switch” bills of lading are a second set of bills of lading issued by the carrier (or by the carrier’s agent) in substitution for the bills of lading issued at the time of shipment. The agent who is asked to issue the second set is often at a port other than the load port. The holder of the bills may decide (for one reason or another) that the first set of bills is unsuitable, and the carrier is requested to issue switch bills to satisfy the new requirements of the bill of lading holder. Some of the reasons are:-
When can “switch” bills be issued?
The issuance of a second set of bills of lading is an extremely dangerous practice. The perils of having two sets of bills of lading for the same cargo in circulation are obvious and ship agents must make sure they follow these rules:
A warning to agents
In practice “switch” bills of lading are often issued in addition to, and not against cancellation of, the first set. The reasons for this practice are various; the first set may be held up in the country of shipment, or the ship may arrive at the discharge port in advance of the first set of bills. Another reason is, however, that the party trading the goods wants to improve his cash flow by receiving payment from the final receiver before he pays the shipper. The ship agent may be instructed by his principal to issue a second set of bills of lading without collecting the first set, and may be offered a letter of indemnity by the principal, or by the party who receives the second set of bills. This dangerous practice has all too often resulted in ship agents facing claims from the holders of the first set of bills of lading (eg. the shipper, a bank or a party to whom the bills of lading have been negotiated) with nothing to rely on but a worthless indemnity. A long established or multinational ship agent may make a more worthwhile target for the bill of lading holder than a charterer with no assets or a ship owner who has sold the ship in question.
How should agents protect themselves?
The issuance of this circular has been prompted by a spate of very large claims against ship agents by banks, ship owners and shippers, resulting from the issuance of a second set of bills of lading to trading companies or middlemen without cancellation of the first set, against letters of indemnity from those companies. The trading companies in all cases have become bankrupt after negotiating both sets of bills of lading for cash. The fact that the agents may have acted in good faith pursuant to their principal’s instructions does not provide a defence to claims by third parties who have sustained losses. If Members require any further information, or would like to discuss this matter with the Club, they should contact the Managers, who suggest that the contents of this circular should be brought to the attention of all members of staff who are involved in the issuance of bills of lading.
ITIM Co Limited, Managers
International Transport Intermediaries Club Ltd
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