Is it time to cut up your rubber stamps?
It is time for ship agents to examine the rubber stamps they use when signing bills of lading and consider destroying some of them. Ship agents are sometimes sued in addition to (or instead of) their principal, the contracting carrier, for loss or damage to cargo. The reasons for this vary. They include plain ignorance of the law by the cargo interests and an unhelpful local statute which makes the ship agent jointly and severally liable with the carrier. A third reason is preventable. Agents sometimes put their own head in the noose by using a rubber stamp which either does not identify or mention the principal, or is set out in such a way that it is not clear which company (agent or principal) is the contracting carrier. An example was:
UNLUCKY & CO
This rubber stamp was placed on a blank liner bill of lading, which contained no reference to the carrier. Unlucky & Co were the agents to the shipowner, and should have signed the bill of lading on behalf of the shipowner (or the master). Instead John Smith, on behalf of Unlucky & Co, has signed the bill of lading in a way that can be interpreted to imply that John Smith is the agent for Unlucky & Co and Unlucky & Co are the contracting carrier. Unlucky & Co, an Indian ship agent have been the subject of legal action in France since 1997 for damage to industrial plant and machinery shipped from Mumbai to Thailand. They were involved for no other reason than the rubber stamp they used. In another case, an agent in Singapore signed an NVOC bill of lading which had already been printed with the name of the NVOC, so there should not have been a problem in establishing the identity of the contracting carrier. However, the agent managed to place his rubber stamp in exactly the right position to give the impression that the NVOC was the agent and the agent was the carrier:
UNTRUSTWORTHY NVOCC CO LTD
AS AGENT FOR CARRIER
UNLUCKY & CO
This rubber stamp has resulted in a Singapore ship agent being sued in the US courts for delivery of cargo worth US$350,000 by the NVOCC or his agent without taking the original bills of lading in exchange. Both these cases have one thing in common. They involve large, well known and reputable ship agents who have been in business for many years, and carriers who have disappeared. The cargo claimants and their lawyers are probably well aware of the fact that Unlucky & Co acted as agents, but the agents’ own rubber stamps have enabled them to look for satisfaction of their claims from a party who is able to pay them, rather than the bankrupt carrier. Look at your rubber stamps, and get the scissors out!