How Late is Too Late?
By Henry E. Seaton

May 2007
Reprinted from

Q We have a load of bread that was transported 1,200 miles. I would expect this normally would take three days, but in this case it took seven business days. The bill of lading did not specify a particular “delivery by” date, but would this still be considered reasonable dispatch?

A “Reasonable dispatch” is a bill of lading term that sets the legal standard for measuring liability for delay in delivery in the absence of an agreement to the contrary. The standard language on the bill of lading defines reasonable dispatch as:

“Unless arranged or agreed upon, in writing, prior to shipment, carrier is not bound to transport a shipment by a particular schedule or in time for a particular market, but is responsible to transport with reasonable dispatch.”

Under the Carmack Amendment and the bill of lading standard, you are not liable for special or consequential damages if you do not meet a delivery appointment as long as reasonable dispatch is provided. But what defines reasonable dispatch is a somewhat subjective concept that varies by circumstances and mode.

Less-than-truckload carriers have scheduled transit times that afford some standard to measure the zone of reasonableness for LTL general commodity freight. If you are transporting a commodity that you have reason to know has a limited shelf life, the term “reasonable dispatch” should have particular meaning since the shipper may be able to demonstrate loss of value through deterioration as a result of unreasonable delay.

With respect to truckload shipments, in the absence of paying extra for team service or expedited service, it seems reasonable to expect the carrier to provide direct origin-to-destination service without unreasonable delay and in accordance with the hours-of-service requirements issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

I have often complained about rejected produce loads because the consignee claims the carrier’s delay caused it to “miss the market” when the driver could not possibly have made the delivery within the allotted time without violating the hours-of-service safety regulations. To demand such transit times is patently unreasonable, and a carrier is correct in denying a claim caused by alleged delay under such circumstances.

On the other hand, a truckload of bread that takes seven business days to deliver to a destination 1,200 miles from origin does not sound like reasonable dispatch to me unless there is some intervening excuse. The usual and customary length of time for similar shipments is often a criterion for defining reasonable dispatch.

Subject to weather delays, a truckload carrier can be expected to cover an average of 500 miles a day with a single driver operating safely in accordance with DOT regulations. Your three-day estimate of transit time is certainly reasonable. An unforeseen breakdown and repairs might push the zone of what is reasonable into the fourth, or maybe fifth, day.

But even without a delivery appointment, seven days to deliver a load of bread – much less seven business days – seems beyond the pale of reasonable dispatch. Assuming that the bread had a limited shelf life that was compromised, I can understand why the carrier has some explaining to do and cannot simply fall back on a reasonable dispatch defense.

Clearly, a carrier must know the commodities it is transporting. And it is reasonable to expect a carrier to anticipate the damage that could be caused by protracted delay in delivering perishable commodities, time-dated material, etc. It does not seem like the carrier in this case adequately anticipated the risk or the potential consequences of its delay.
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