Blog August 4, 2015

50 shades of grey area: legal and contractual concerns over container weight verification

By Nicola Byers

There’s now less than a year to go before the new amendments to the IMO convention on the Safety of Lives at Sea (SOLAS) are enacted that mandate container weight verification prior to ocean carriage.

In order to comply with the new changes to SOLAS, effective on July 1, 2016, shippers must verify the gross mass of a container using one of two methods: weighing the entire loaded container using calibrated and certified equipment or using the “calculated weight” method. The latter involves weighing the individual packages, plus dunnage and other such items and adding this total to the tare weight of the empty container. A certificate of weight will need to be provided.

As Intermodal Eye highlighted in an earlier blog, many questions remain over how exactly the new rules will be executed and enforced. Who will be in charge of weight verification at terminal sites? At what point in the supply chain will it be performed?

More concerning, however, are the legal, contractual and commercial implications of the new rules, which could see forwarders, logistics service providers and non-vessel-operating carriers assume responsibility for container weight verification. The new IMO legislation means that the wording of container documentation and contracts needs to be crystal clear.

Who is the shipper?

The shipper must verify the gross mass of a container – but who is the shipper? Technically, the shipper is the seller or exporter of the cargo, or else another party involved in contracting, packing or transporting the cargo – pretty confusing.

For the purposes of container weight verification, the shipper is the party named on the ocean carrier’s bill of lading, which could be a freight forwarder, logistics operator or non-vessel-operating carrier (NVOC). This passes the responsibility – and liability – for container verification along the supply chain and into a grey area. Those exporting cargo will have to rely on their logistics partners to provide adequate and compliant container weight verification (and will have to face the consequences if they cannot).

Furthermore, intermediaries in the supply chain – whether carriers, forwarders or terminals – need “to consider their potential exposure and whether they are the ‘shipper’ or just the ‘booking party’ in future transactions”, Matthew Gore, senior associate at law firm Holman Fenwick Willan, observed in a recent LinkedIn post.

In much the same way, these parties must also make sure they are not liable for the associated costs of container weight verification.

Who is the carrier?

After verifying the weight of a container, the shipper must then ‘communicate’ it to the carrier in advance of the vessel’s stow plan. The shipper must also indicate by which method the weight was verified.

But who is the carrier? There may be a number of carriers involved in joint service arrangements – which one has responsibility for passing on the container weight information to the ocean carrier or terminal? Terminals are mentioned in the new regulation as recipients of information for ship stow planning. The regulation states that the terminal shares responsibility to ensure that containers are not loaded onboard a ship unless their gross mass has been verified.

Finally, assuming that the relevant carrier is in a position to communicate this information to the ocean carrier or terminal, how can it be ensured that the information arrives before it is too late (i.e. before the ship’s stow is planned)? Advance cargo information requirements could help in this matter, but it still remains a grey area. Shippers and carriers across the supply chain still have work to do to ensure that their exposure to responsibility is covered before July 1, 2016 rolls around.