BIFA warns of risks of containers abandoned overseas

The British International Freight Association (BIFA)has warned its members about the cost of containers abandoned overseas, for which they may be liable. It has advised them on how to implement safeguards to prevent such a situation occurring.

BIFA said that one of the most frequent questions it received regarding problems on maritime shipments was about abandoned and unclaimed containers sitting in overseas ports. The association said that often its member company had closed the file with the goods shipped and the carriage paid. It was therefore unpleasantly surprised to receive a demand for storage and quay charges from the shipping line.

Often, said BIFA, the member states that it was “only an agent”, or that its name “is not on the bill of lading”. BIFA reminded members that, while in general terms anyone who undertakes a task for another could be called an agent, in law it was not what you say you are, but what you do, that defines the role you perform.

BIFA Director General, Robert Keen said that “although some BIFA members may act as an agent from time to time, the majority of transactions that occur are where a freight forwarder buys space from a shipping line or airline at one price and sells from its own tariff. In this scenario, the freight forwarder is a principal. If there is a problem later, for example, if the goods are not collected at the destination, then the shipping line will look to the freight forwarder for quay rent, etc, as the party it contracted with.”

Keen also noted another frequent scenario, where would be sitting overseas with both the shipper and consignee uncontactable. He said that the forwarder could not simply abandon the cargo. “The shipping line will sometimes take a lien if the commodity is something that can be sold-on easily, but many commodities need specialist handling and the shipping line will look to the contracting party, the forwarder, for payment of such charges. It is impossible to safeguard against getting into this sort of situation if the shipping file has been closed and the consignee does not take delivery at destination.”

Under BIFA’s Standard Trading Conditions, the customer indemnifies the forwarder and is liable for such costs. “However, if the customer has ceased trading, or simply disappeared without trace, the forwarder may still find itself liable for the unpaid charges”, said Keen, adding that “most of the enquiries that we have received on this matter involve scrap materials, personal effects and charity goods, all of which tend to be low value. In regards to scrap materials, members should note that countries such as China are tightening up regulations, which may lead to an increased amount of such commodities being abandoned.”