The claimant (a carrier) entered into a contract with a shipper to transport five containers from Hamburg to Limassol. The claimant commissioned the defendant to pick up and deliver five empty containers to the business premises of Company B. Company B was commissioned by the shipper to pack the containers. Having packed the containers, the defendant was to transport them to Bremerhaven, where they would be loaded on board an ocean-going vessel destined for Limassol.
The defendant delivered the five empty containers to Company B, each placed on a trailer belonging to the defendant. The containers remained on the trailers during the packing, which was performed by Company B. Once packed, the containers were closed and sealed. Due to circumstances outside the defendant's responsibility, one container could not be picked up and transported to Bremerhaven that day and thus remained at Company B's premises overnight. The trailer with the container was stolen during the night. As the container and trailer were later found, it was evident that the container had been emptied. The shipper held the claimant liable for the loss, and the claimant sought recourse from the defendant.
The key question for the Higher Regional Court of Hamburg was whether, under the given circumstances, the goods had been accepted by the defendant for carriage according to Section 425 of the Commercial Code, being the starting point for the defendant's period of responsibly for the goods.
As the intervening party in the proceedings, the shipper argued that the defendant had accepted the goods for carriage on completion of the packing because at that point the goods were in a container made available by the defendant and on a trailer belonging to it.
The court of first instance dismissed the claim. On September 29 2016 the Higher Regional Court of Hamburg upheld this decision.
The Higher Regional Court of Hamburg set out the prerequisites for the carrier's acceptance of goods under Section 425 of the Commercial Code, as established in case law:
"The acceptance of goods for carriage presupposes the intentionally acquired direct or indirect possession of the goods by the carrier in person or through his agents because of a contract of carriage. This criterion is fulfilled, when objectively, the goods are in the carrier's sphere of responsibility in a way which allows him or his agents to protect them from damage and when, subjectively, the shipper intends to surrender the power of disposition over the goods and the carrier intends to accept it."
The Supreme Court has substantiated in this regard that the carrier will normally have accepted the goods for carriage when the shipper has completed the loading operations and the driver has closed the cargo space, or the goods have arrived in the sphere of responsibility of the carrier or its agents in such way that they can protect them from damage.
However, the Higher Regional Court of Hamburg emphasised that this substantiation by the Supreme Court had been made based on the assumption that the carrier would take over the goods from the shipper on its roadworthy means of transport in order to leave the premises of the shipper once loading was completed. The present case was different in a number of relevant aspects:
- The goods had not been packed directly into the transport vehicle, but in a container made available in advance.
- Once packed, the container was not immediately loaded onto a roadworthy vehicle but remained on the trailer where it had been since it was made available for packing.
- No driver employed by the defendant or its agent had been present during the packing operation. Rather, on completion of the packing, the goods were in the sole possession of Company B. The fact that the container had been made available by the defendant did not change this; here, it had not been closed by the defendant or its agents.
- The fact that the container was placed on a trailer belonging to the defendant could not lead to another conclusion under the present circumstances – the container was not placed on the trailer subsequent to packing, but had been there all along.
Looking beyond the substantiation of the Supreme Court as set out above, the defendant could not be said to have otherwise intentionally acquired direct or indirect possession of the goods by the carrier in person or through its agents because of a contract of carriage. Therefore, at the time of the theft, the defendant had not accepted the goods for carriage and could not be held liable for their loss.
The decision clarifies the fact that goods having been packed in a container made available to a shipper by a carrier on a decoupled trailer belonging to the carrier is insufficient grounds for the carrier to have accepted the goods for carriage.
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