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Don’t get burned by field heat this summer

The Problem: Warm product allegedly loaded at shipping point.

The Key Point: Carriers should not drive away with loads that cannot be cooled to the instructed temperature range.

 The Solution: Address temperature issues at shipping point.

QUESTION: We are a carrier based in the Southeast. Recently we had a claim placed against us as a result of a shipment of mixed greens that ran warm for the first 36 hours of the trip.

We were instructed to haul the load at 35 degrees (Fahrenheit), but these greens (kale, collard greens, and curly mustard) were loaded straight from the field and the shipper took five hours to load the truck. As a result, air temperatures in the trailer ran warm. We are certain our reefer unit was functioning properly throughout the trip and that the warm temperatures were simply a natural consequence of the doors being open during loading and field heat coming off the greens. We feel we did nothing wrong and consequently we have denied this claim. Please review and advise.

ANSWER: We understand your resistance to this claim, but ultimately we cannot support your position. You explain that the temperature variance during the first 36 hours of the trip resulted, in part, from the doors being open for an extended period (five hours) while the product was being loaded. We note, however, that the temperature tape suggests air temperatures within the trailer dropped from approximately 55 degrees when the recorder was first started to 41 degrees about four hours into the trip. Air temperatures within the trailer then rose to 45 degrees at about the 18-hour mark. Especially given the initial cooling of the trailer to 41 degrees, we do not think the 45 degree temperatures 18 hours into the trip can be blamed on the doors being open for an extended time during loading.

Rather, we suspect the warm temperatures resulted from field heat and respiration coming from the product itself, which appears to have exceeded the capacity of your reefer unit (though other factors such as the loading pattern, ambient heat, and trailer insulation could have been factors as well). Unfortunately, however, neither the driver nor your dispatcher documented a communication with the shipper explaining that the product was warm and that, therefore, strict air temperature maintenance for this shipment could not be guaranteed.

Our Trading and Transportation Guidelines provide that when a carrier signs for a load without such a disclaimer, it implicitly warrants that it will be able to protect the cargo in its possession by maintaining the instructed air temperatures in transit. Specifically it states:

If temperature control is required, the temperature within the trailer must be maintained at the agreed-upon temperature. Carriers should consider all factors that may affect transit temperatures (e.g., field heat and BTUs coming from the commodity, ambient air temperatures, air flow within the trailer, insulation, and capacity of the temperature control system) before signing for the load. Ideally, drivers should take multiple random pulp temperature readings throughout the load. If the Carrier cannot warrant that air temperatures in transit will be maintained as instructed throughout the trip, either the load should not be taken, or a specific release from liability should be negotiated.

In other words, carriers should not drive away with loads that cannot be cooled to the instructed temperature range. If the carrier perceives a problem at shipping point, the issue needs to be addressed then and there to avoid high-risk loads. Unfortunately, it appears your driver took an unnecessary risk in this instance. Going forward, we would recommend that you:

  1. Insist upon the right to pulp all produce loads at the time the shipment is booked;
  2. Insist your drivers follow through and pulp the product at shipping point, especially those with high rates of respiration such as asparagus, strawberries, and corn; and
  3. In the event the instructed transit temperatures cannot be guaranteed, negotiate an acceptable temperature range with all interested parties.

With the benefit of hindsight, you could have insisted that all interested parties acknowledge, in writing, the warm pulp temperature of the product and agree to a reefer setting of 35 degrees with air temperatures generally between 35 to 45 degrees. Alternatively, you could have refused to take any warm product which you did not believe you could safely transport. Better to drive a hard bargain at the outset, than be on the receiving end of an avoidable claim later on.

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Your questions? Yes, send them in.  Legal answers? No, industry knowledgeable answers. If you have questions or would like further information, email tradingassist@bluebookservices.com.

Doug Nelson is Vice President of Trading Assistance for Blue Book Services Inc.