Carmack Preemption – Brentzel v. Fairfax Transfer& Storage, Inc.

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In a recent unpublished Fourth Circuit decision, Brentzel v. Fairfax Transfer& Storage, Inc., the broad preemptive force of the Carmack Amendment was reiterated and held sufficient to preempt a plaintiff’s state law tort claim. No. 21-1025, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 38522 (4th Cir. Dec. 29, 2021).

Plaintiff Cathy Brentzel appealed the district court’s motion to dismiss arguing that the district court erred in determining that 49 U.S.C. § 14706 – the Carmack Amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act – preempted her state law conversion claim. Brentzel filed suit against Fairfax Transfer and Storage for the alleged loss and theft of household goods – including a ring and $10,000 cash– transported from her Virginia residence to her Washington D.C. main residence, about one-third of which were never delivered. Among other things, the complaint alleged vicarious liability for conversion of the items never delivered. The district court found that the state law claim was preempted by the Carmack Amendment.

On appeal, Brentzel argued that Fairfax’s conduct was “so extreme that they constituted an abandonment of the ‘contract of carriage’ and were criminal in nature” and that such a departure from the standard of care excepted the case from the preclusive effect of the Carmack Amendment. The Fourth Circuit, however, affirmed the district court ruling and noting the Carmack Amendment’s “preemptive force is exceedingly broad” and holding specifically that “state law conversion claims are preempted.”

The Fourth Circuit explained that the Carmack Amendment broadly “embraces all losses resulting from any failure to discharge a carrier’s duty as to any part of the agreed transportation.” As such, its broad language encompassed theft or criminal conduct and the court held that Brentzel failed to point to any exception to preemption based on the type of conduct alleged and rejected Brentzel’s arguments, conforming to similar holdings by other circuits.

This unpublished Fourth Circuit decision serves to affirm the broad application of the federal statute and its preemptive force in relation to state law claims.

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