The Federal Maritime Commission is preparing to investigate more than 175 shipper complaints lodged against ocean carriers under the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022, signed into law earlier this year.
A charge complaint with sufficient information and details will be "promptly" investigated by FMC staff in the Office of Investigations, according to Dec. 1 guidance. Carriers named in the complaint will be contacted by commission staff to respond to the filing and justify the fee being investigated.
Shippers have issued complaints against major ocean carriers over the past few months largely over excess detention and demurrage fees, which are charged when cargo isn’t picked up within a set period of time. Samsung, for example, said in a complaint against Zim that in late 2020 the carrier's "unreasonable practices" forced the technology conglomerate to pay "excessive and unlawful" detention and demurrage charges.
The FMC will investigate complaints using interim procedures as it works on crafting a more permanent process. The burden of proving whether or not fees were justified is on the carriers — shippers will not need to testify or provide additional information beyond an initial complaint.
If an FMC investigation supports findings that carrier charges are not in compliance, the agency will refer the matter to the Commission’s Office of Enforcement. That office will adjudicate the case, and could potentially order carriers to issue refunds or pay additional fees.
Carriers have collected record amounts in demurrage fees during the pandemic, and shippers say charges are often opaque, with little pathway to challenge them. The Ocean Shipping Reform Act requires carriers to provide more details on detention and demurrage charges, in addition to directing the FMC to clarify “reasonable rules and practices” around the fees.
Although several complaints are in process, the FMC has confirmed some settlements. In a complaint filed in March by Achim Importing against Yang Ming, the shipper said the carrier refused to honor its service contract by "pushing" the shipper into the spot market at higher prices. In a letter to the FMC, the parties said they had reached an agreement to settle the dispute.