Port operations of goods during its permanence in a port are of utmost importance for the correct development of the subsequent maritime transportation. Indeed, this is one of the most dangerous and sensitive phases for the goods throughout which it might suffer considerable damages if the operations are not performed appropriately and by qualified professionals.
Attention is particularly drawn to the fact that there had been a poor regulation of this stage of transportation before the new Spanish Shipping Act came into force in 2014. This law, beside considering the common figures of navigation such as shipowners or shippers, also regulates other figures as harbor pilots and port operators. This last figure will be addressed in this article.
The port operator frequently encompasses diverse nomenclatures (loader, stevedore, etc.) and the fact is that none of them covers in its description all operations that are effectively handled by port operators. In particular, the Spanish Shipping Act in its article 330 regards the operations that are handled by port operators such as: “the operations of loading, unloading, stevedoring activities on board the vessels, as well as those of reception, classification, depositing and storage in docks or harbor warehouses, and those of inter-port transportation”.
Regarding the Port Handling Contract regulation, this has been constituted by very different norms throughout a very extensive timespan. In fact, the first legal text which attempts to regulate the Port Handling Contract at the level of international regulation is the United Nations Convention on the Liability of Operators of Transport Terminals in International Trade. This Convention provides, in a broad sense, the basis which the subsequent regulation would apply to develop legislation in this field of logistics.
At national level, this concept was firstly regulated by the Spanish State Ports and Merchant Marine Act, developed currently under the Title VI – Provision of Services, as well as later in the Spanish Shipping Act, norm that regulates the figure of port operator from the article 329 onwards to the article 338. Articles which we strongly recommend reading.
The mayor problem that might appear is that the law indicates that the Port Operator’s liability is based on the presumption of liability iuris tantum; that is, there is a reversal of the burden of proof and it is assumed that the Port Operator is liable for possible damages to the goods unless the contrary is proved, as long as there is a protest (remark) of the receiver at the moment of delivery. Therefore, the moment of delivery of the goods and the possible remarks that the receipt which proves the delivery may or may not contain, is a good form of demonstrating whether the goods arrived already damaged from the point of departure or that, if damaged, these might have occurred in a previous stage of the transportation or handling and lashing of the goods.
In fact, there are several parties which might request port operator’s liability. The principal one, obviously, is the party contracting the services; but there are other parties, as for instance the consignee of the goods, who might initiate a direct action against the port operator even though he did not contract him.
It is thus evident that port operators will be held liable for damages to cargo and the only exceptions that the norm anticipates are those of force majeure or fortuitous cases, assessing always if all possible means to avert damages or delays have been deployed by the involved professionals. Consequently, in order to be exempt from liability, not only should be there any of the grounds for exception (force majeure or fortuitous case) but the port operator also has to prove that he tried to minimize, by any available means, the damages or delays.
With regard to possible limitations, the Spanish Shipping Act regulates the limitation of liability for port operators in the articles 334 and 335 placing it at 2DEG/kg (Derecho Especial de Giro), 2,45 Euros/kg approximately. We understand that the legislator decides to apply this specific limitation to preserve a certain kind of agreement with the existing international rules related to Maritime Transport. In fact, the norm establishes that port operators should be granted the same exceptions as those provided for in the Hague-Visby Rules for carriers, with nuances developed in the article 334 of the Spanish Shipping Act.
Therefore, when port operators receive the goods, they should check its state and issue a receipt, or a proof of delivery, noting down its state when deposited and indicating whether they observe any damage or not. The problem is, however, that the issuance of such receipts, despite its importance, is not a common praxis since it is the port operator who will have to prove that the goods were already damaged when they were delivered, if that was the case.
The receiver of the goods, on his part, has the obligation to place a claim within 3 and 15 working days, depending on if these damages are visible to the naked eye or not. Once this period is over, the law presumes that the goods were delivered in perfect conditions.
On the other hand, and in relation to the limitation period to institute proceedings against the Port Operator, as in other cases, it is not unlimited in time. The regulation seeks to avoid passivity and lack of interest of the parties, so it restricts the limit of the actions to be taken against port operators to two (2) years. In particular, the Article 337 of the Spanish Shipping Act, initiates the time period of two years in the moment of delivery of the goods by the responsible operator, or in the event of total loss on the scheduled delivery date: “Claims for damages, loss, or delays in delivery of the goods prescribe two years after their delivery by the responsible operator. In the event of total loss, the time limit shall be counted from the date on which the goods should have been delivered”.
An interesting point of the article in comparison to international regulations is that it speaks about limitation period and not about non-interruptible time limit. The non-interruptible time limit cannot be interrupted whereas the limitation period can, providing thus for the possibility to extend the period of two years by means of the relevant interruption.
In short, the figure of Port Operator is susceptible to claims for damages or delays in a transportation phase throughout which the goods might be exposed to high-risk situations. We therefore suggest always paying special attention to the moment of delivery of the goods granting thus an appropriate backing in case the cargo did not arrive in the expected conditions, as well as to the time limits when the damages could have occurred in order to be able to claim or reject claims, depending on who the affected party is.