TT Talk - How thin is your protection?

Our friend Peter Zambito from the New York law firm of Dougherty, Ryan, Giuffra, Zambito & Hession points out that judges in US courts, as well as their counterparts in other countries, take considerable exception to clauses on bills of lading or other transport documents that are extremely difficult to read. The courts will ask whether the customer had a "fair opportunity" to read and review the conditions. If the "small print" really is so small that it is illegible, the courts will in general not allow the carrier to rely on the terms. However, the test of "difficulty to read" goes beyond the question of illegibly small print. Even if the print is large enough, if it does not stand out against the colour of the paper, the judges may rule that it was unreasonable for the customer to have to strain his eyesight by trying to read the lengthy terms and conditions. Peter also notes that where bills of lading are printed on very thin paper, the details that have been typed on the front (shipper, consignee, cargo etc) are often visible on the reverse, making parts of the conditions effectively illegible.

Being, of necessity, drafted in legal language (and generally in English) conditions are difficult enough for the layman to understand; the courts believe that his task should not be made more difficult by poor printing. There is therefore a risk that bill of lading conditions, however carefully and expensively crafted by teams of lawyers, may be negated by the simple matter of printing technology and ultra-thin paper.

We urge you to look at your bill of lading document and give it a subjective appraisal: are the conditions on the reverse really easily legible? One test is to make a photocopy of the conditions: if you cannot get a decent copy it is certainly time to think about reprinting. A second test is to do some "consumer checks" in your own office: ask colleagues (with varying degrees of eyesight) to give you their opinion on legibility. If the conditions cannot easily be read, there is a fair chance that they will not stand up in court!

As noted, many of the problems arise with ultra-thin paper. While there was a clear reason for this grade of paper in the days when six or more copies of the bill had to be bashed out on a manual typewriter, using interleaved carbon paper and all the dexterity of a steam hammer, there is much less need for it now in an age of computer printing. Do you still need to use very lightweight paper? Or could you upgrade to something heavier at very little expense?

Staff Author

TT Club