The US statute entitled: “An Act Relating to Navigation of Vessels, Bills of Lading, and certain obligations, duties and rights in connection with the Carriage of Property”, more commonly known as the “Harter Act” after its sponsor US Representative Michael Daniel Harter, was passed on February 13, 1893. This statute was, and remains, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the United States relating to the carriage of goods at sea. This statute relates to the water-based transportation of property or merchandise “from or between ports of the United States and foreign ports” (Harter, 1893). Under America’s current regime of maritime law, the Harter Act has been partly supplanted by the US Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA) of 1936; especially as it relates to foreign transport of cargo by sea. However, the Harter Act has never been fully superseded, replaced or repealed and still applies to marine transport in the United States in a number of instances. Situations in which COGSA does not apply, or in which the Harter Act preempts it, include “the period before loading and after discharge” (Arzt, 1963) of cargo, domestic transport of goods by sea (i.e. as between ports of the US) except where a bill of lading expressly provides for the application of COGSA (the so-called “coastwise option”), shipments within the same port, water-based transport other than sea transport (i.e. over rivers and lakes, including the great lakes), and carriage of goods by sea in which the bill of lading expressly provides for the application of the Harter Act. The most innovative and controversial aspect of the Harter Act is the provision in section 1 that proscribes the insertion of clauses into ocean bills of lading which relieve the carrier or his interests of liability for loss or damage to cargo arising from negligence in the loading, stowage, care or proper delivery of same; as well as the provisions in section 2 which similarly proscribe the insertion of clauses into ocean bills of lading that attempt to lessen the carrier’s obligation to exercise due diligence to make a vessel seaworthy. It further relieves the carrier from liability for damages arising from errors in navigation or management of an otherwise seaworthy vessel. Many of these provisions were novel at the time the Harter Act was written, and the Act subsequently has had a substantial impact on maritime legislation both inside and outside the US. Nevertheless, much ambiguity surrounds the Harter Act, and the wording and application of the act leaves much to be desired (Chiang, 1972; Sweeney, 1993). The construction of the act by the courts, especially as it relates to private carriers versus common carriers, has also been a matter of debate (Chiang, 1972). This essay will give a brief overview of the history and application of the Harter Act.
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