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Maritime Commission Brief Steers New Course in Shipping Lawsuit

In a rare and significant step, the Federal Maritime Commission has filed an amicus brief in federal court that says federal law does not conflict with state law claims brought by the purchasers of international shipping services. By filing the brief, the federal agency has asked the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in New Jersey to partially reverse a federal judge’s dismissal of multidistrict litigation claims brought by plaintiffs represented by Burns Charest and other firms. Those plaintiffs allege that a number of international shipping companies have conspired to stifle competition and inflate prices for transporting vehicles.

In its brief the commission said while federal shipping law preempts the plaintiffs’ federal antitrust claims, nothing in the law as written protects shippers that have not submitted their shipping agreements for federal review from their state antitrust claims.

“Under Congress’ scheme, ocean carriers that covertly violate the antitrust laws can be thrown into the briny deep. This scheme is not frustrated by the possibility that sharks also swim in those waters,” the brief said.

The FMC filing affirms its position that federal law makes the agency the sole authority over complaints arising from shipping agreements filed with and approved by the FMC. However, some of the agreements at issue in the case were not filed with the FMC, and therefore are subject to state antitrust claims, the commission said.

“The FMC’s view, which the United States shares, is that damages claims under state antitrust law challenging unfiled price-fixing agreements between carriers would not contravene the purposes of the Shipping Act, negatively affect the FMC’s enforcement of the Shipping Act, or otherwise frustrate its administration of that act,” the FMC said.

The case is In re: Vehicle Carrier Services Antitrust Litigation, case number 15-3353, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.