As an attorney who is heavily involved in the collector car hobby, I often hear of bizarre, tragic and even criminal circumstances that have befallen collectors. Some of these are so strange that one knows they simply couldn’t happen again: The uninsured Ferrari “tree-a-rossa” crushed by a large oak that fell on the barn it lived in one winter falls into this category, as does the MG that was washed away when the tide rolled in during a photo shoot (don’t ask). There are others, though, that are unfortunately commonplace enough that I can expect to hear the same horror story at least 10 times a year. Foremost in this category are cars that are damaged in shipping.
As enthusiasts, we love our cars. Perhaps even in an unhealthy way, as has certainly been suggested by some of our spouses. Unfortunately, the average tow company, flatbed driver or auto shipper probably doesn’t care nearly as much for your vehicle as you do. As a result, damage is often more the rule than the exception. My neighbor bragged to me that he was getting “a great deal” shipping a Jaguar XK-120 across the state, but then cried when it arrived with the top badly stained by dripping oil from the car above it on the transporter. The driver’s attitude was, “It’s a car; cars get dirty, what’s the big deal?” Needless to say my friend didn’t share his opinion. When he called the transportation office to complain, they told him… well, you can guess.
This isn’t usual. The transport company was betting on the fact that it would be too expensive and too much hassle for my neighbor to sue them. For smaller claims, even the vehicle insurers will often decline to pursue the shippers. As we’ve discussed here in the past, it’s often not cost effective in the United States to pursue claims unless they are minor enough to press in small claims court or large enough to warrant full-scale litigation. Certain unscrupulous shippers use this knowledge to their advantage.
Some shippers now ask customers to sign “damage waivers” before shipping their cars. These agreements state that the transporter isn’t responsible for any damage done to the vehicle in transit. In many jurisdictions the agreements may not be binding, either because they are adhesion contracts (contracts not negotiated at arms’ length between the parties, but instead forced on one party) or because they violate statutes governing bailments that state a “bailee for hire” (in this case the shipping company) can’t disclaim liability for damage that occurs due to the negligence of the bailee. Whether or not these waivers are binding is almost beside the point. The fact that a shipper asks you to sign one should be a red flag.
So what should you do? For starters, carefully read all documents provided to you by a transporter before you sign them, and never use a transporter who asks you to sign a damage waiver unless you’re ready, willing and able to repair any damage to your vehicle yourself (no matter what the law says, that isn’t a battle you want to fight). Luckily, that doesn’t mean that transport services aren’t available. There are several reputable carriers specializing in collector and exotic vehicles that have demonstrated time and again that they won’t only take exceptional care of our vehicles but also quickly settle reasonable claims in a fair m ann er.
The recognized leaders in this industry are Intercity Lines, Horseless Carriage, Fed/Ex Custom Critical Passport Auto Transport and Exotic. The bottom line is that this is one of those rare cases where the actual law is irrelevant. If you find yourself needing to turn to it, you’ve already lost. It’s better to simply choose a carrier who specializes in the types of vehicles we love and is prepared to care for them accordingly.
Alex Leventhal is an attorney and car collector living in
New York City . His early practice experience included the representation of new-car dealers and dealer groups engaged in complex transactions, as well as other merger and acquisition business. Alex currently owns a Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer 365 GT4 and a Dino 308 GT4, along with an Aston Martin V-8 Vantage and other European collector cars. He's also director of the Aston Martin Club of North America .