CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) - On a crisp November weekend in 2007, someone helped himself to 2,128 bottles of Grey Goose Vodka that had been left in a trucking company's yard outside Charleston. Now the shipping line that brought the booze from Le Havre, France on behalf of Bacardi USA Distributors is fighting with the local trucking firm over who is going to pay the tab.
In a federal lawsuit, the Mediterranean Shipping Company claims that North Charleston-based Atlantic Trucking Co. must indemnify it.
In its separate federal lawsuit, Atlantic Trucking denies that, and also asks the court to prevent Mediterranean Shipping from diverting future shipments to other trucking firms.
Attorneys for both parties declined to comment on the lawsuits to Courthouse News. But the basis of the case is a matter of public record.
Mediterranean Shipping picked up the sealed cargo container holding the vodka in mid-October 2007, and discharged it at the Wando Welch Marine Terminal at the Port of Charleston on Oct. 24, 2007.
Atlantic Trucking picked up the container a few days later and took it to its depot, a property the shipping line says had no working security cameras, was unfenced along its back perimeter, and was bordered by an empty field.
The container and chassis were last seen at the depot at the close of business on Friday, Nov. 2, 2007, and were discovered missing the following Monday.
The container and truck chassis it sat on were recovered, but the cargo was not and the thieves were never apprehended.
In August, the shipper settled its claim with consignee Bacardi for $160,000. Now it seeks to be made whole by the trucking firm.
But Atlantic Trucking maintains that a subparagraph of its hauling states that in cases where goods have been packed into a seal container on behalf of the merchant, each container will be considered a single unit of cargo. Therefore, its liability in this case is limited to $500.
Atlantic Trucking adds that it fears that future shipments will be diverted to other trucking firms in retaliation for asserting the $500 liability limit.
Stolen cargo is nothing new to port communities, and in Charleston-area transportation firms have been worried that recent losses from container yards in North Charleston could signal the resurgence of an organized theft ring that plagued area logistics businesses six years ago.
North Charleston police are investigating reported thefts of containers from two other trucking and warehousing facilities. Given the early stage of the investigations, police Sgt. John Reynolds said it's too soon to tell whether an organized ring is working again.
"Missing cargo containers are a problem we have every now and then and it does seem to come in waves," Reynolds said. "But we're continuing to monitor the situation. If the activity begins to escalate and the containers being targeted start to contain things like DVD players and other electronics, then we'll start to worry."
Patrick Barber, president of Superior Transportation in Charleston and of the Charleston Motors Carriers Association, said the recent thefts are reminiscent of similar heists after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
No one was ever arrested in those thefts, but several missing containers were recovered, empty, in the Miami area.
Barber said that federal officials said their resources were stretched too thin to investigate the thefts, because of the terrorist attacks.
"Being one of six yards that was victimized over a six- to eight-week period back in late 2001, it was frustrating, but let's face it, the theft of containers is not a violent crime," Barber said. "No evidence is left behind save for a broken lock, and there's nothing left to fingerprint."
Law enforcement officials told him that the thefts appeared to be the work of a crime ring in Miami, Barber said.
Greg Gorno, president of Brownstone, Mich.-based Gorno Transportation, said he's been told the same thing by the FBI, which has indicated "a quite organized theft ring operates out of that area."
Gorno, who operates logistics facilities in Charleston, Savannah, Charlotte and Atlanta, said he's lost six import container loads between Charleston and Savannah in the past five years.
"All the empty containers and some of the freight have been recovered in the Miami area," he said. "The losses amount to almost $1 million in cargo."
Both Sgt. Reynolds and Barber said they think the cargo thefts pulled off by criminals with accomplices inside the supply chain, including people who know what's inside specific containers, and "rogue truckers" who carry them off.
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