The term “geographic deviation” as it relates to shipping ws originally used by marine cargo insurers to describe the wandering of a vessel from its intended route. Cargo underwriters were deemed to have assumed only those risks inherent in a contemplated voyage. If a vessel departed from its planned course, the deviation would deprive the shipper of its cargo insurance.

This coverage problem has been eliminated by modern marine insurance. However, the principles associated with geographic deviation still remain. Today, the shipowner has a duty to direct its vessel on the agreend voyage route without unnecessary deviations. However, departures from the prescribed route are permitted in order to save lives and property.

Unreasonable geographic deviations will invalidate bill of lading contracts and strip ocean carriers of their statutory and contract defenses, such as the $500 package limitation under the Carriage of Goods at Sea Act. The shipowner will be held fully liable for cargo damage causally connected to the deviation.

What do admiralty courts consider when deciding if a geographic deviation has occurred? The recently reported S/S Allison Lykes case (1992 AMC 2089) in the federal Eastern District Court of Louisiana lists three items: the bill of lading; the filed tariff; newspaper advertisements of the ship’s itinerary.

The bill of lading serves as a receipt and document of title for the cargo as well as the contract of carriage. It also sets out the methods and routes of carriage.

The shipping Act of 1984 requires every common carrier by water in the foreign commerce of the United States to file with the Federal Maritime Commission and keep open for public inspection tariffs setting forth all terms and conditions of carriage between all ports on its sailing route, including specimens of its bill of lading. Once the tariff is filed, it binds both the carrier and the shipper for the services specified with the force of law. The departure from the tariff is not permitted.

Advertisements of a ship’s port calls in newspapers such as The Journal of Commerce have long been recognized by admiralty courts as establishing the scope of the contracted voyage. The published itinerary will be deemed the equivalent of public notice to the shipping community at large.

In the S/S Allison Lykes case, the shipowner successfully moved for summary judgment limiting its liability to $500 for cargo damage. The consignee unsuccessfully argued that an unreasonable deviation occurred when its containerized cargo was discharged at Panama. The consignee alleged that it understood that the container would be discharged in Costa Rica.

The face of the bill of lading stated the port of discharge was Balboa, Panama, and the place of delivery by on-carrier was San Jose, Costa Rica. the container was discharged from the S/S Allison Lykes at Balboa and transported by truck to San Jose.

The bill of lading authorized the shipowner to use any mode of transportation and permitted transshipment. The court stated that “it is difficult to imagine what further details of the transportation any bill of lading could have provided.”

The shipowner had filed its tariff and the bill of lading with the FMC as required by law. Furthermore, the advertisement in the Journal of Commerce made it absolutely clear that the vessel was not scheduled to stop at Costa Rica.

“The bill of lading, the tariff filing, and The Journal of Commerce advertisements were in all respects consistent with how Lykes moved the shipment …”
The Allison Lykes case illustrates that admiralty courts will not entertain deviation claims, when the voyage itinerary is set forth in the bill of lading, tariff and newspaper advertisements.