The Carrier Wan Hai has come to the forefront for the wrong reasons. Wan Hai is paying for an investigation into the detention fees it had wrongly charged against 21 containers in Southern California in 2021. Wan Hai has been forced to cough up USD 850,000.00 as a civil penalty as per the agreement with the US Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) Bureau of Enforcement (BOE)

When is A Detention Fee Imposed?

Detention fees surface in cases where the shippers fail to return an empty container within the time limit specified in the ocean freight contract. The carriers can charge the shipper in such a case. But in the case of the Wan Hai penalty, the shipper complained that the carrier was carrying improper assessment, as they knew that the containers could not be returned “knowing and willingly.”

This is the second major penalty two weeks after Hapag Lloyd was charged USD 822,220.00 in April for the same improper assessment. In the Wan Hai penalty, the FMC’s BOE assessed that 21 empty containers were wrongly charged with detention fees when their owners were offered no return locations or when the designated terminals were not accepting the container chassis or appointments were made unavailable for the containers.

The Findings of the Investigation

In an investigation led by the FMC in December, it was found that invoiced amounts for detention ranged from USD 125.00 to USD 1,550.00. It was noticed as a finding that the shipper had made an earnest attempt to return the containers but was refused to be acknowledged and slapped detention fees instantly as the carrier could not provide them terminal space or even schedule a reappointment. The investigation produced proof by the shipper showing screenshots where they asked the carrier to waive the amount as no promised service was provided, and they were refused.

The Wan Hai penalty follows immediately after the Hapag Lloyd case, which happened in mid-2021, where the drayage operator Golden State Logistics tried to return 11 empty containers but could not do so owing to uncontrollable factors. The judge in the Hapag Lloyd case stated, “it was looking into the ruling and will then decide further legal action.” This pushed forward the Wan Hai penalty as a settlement between BOE and the carrier Wan Hai. The carrier has agreed to pay the fine and no longer collect such detention fees from unnamed parties related to the 21 containers. The agreement said that it is not to be construed as an admission by the carrier on the violations in the December investigation and also stipulates that the BOE will take no further action against the carrier.

Ripple Effect of the Penalty

The CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, Matt Schrap commented about the decision as “another chink in the armor for carriers on this issue; the veil has been pulled back.” The volume of complaints has risen since March, as the penalties levied in these cases have helped the offended parties file cases involving what they deem improper assessment of detention and demurrage fees by carriers.

As a part of inviting such complaints, the FMC issued a Dec 28 notice as part of an ongoing investigation regarding excess fees with a shipper advisory group urging the commission to investigate further from carriers to terminal operators. Presently, California’s federal and state legislation is actively involved in tackling the issue.