The Law and Practice of Container Shipping

The evolution of container shipping has played a crucial role in transforming international trade and shipping, making it more efficient, cost-effective, and interconnected. Today, container shipping is ubiquitous and efficient. The most recent ULCV, the MSC Irina, has an astonishing capacity of 24,346 TEU. This has been a transformative force in global trade, fostering economic growth, reducing costs, and connecting distant markets in once unimaginable ways. This article aims to provide an overview of container shipment.

What is Container Shipping?

In the context of international trade, people commonly use containers to ship goods for both exporting and importing purposes. Containers are well-suited for multimodal transportation. It is often necessary in international trade. For instance, containers can seamlessly transit between sea transportation (ships) and land transportation (trucks), facilitating efficient and versatile movement across various modes of transportation. There are two units of capacity measurement commonly found in the trade:

1)The twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU)

2)The forty-foot equivalent unit (FEU), based on the standard container sizes of the same length.

A forty-foot container is twice the length of a twenty-foot container. However, a twenty-foot container can still hold up to 21 tons of cargo, while a forty-foot container can hold up to 42 tons of cargo. Twenty-foot containers are designed to carry more weight than voluminous cargo. For example, minerals, metals, machinery, sugar, paper, cement, and steel coils, all of which are heavy cargo. Forty-foot containers are designed to carry voluminous cargo rather than heavy cargo. Furniture, pipes, paper scraps, cotton, and tobacco are all voluminous cargoes.Of course, many other sizes and specialized containers for specific cargoes exist.

Types of Container Packing

There are two main types of container shipping: Full Container Load (FCL) and Less than Container Load (LCL).

FCL shipment was described in the case of The “Axel Maersk”; Atlas Electronics (Mal) Sdn Bhd v MV “Axel Maersk,” Owners & Others Interested [1981] 2 MLJ 315 as follows:

“A CY/CY equates to an FCL/FCL. In this situation the container would belong to or be leased by the carriers. Maersk Line will only send an empty container to the shipper if the shipper stuffs the container without the presence of any Maersk Line representative.We will also give one of the Maersk seals to the shipper. On completion of stuffing the shipper will seal up the container. From the shippers’ premises to the ship is the responsibility of the shipper. From the quay side the container is loaded on to the ship. We ourselves would not know what the contents of the container are or the condition of the contents. We accept what is given by the shipper as the contents. Shipped in apparent good order and condition, this only refers to the container and not to what is inside it.” 

In the case of LCL shipping, the exporter must deliver their cargo to a Container Freight Station (CFS). It will be consolidated with other exporters’ merchandise into a single container. Upon reaching the destination, the shipment will undergo ‘degrouping.’ This process involves separating the container’s contents and distributing the individual parcels to their respective consignees.

Duty of shipper

Although container shipments significantly lower the likelihood of claims, they do not ensure there will be no claims at all. Therefore, it is important to note that claims can still occur if the shipper neglects to inspect the container before loading.

Last year, we handled a case involving a container shipment. In this admiralty case, the plaintiff shipped three batches of goods separately onboard three different vessels on different dates. Upon opening the containers at the plaintiff’s warehouse in Spain. They discovered that the goods were damaged, wet, and infested with insects, with some items even melting..

The judge held on the balance of probabilities that the defendant, as an FCL shipper, had failed to properly prepare and package the goods in the container in a manner suitable to endure the transit from Malaysia to Spain. The court highlighted the responsibility of an FCL shipper to take necessary precautions. When preparing the empty container and packaging of the goods to be loaded. 

The cargoes in the case were loaded in the defendant’s warehouse in containers. Which were then closed and sealed. They were only opened upon arrival at the plaintiff’s premises. There were no intermediate stops where the containers could have been opened. In addition, there are no other mutual factors of the three separate shipments aside from the defendant’s warehouse.


The judgment also referred to the case of LG Bominflot Bunkergesellschaft für Minerable mbh & co KG v Petroplus Marketing AG [2009] EWHC 1088 (Comm), where the court concluded as follows:

“… there is to be implied into a fob contract a term under s 14(2) of the 1979 Act that the goods will be of a satisfactory quality not only when the cargo is delivered onto the vessel. Also for a reasonable time thereafter. Such a term is also implied at common law with the additional dimension that the goods should be of satisfactory quality. For a reasonable time and remain in accordance with the contractual specification (if any) for such a period.” 

Hence, the shipper must ensure the cargo maintains satisfactory quality throughout the shipment.

Carriage of Containers on Deck

Container ships possess space beneath the deck for storing containers, specifically in the cargo hold. The software system managing the vessel’s trim, stability, and ballasting determines the location where a container will be placed on the ship, whether below deck in the cargo hold or secured on deck. Most containers are then stacked and carried on the deck.

The Hague Rules treat containers carried on deck differently because it deviates from the common law duty of carrying goods below deck in the cargo hold. Transporting cargo on deck, usually breakbulk cargo, is considered riskier than below-deck carriage. Although shipping containers are designed to withstand the regular impact of wind and waves when transported on deck.

Some argue that carrying them on deck still poses a greater risk than storing them in the cargo hold below. Containers stacked high on the deck might topple overboard in the event of equipment failure used for securing them to the deck and each other. Additionally, deck cargo is exposed to temperature variations. If the container is a standard steel without thermal insulation, the cargo inside becomes susceptible to temperature fluctuation. Therefore, the shipper should also note that insulation should be done properly to protect the goods from temperature fluctuations.

Packing of cargo

The importance of properly packing cargo should be , considered especially when the container travels by sea. Although containers are thoroughly tested to withstand various stresses, it is not enough to rely solely on this protection.

When the ship moves, so does the container and the cargo inside the container. There are many options to secure the cargo.

Please make sure to adhere to the following guidelines when packing containers:

– Make sure that the weight of the items inside the container does not exceed its maximum weight capacity. As indicated on the container.

– Distribute the weight of the contents evenly inside the container.

– Do not exceed the maximum weight concentration per square foot of the container’s deck.

-It is advisable to avoid placing heavy objects on one particular side or end of the container.

– Place the heaviest items at the bottom of the container for better stability.

– Box, crate, or use a cradle to secure heavy items inside the container.

Therefore, if the shipper packs the container, the contents must be properly blocked and shored otherwise the defect may be an inherent vice of the goods.


This article emphasizes the multifaceted responsibilities of shippers in container shipping. It highlights the importance of meticulous preparation, packaging, and adherence to industry standards to ensure the integrity and quality of goods throughout the shipping process.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Merchant Navy.

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