- Understand why who has the risk of loss is important.
- Know how parties may agree on when the risk of loss shifts.
- Know when the risk of loss shifts if there is no breach, and if there is a breach.
- Recognize what “insurable interest” is, why it is important, and how it attaches.
Why Risk of Loss Is Important
“Risk of loss” means who has to pay—who bears the risk—if the goods are lost or destroyed without the fault of either party. It is obvious why this issue is important: Buyer contracts to purchase a new car for $35,000. While the car is in transit to Buyer, it is destroyed in a landslide. Who takes the $35,000 hit?
The CISG, Article 66, provides as follows: “Loss of or damage to the goods after the risk has passed to the buyer does not discharge him from his obligation to pay the price, unless the loss or damage is due to an act or omission of the seller.”
When Risk of Loss Passes
The Parties May Agree
Just as title passes in accordance with the parties’ agreement, so too can the parties fix the risk of loss on one or the other. They may even devise a formula to divide the risk between themselves.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-303.
Common terms by which parties set out their delivery obligations that then affect when title shifts (F.O.B., F.A.S., ex-ship, and so on) were discussed earlier in this chapter. Similarly, parties may use common terms to set out which party has the risk of loss; these situation arise with trial sales. That is, sometimes the seller will permit the buyer to return the goods even though the seller had conformed to the contract. When the goods are intended primarily for the buyer’s use, the transaction is said to be “sale on approval.” When they are intended primarily for resale, the transaction is said to be “sale or return.” When the “buyer” is really only a sales agent for the “seller,” it is a consignment sale.
Sale on Approval
Under a sale-on-approval contract, risk of loss (and title) remains with the seller until the buyer accepts, and the buyer’s trial use of the goods does not in itself constitute acceptance. If the buyer decides to return the goods, the seller bears the risk and expense of return, but a merchant buyer must follow any reasonable instructions from the seller. Very Fast Foods asks Delta for some sample sponges to test on approval; Delta sends a box of one hundred sponges. Very Fast plans to try them for a week, but before that, through no fault of Very Fast, the sponges are destroyed in a fire. Delta bears the loss.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-327(1)(a).
Sale or Return
The buyer might take the goods with the expectation of reselling them—as would a women’s wear shop buy new spring fashions, expecting to sell them. But if the shop doesn’t sell them before summer wear is in vogue, it could arrange with the seller to return them for credit. In contrast to sale-on-approval contracts, sale-or-return contracts have risk of loss (and title too) passing to the buyer, and the buyer bears the risk and expense of returning the goods.
Occasionally the question arises whether the buyer’s other creditors may claim the goods when the sales contract lets the buyer retain some rights to return the goods. The answer seems straightforward: in a sale-on-approval contract, where title remains with the seller until acceptance, the buyer does not own the goods—hence they cannot be seized by his creditors—unless he accepts them, whereas they are the buyer’s goods (subject to his right to return them) in a sale-or-return contract and may be taken by creditors if they are in his possession.
In a consignment situation, the seller is a bailee and an agent for the owner who sells the goods for the owner and takes a commission. Under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), this is considered a sale or return, thus the consignee (at whose place the goods are displayed for sale to customers) is considered a buyer and has the risk of loss and title.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-326(3). The consignee’s creditors can take the goods; that is, unless the parties comply “with an applicable law providing for a consignor’s interest or the like to be evidenced by a sign, or where it is established that the person conducting the business is generally known by his creditors to be substantially engaged in selling the goods of others” (or complies with secured transactions requirements under Article 9, discussed in a later chapter).Uniform Commerical Code, Section 2-326.
The UCC Default Position
If the parties fail to specify how the risk of loss is to be allocated or apportioned, the UCC again supplies the answers. A generally applicable rule, though not explicitly stated, is that risk of loss passes when the seller has completed obligations under the contract. Notice this is not the same as when title passes: title passes when seller has completed delivery obligations under the contract, risk of loss passes when all obligations are completed. (Thus a buyer could get good title to nonconforming goods, which might be better for the buyer than not getting title to them: if the seller goes bankrupt, at least the buyer has something of value.)
Risk of Loss in Absence of a Breach
If the goods are conforming, then risk of loss would indeed pass when delivery obligations are complete, just as with title. And the analysis here would be the same as we looked at in examining shift of title.
A shipment contract. The contract requires Delta to ship the sponges by carrier but does not require it to deliver them to a particular destination. In this situation, risk of loss passes to Very Fast Foods when the goods are delivered to the carrier.
The CISG—pretty much like the UCC—provides as follows (Article 67):
If the contract of sale involves carriage of the goods and the seller is not bound to hand them over at a particular place, the risk passes to the buyer when the goods are handed over to the first carrier for transmission to the buyer in accordance with the contract of sale. If the seller is bound to hand the goods over to a carrier at a particular place, the risk does not pass to the buyer until the goods are handed over to the carrier at that place.
A destination contract. If the destination contract agreement calls for Delta to deliver the sponges by carrier to a particular location, Very Fast Foods assumes the risk of loss only when Delta’s carrier tenders them at the specified place.
The CISG provides for basically the same thing (Article 69): “If the contract is for something other than shipment, the risk passes to the buyer when he takes over the goods or, if he does not do so in due time, from the time when the goods are placed at his disposal and he commits a breach of contract by failing to take delivery.”
Goods not to be moved. If Delta sells sponges that are stored at Central Warehousing to Very Fast Foods, and the sponges are not to be moved, Section 2-509(2) of the UCC sets forth three possibilities for transfer of the risk of loss:
- The buyer receives a negotiable document of title covering the goods. A document of title is negotiable if by its terms goods are to be delivered to the bearer of the document or to the order of a named person.
- The bailee acknowledges the buyer’s right to take possession of the goods. Delta signs the contract for the sale of sponges and calls Central to inform it that a buyer has purchased 144 cartons and to ask it to set aside all cartons on the north wall for that purpose. Central does so, sending notice to Very Fast Foods that the goods are available. Very Fast Foods assumes risk of loss upon receipt of the notice.
- When the seller gives the buyer a nonnegotiable document of title or a written direction to the bailee to deliver the goods and the buyer has had a reasonable time to present the document or direction.
All other cases. In any case that does not fit within the rules just described, the risk of loss passes to the buyer only when the buyer actually receives the goods. Cases that come within this section generally involve a buyer who is taking physical delivery from the seller’s premises. A merchant who sells on those terms can be expected to insure his interest in any goods that remain under his control. The buyer is unlikely to insure goods not in his possession. The Ramos case (Section 18.4.3 "Risk of Loss, Seller a Merchant" in this chapter) demonstrates how this risk-of-loss provision applies when a customer pays for merchandise but never actually receives his purchase because of a mishap.
Risk of Loss Where Breach Occurs
The general rule for risk of loss was set out as this: risk of loss shifts when seller has completed obligations under the contract. We said if the goods are conforming, the only obligation left is delivery, so then risk of loss would shift upon delivery. But if the goods are nonconforming, then the rule would say the risk doesn’t shift. And that’s correct, though it’s subject to one wrinkle having to do with insurance. Let’s examine the two possible circumstances: breach by seller and breach by buyer.
First, suppose the seller breaches the contract by proffering nonconforming goods, and the buyer rejects them—never takes them at all. Then the goods are lost or damaged. Under Section 2-510(1) of the UCC, the loss falls on seller and remains there until seller cures the breach or until buyer accepts despite the breach. Suppose Delta is obligated to deliver a gross of industrial No. 2 sponges; instead it tenders only one hundred cartons or delivers a gross of industrial No. 3 sponges. The risk of loss falls on Delta because Delta has not completed its obligation under the contract and Very Fast Foods doesn’t have possession of the goods. Or suppose Delta has breached the contract by tendering to Very Fast Foods a defective document of title. Delta cures the defect and gives the new document of title to Very Fast Foods, but before it does so the sponges are stolen. Delta is responsible for the loss.
Now suppose that a seller breaches the contract by proffering nonconforming goods and that the buyer, not having discovered the nonconformity, accepts them—the nonconforming goods are in the buyer’s hands. The buyer has a right to revoke acceptance, but before the defective goods are returned to the seller, they are destroyed while in the buyer’s possession. The seller breached, but here’s the wrinkle: the UCC says that the seller bears the loss only to the extent of any deficiency in the buyer’s insurance coverage.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-510(2). Very Fast Foods had taken delivery of the sponges and only a few days later discovered that the sponges did not conform to the contract. Very Fast has the right to revoke and announces its intention to do so. A day later its warehouse burns down and the sponges are destroyed. It then discovers that its insurance was not adequate to cover all the sponges. Who stands the loss? The seller does, again, to the extent of any deficiency in the buyer’s insurance coverage.
Second, what if the buyer breaches the contract? Here’s the scenario: Suppose Very Fast Foods calls two days before the sponges identified to the contract are to be delivered by Delta and says, “Don’t bother; we no longer have a need for them.” Subsequently, while the lawyers are arguing, Delta’s warehouse burns down and the sponges are destroyed. Under the rules, risk of loss does not pass to the buyer until the seller has delivered, which has not occurred in this case. Nevertheless, responsibility for the loss here has passed to Very Fast Foods, to the extent that the seller’s insurance does not cover it. Section 2-510(3) of the UCC permits the seller to treat the risk of loss as resting on the buyer for a “commercially reasonable time” when the buyer repudiates the contract before risk of loss has passed to him. This transfer of the risk can take place only when the goods are identified to the contract. The theory is that if the buyer had taken the goods as per the contract, the goods would not have been in the warehouse and thus would not have been burned up.
Why It Matters
We noted at the start of this chapter that who has title is important for several reasons, one of which is because it affects who has an insurable interest. (You can’t take out insurance in something you have no interest in: if you have no title, you may not have an insurable interest.) And it was noted that the rules on risk of loss are affected by insurance. (The theory is that a businessperson is likely to have insurance, which is a cost of business, and if she has insurance and also has possession of goods—even nonconforming ones—it is reasonable to charge her insurance with loss of the goods; thus she will have cause to take care of them in her possession, else her insurance rates increase.) So in commercial transactions insurance is important, and when goods are lost or destroyed, the frequent argument is between the buyer’s and the seller’s insurance companies, neither of which wants to be responsible. They want to deny that their insured had an insurable interest. Thus it becomes important who has an insurable interest.
Insurable Interest of the Buyer
It is not necessary for the buyer to go all the way to having title in order for him to have an insurable interest. The buyer obtains a “special property and insurable interest in goods by identification of existing goods as goods to which the contract refers.”Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-501(1). We already discussed how “identification” of the goods can occur. The parties can do it by branding, marking, tagging, or segregating them—and they can do it at any time. We also set out the rules for when goods will be considered identified to the contract under the UCC if the parties don’t do it themselves (Section 18.1.2 "Goods Identified to the Contract").
Insurable Interest of the Seller
As long as the seller retains title to or any security interest in the goods, he has an insurable interest.
Other Rights of the Buyer
The buyer’s “special property” interest that arises upon identification of goods gives the buyer rights other than that to insure the goods. For example, under Section 2-502 of the UCC, the buyer who has paid for unshipped goods may take them from a seller who becomes insolvent within ten days after receipt of the whole payment or the first installment payment. Similarly, a buyer who has not yet taken delivery may sue a third party who has in some manner damaged the property.
Knowing who has the risk of loss in a contract for the sale of goods is important for obvious reasons: it is not uncommon for goods to be lost or stolen between the time they leave the seller’s possession and before the buyer gets them. The parties are certainly free to agree on when the risk of loss shifts; if they do not, the UCC says it shifts when the seller has completed obligations under the contract. Thus if there is no breach, the risk of loss shifts upon delivery. If there is a breach, the UCC places the risk of loss on the breaching party, with this caveat: where the nonbreaching party is in control of the goods, the UCC places the risk of loss on that party to the extent of her insurance coverage. So if there is a breach by the seller (delivery of nonconforming goods), the risk of loss never shifts except if the buyer has taken possession of the nonconforming goods; in that case, the buyer does have the risk of loss insofar as her insurance covers the loss. If the buyer breaches by repudiating before the risk of loss passes to him (by the goods’ delivery), the UCC permits the seller to treat the risk of loss as resting on the buyer for a commercially reasonable time as to goods identified to the contract.
Insurable interest becomes important when goods suffer a casualty loss because—among other reasons—often neither the seller’s nor the buyer’s insurance company wants its insured to have an interest in the goods: each side denies it. The seller retains an insurable interest if he has title to or any security interest in the goods, and the buyer obtains an insurable interest by identification of existing goods as goods to which the contract refers. A person has an insurable interest in any property owned or in the person’s possession.
- Which is more important in determining who has the risk of loss, the agreement of the parties or the UCC’s default provisions?
- When does the risk of loss shift to the buyer if the parties have no agreement on the issue?
- Why does the UCC impose the risk of loss to the extent of his insurance on a nonbreaching party if that party has control of the goods?
- Why can a person not take out insurance for goods in which the person has no interest? How does a seller retain an insurable interest? When does the buyer get an insurable interest?