What is a Master Bill of Lading?

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  • Written By: Pablo Garcia
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 January 2020
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A master bill of lading is used by shipping company “carriers” to summarize the different quantities of freight that is being sent in a particular shipment, by either vessel or other means of transport. It is also used to acknowledge the receipt of the shipment of goods. Originally, bills of lading served only as an invoice that the shipment of goods had been received. They later developed into commercial contracts between the shipper and the carrier.

Historically, owners of goods were often themselves the carrier of the goods. They traveled with their cargo and delivered it directly to the buyer. Initially, bills of lading served only as an invoice of the shipment to the buyer.

With the emergence of independent “common carriers,” owners of goods began to contract with a carrier to ensure the proper transport of their goods. Master bills of lading became contracts, documents signed by the carrier stating the goods had been shipped in a specified manner. They also contained contractual terms regarding which party was liable for the goods under specific circumstances. The term bill of lading derived from the combination of words “bill,” in the sense of a bill for transporting goods, and lade, the verb meaning “to load,” specifically, a cargo for shipping. Bills of lading were issued by the carrier of the goods, for example the ship’s “master.”


The master bill of lading contains the name and address of the “consignor,” the shipper of the goods, and the name and address of the “consignee,” the person to whom the goods are to be delivered. The master bill of lading also contains all the bill of lading numbers assigned to the various items within the shipment. The information also includes descriptions of the various items and sometimes their condition. It will also contain the terms for transporting the goods.

The master bill of lading is contract of carriage between the consignor and the carrier. It also serves a receipt that the goods being transported are those stated in the contract and are in good condition. It is considered a document of transfer to the consignee at the point of destination. In modern carriage, many bills of lading are “through” bills, which can involve a combination of land, air, and sea transport.

A master bill of lading does not confer or transfer any form of legal title in the goods to the carrier or consignee. It only indicates who has the right to possess the goods, typically the consignee, once they are delivered. Legal issues that arise during transport are typically between the consignor and the carrier.


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What is the difference between a bill of lading and a master bill of lading?

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