In early July, numerous jewelry companies exhibited their bling at an event in San Mateo, California. After the event ended, they needed to get their jewelry to Los Angeles for display at the International Gem and Jewelry Show happening there. Several of these jewelers contracted with Brink’s to transport the valuables, using one of their ubiquitous armored cars, which would be operated by two armed guards.

Well, things did not go smoothly. As the story goes, the guards stopped in Lebec, a truck-stop town 75 miles north of LA, so that the driver could use the restroom and get something to eat. While so engaged, the other guard slept in the cab’s bunk area. When the driver returned—having left the truck unattended for a mere 27 minutes—he noticed the red seal on the back of the truck was removed, and the lock had been cut. Twenty-two bags of jewelry were gone.

How much was the purloined jewelry worth? Well, that’s actually the subject of dueling lawsuits recently filed over the heist. The jewelers contend that the goods were worth a staggering $100 million. If true, that would make the theft one of the biggest in modern history. Brink’s, on the other hand, claims a value below $10 million. So why the discrepancy? An examination of the parties’ respective lawsuits explains it.

On August 4, Brink’s sued the jewelers in New York federal court, seeking “declaratory relief”—i.e., a declaration from the court settling the rights and obligations of the parties. In its complaint, Brink’s alleges that the jewelers each were a party to a Brink’s Global Services Valuable Transport Contract, which governs the parties’ relationship. An agent from each jeweler also signed a “Pickup Manifest,” which bound them to the terms of the Contract and in which they specified the value of the jewelry to be transported, called the “Declared Value.” As Brink’s’ complaint alleges:

Brink’s has good reason to believe that the Defendants, many of whom shipped the missing 22 bags, substantially under-declared the value of their shipments on the Pickup Manifest. The Pickup Manifests for the missing shipments declare a total value of $8,700,000. Local media reported that the value of the missing shipments exceeds $100,000,000. Brink’s has reason to believe that the local media reports are based on statements by some or all of the Defendants.

Well, too bad, according to Brink’s: Under the Contract, Brink’s’ liability for lost items is capped at the value specified by the shipper:

In the event that any of the Property included in the Shipment is lost during the period in which Brink’s is responsible, Brink’s will pay to You the actual monetary value of the Property which is lost, up to the Declared Value.

On top of that, the Contract provides also that if the shipper substantially undervalues the shipment in its statement to Brink’s, the company’s liability is capped at a paltry $500!

But why would a shipper intentionally undervalue the worth of their shipment? Turning to the jewelers’ lawsuit against Brink’s, filed in Los Angeles state court, they allege that Brink’s’ own personnel advised plaintiffs to undervalue the shipments on the Pickup Manifest, in order to reduce the shipping charges:

…Brinks personnel … attended the San Mateo Gem and Jewelry show and were cognizant of the true value of property they sought to have Plaintiffs place in Brinks’ custody for secure transport. [They] advised multiple Plaintiffs to understate their value on the Pickup Manifests in order to save money, because the cost of shipping would be too expensive if they declared the full value of their goods [and] did not warn Plaintiffs that understating the value would preclude them from recovery or limit the amount of their recovery in the event of loss …. By advising and encouraging Plaintiffs to understate the value their property on the Pickup Manifests with no explanation of the likely consequences, Brinks itself duped plaintiffs into invoking purported contractual limits without disclosing those limits or their applicability.

As such, in the plaintiffs’ view, Brink’s’ conduct here bars them from asserting the defense of the Contract to limit its liability. Will be interesting to see how it all plays out.