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Ellish v. Airport Parking Company of America, Inc

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Ellish (Plaintiff) parked her car in an airport parking lot operated by Airport Parking Company of America, Inc. (Defendant). When she returned from her trip, her car was gone. Plaintiff sued to recover for the loss of her vehicle.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Parking lots that dispense tickets through a machine and require the owner to park the car and take her keys create only a license to use space within the lot, not a bailment for the vehicle. The owner of the parking lot is not liable for loss.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff parked her car in a parking lot at Kennedy International Airport operated by Defendant. Plaintiff drove into the lot, received a ticket from an automated machine, parked her car herself, locked it, and took the keys. The ticket stated that the car owner was contracting for a license to park the car and that the parking lot owner was not responsible for theft. Four days later, Plaintiff returned to the lot to discover that her car had disappeared. Plaintiff sued, claiming that Defendant was responsible for the loss of her vehicle. The trial court found for Plaintiff, holding that the transaction was a bailment. The appellate court reversed and dismissed the complaint, holding that no bailment was created. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue.

    When parking lots use automatic vending machines to dispense tickets and admit vehicles and the owner of the car is required to park the car and carry the keys with her, does the transaction create only a license, protecting the owner of the parking lot from liability for loss of the vehicle?

    Held.

    (Hopkins, J.) Yes. Parking lots that dispense tickets through a machine and require the owner to park the car and take her keys create only a license to use space within the lot, not a bailment for the vehicle. The owner of the parking lot is not liable for loss. Through the procedures put in place, Plaintiff retained as much control over her vehicle as possible. She locked the car and kept the keys and did not expect or want Defendant to move the vehicle for her. The ticket clearly stated that it created only a license and that Plaintiff used the lot at her own risk. Without any proof of neglect on Defendant’s part, Defendant is not responsible for Plaintiff’s loss. Affirmed.

    Dissent.

    (Shapiro, J.) Plaintiff was not free to leave with her vehicle until she paid the fee due. Therefore, Defendant did retain some level of control over the vehicle and should be liable in the absence of any explanation for the loss.

    Discussion.

    At common law, when an owner of property placed that property in another’s possession with an agreement that the bailee would deliver the property to the owner upon demand, the bailee had a duty to do so. When the property could not be delivered, negligence on the part of the bailee was presumed unless the bailee could provide an explanation of the loss that overcame the presumption. The court here found that this principle did not apply to the operator of a parking lot at a busy airport where having to explain the disappearance of one of thousands of cars parked there daily would be unreasonable. Plaintiff could not succeed in her suit if Defendant had no duty to explain the loss of the car from the lot.


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