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LaPlace v. Briere

    Brief Fact Summary.

    LaPlace (Plaintiff) kept a horse at Briere’s stables. When the horse died while being exercised by the stable’s handler, Bridgwood, Plaintiff sued Briere, Bridgwood, and Pierre Briere Quarter Horse, LLC (Defendants) for breach of a bailment agreement, seeking damages for the loss of the horse.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    1) When chattel is in the sole custody, control, and exclusive possession of an alleged bailee, a bailment is created. The periodic removal and return of the chattel from and to the bailee’s custody by the bailor does not destroy the bailment. 2) When a bailment has been created and the goods subject to that bailment are damaged or not returned, a bailor may recover if he can demonstrate conversion or negligence on behalf of the bailee.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff kept a horse at Briere’s stables. While the stable’s handler, Bridgwood, was exercising the horse, it collapsed and died. Plaintiff sued Defendants for a violation of an alleged bailment. Defendants denied the creation of a bailment, arguing that no bailment existed because Plaintiff and his family had full access to the horse and periodically removed the horse from Defendants’care for various reasons, although the horse was returned on each occasion. The trial court entered summary judgment on behalf of the Defendants and Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue.

    1) Does sole custody, control, and exclusive possession of chattel by an alleged bailee create a bailment even where the chattel is periodically removed from and then returned to the bailee’s control and custody? 2) When a bailment is created and the chattel is damaged or not returned, may the bailor recover for his loss?

    Held.

    (Chambers, J.) 1) Yes. When chattel is in the sole custody, control, and exclusive possession of an alleged bailee, a bailment is created. The periodic removal and return of the chattel from and to the bailee’s custody by the bailor does not destroy the bailment. A bailment may be created by express or implied contract, or by operation of law. When one person delivers personal property to another in trust for a specific purpose, pursuant to an express or implied contract to fulfill that trust, a bailment is created. A bailment requires that the property by returned to the bailor, or be accounted for by the bailee. A bailee has sole custody and control and exclusive possession of the goods. When Plaintiff delivered his horse to Briere’s stable for safekeeping, a bailment arose. The occasional removal of the horse did not destroy the bailment, but rather suspended the bailment agreement until the horse was again returned to the sole custody, control, and exclusive possession of the Defendants. Affirmed as to this issue.

         2) Yes. When a bailment has been created and the goods subject to that bailment are damaged or not returned, a bailor may recover if he can demonstrate conversion or negligence on behalf of the bailee. The common-law tort of conversion occurs when a bailee commits an unauthorized act of control over the bailor’s goods  that is not consistent with the bailor’s rights in the goods. Once the bailor proves delivery of the goods, a demand for the goods, and the bailee’s failure to produce the goods, he has proven a prima facie case of conversion. The burden then shifts to the bailee to produce evidence showing what happened with the goods. Here, Plaintiff established the prima facie case for conversion when he proved he’d left his horse at Briere’s stable and it had not been returned. Defendants then produced evidence showing that the horse suddenly reared up, fell, and died when it was being exercised by Bridgwood. Plaintiff has no further evidence establishing conversion, so Defendants are not liable under a conversion theory.

         Under a negligence theory of recovery, the bailor must show that the goods left in bailment were damaged while in the bailee’s custody. This establishes a prima facie case of negligence, as a bailee has a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safekeeping of the bailor’s property. The bailee may rebut the presumption of negligence with evidence that the bailee exercised due care or that the loss did not result from the bailee’s negligence. In this case, Defendant made out the prima facie case, but Defendants proved that the horse was being exercised in an ordinary manner by an experience handler when it died. No evidence of negligence was presented. Plaintiff fails to establish a basis for recovery under a negligence theory either. Based on the evidence presented, no rational factfinder could determine that Defendants were negligent or converted Plaintiff’s horse. Affirmed.

    Discussion.

    The law creates rebuttable presumptions of conversion and negligence in a bailee because when the property is in the exclusive control of the bailee, the bailee is in the best position to explain the loss or damage. Once the bailee provides a satisfactory explanation, the burden shifts to the bailor to prove conversion or negligence.

     


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