Welcome back to Ask a Lawyer, where I, a lawyer, respond to your questions. Got a vexing legal issue? Send it over, or drop it in the comments below. Today’s query:
How legitimate are those “management is not responsible for lost or stolen goods” signs? Do they themselves release the management from responsibility, or are they simply informing people of a legally established lack of responsibility? Basically, what are the laws regarding when an institution must or may not claim responsibility for a customer’s possessions? I saw such a reminder on my valet ticket at a hotel recently, and I very much disagree with it: A valet should certainly be held responsible for the state of my car when I entrust it to them, right?
Welcome to law, where everything is more complicated than you might expect. Let’s take this in layers, like an onion, or your aunt’s multi-layer mystery dip that starts looking kind of tasty after a few beers.
Layer 1: Words
We’re going to needs some very special new words: chattels and bailment.
A chattel is a piece of personal property—any tangible thing that is not real estate. A bailment is a special temporary relationship created when you transfer possession of a chattel to another person, like a car with a valet.
Layer 2: Let’s Make Bailments Together
A bailment requires a certain level of care regarding your chattels, and this depends on the state you’re in and who benefits from the bailment. I’d go into more detail here, but even the tl;dr version is tl. For our purposes, let’s say that a valet has a duty of ordinary care for your car. In other words, the valet can’t mess up.
One other important piece: Intent to create a bailment in the first place. Just because you leave some stuff with or near someone doesn’t necessarily create a bailment. There was a bizarre cluster of lawsuits in the late 19th and early 20th centuries where people would go shopping, put down an article of their own clothing, lose the article of clothing, and then sue the store; sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t. Nowadays, in the case of a parking garage (including with a valet), bailments are sometimes created by state statute (I’m looking at you, Georgia’s §44-12-77). Other times, they are implied by common law.
Layer 3: Sticky contracts
So let’s say that in your state, leaving a car with a valet creates a valid bailment with a duty of ordinary care. Can the parking garage use some kind of method to alter that duty? Yes. Recognize this? “This contract limits our liability—please read it.”
Have you ever actually read it, whatever “it” is? No. Nobody ever has, even though the contract was very polite and said “please.” Which is surprising, because you see this language on event tickets, and in bowling alleys, restaurants, parking garages, and pretty much anywhere that is accessible to the public and where something could go anywhere from mildly to horribly wrong.
This may be a Matrix-like moment for you, where now you’ll see legal signs and contracts everywhere. Because these contracts are everywhere. And there’s a name for them: They are a subset of adhesion contracts. And they don’t all deal just with chattels in bailment.
Not to be confused with a very small contract on a Post-It Note, an adhesion contract is a standardized form offered on a “take it or leave it” basis, without an opportunity to negotiate. Adhesion contracts are the tiny ball bearings that keep the wheels of business spinning: those online click-through agreements you never bother to read, airline and hotel terms, your cable-company contract, the little contract on the back of the receipt from Bed, Bath & Beyond for the lint-roller refill you just bought. All of these are adhesion contracts.
Are they generally valid? Yes. Can you imagine a world where buying a lint-roller refill would require you to sit across the desk from a Bed, Bath & Beyond attorney to go over the fine details of the store’s return policy? Trick question: Bed, Bath & Beyond will take anything back. But adhesion contracts do speed up everyday mundane transactions.
They are, however, invalid or inapplicable in a few prominent circumstances. Courts will refuse to uphold adhesion contracts that include unconscionable or unreasonable terms—you can’t have anything too crazy forced on you. They also have to be conspicuous when entered into—some courts have invalidated tiny adhesion contracts on the backs of parking tickets, though others have enforced them.
Layer 4: Your poor car
The answer to your question touches on two things: things in your car and the car itself.
We’re going to travel to New York City for this answer. Let’s say you hand your PT Cruiser over to the valet at your Times Square hotel, rush off to dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, and go see The Lion King—all authentic NYC activities. When you get your car back, a fender is badly gouged, and when you open the trunk, you find that your prized Pokémon Underoos collection has been stolen.
Both on your ticket stub and on a big sign, the hotel disclaims liability for the car and its contents. However, New York law expressly forbids adhesion contracts by garagemen (the old-timey word for garage operators) with respect to their own negligence. In New York, when someone brings a chattel back to its owner from a bailment and the chattel is damaged (or if it’s just missing), it’s generally a presumed case of gross negligence. As for the damaged fender on your retro-libido-machine PT Cruiser, the hotel would likely be liable for the fender damage unless it was able to demonstrate that it was not negligent. If, for example, the car lurched and crashed solely because of a manufacturing defect, the hotel would probably be off the hook. (Note: You’ll also need to figure out how to prove the damage occurred on the hotel’s watch.)
For the missing underpants, assuming you didn’t brag to the valet about your underpants horde in the trunk, they would not be liable—no bailment is created in items in your car that the valet doesn’t know about, so there’s no duty there to begin with.
Results are going to vary state-to-state on bailment, adhesion contracts, laws about garagemen, and so on. Because states are like that. So do a little research before you start gallivanting around, handing your car to questionable valets while your trunk is packed with priceless treasure.
Ask a Lawyer is a practicing lawyer with over 15 years of broad legal experience. He is part of the team at Unwonk Podcast and can be found on Twitter. Keep in mind that this is general information, and not formal legal advice or legal representation; if you need any of that, you should get it from a lawyer in real life, not an internet column. A legal problem is serious and fact-specific, and you should treat it accordingly. But you have common sense and already knew that.
Art by Sam Woolley.