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Parnell v. Rohrer Chevrolet Co.

Decided: June 29, 1967.

JOHN PARNELL, PLAINTIFF - RESPONDENT,
v.
ROHRER CHEVROLET CO., INC., DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, V. GENERAL ACCIDENT FIRE & LIFE ASSURANCE CORP., LTD., THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Conford, Foley and Leonard. The opinion of the court was delivered by Conford, S.j.a.d.

Conford

This action was instituted by the owner of an automobile to recover damages for its being stripped of its most essential parts while in the custody of defendant automobile agency. The latter, which had had possession of the vehicle while repairing it for plaintiff, brought a third-party claim against the third-party defendant insurance company on a liability policy which it deemed to cover it for liability on plaintiff's claim. Judge Rizzi, sitting in the county district court without a jury, found for plaintiff against the automobile agency ("Rohrer," post), and also for the latter against the insurance company ("General Accident," post). Rohrer appeals the determination in favor of plaintiff; General Accident, that in favor of Rohrer on the third party claim.

The statement of evidence certified by the trial court shows the following.

Plaintiff had purchased a 1962 Chevrolet automobile in September 1964 for $1,995. On October 9, 1964 he left it with Rohrer for repairs, and a "valve job" was performed on it at a charge of $134.88. Plaintiff was notified October 14 that the car was ready but he did not call for it because he did not have the funds to pay the bill and Rohrer refused to deliver the car without payment.

Plaintiff did not come to pay for and pick up the vehicle until November 9, 1964. In the meantime, it was kept in a large cyclone-fenced enclosure behind the Rohrer building which was apparently locked at night. When plaintiff called on that date for the car he was told that it had been "stripped." It appeared that a hole had been cut in the fence sometime during the previous three days (including a weekend) and that several cars had been stripped. Removed from plaintiff's automobile were four wheels and tires, the rear axle and rear end, the battery, transmission, carburetor, radiator and manifold distributor valve cover. A stipulated repair bill for labor and parts to rehabilitate the vehicle was $1,662.84. The bill shows that a great many other portions

and parts of the car in addition to the major parts removed were damaged in varying degrees and required repair or replacement. There was evidence that the parts removed had been dragged through the fence hole and carted away by the miscreants.

Further reference to the material facts is reserved for the discussion of the legal issues involved.

I

The action against Rohrer is predicated on its asserted negligence as a bailee in safekeeping plaintiff's car. The degree of care owing by a bailee depends on the nature of the bailment. If, as here found by the trial court, the bailment is one for the mutual benefit of bailor and bailee, the duty is to exercise reasonable care for the safekeeping of the chattel bailed. Rodgers v. Reid Oldsmobile, Inc., 58 N.J. Super. 375, 380 (App. Div. 1959). As to the lesser duty of a gratuitous bailee, see Nelson v. Fruehauf Trailer Co., 20 N.J. Super. 198 (App. Div. 1952), affirmed on other grounds 11 N.J. 413 (1953).

Rohrer contends it was merely a gratuitous bailee at the time of the loss because a reasonable time after completion of the repairs had elapsed without retaking of the car and thereafter the bailment was only for the benefit of the bailor. We disagree. The bailment was still one for mutual benefit since Rohrer had the security interest in the car of a garagekeeper's lien for the amount due it. N.J.S. 2A:44-21. The case of Robinson v. Southern Cotton Oil Co., 108 S.C. 92, 93 S.E. 395 (Sup. Ct. 1917), does not support Rohrer's argument that once a reasonable time for the bailor to pick up the chattel has expired the duty of the bailee changes to that of a gratuitous bailee regardless of any other circumstances. On the special facts of this case Rohrer retained sufficient interest in the property to continue the character of the bailment as one for mutual benefit until the loss. Moreover, lienors in possession are generally under

a duty of reasonable care. Cf. Zanzonico v. Zanzonico, 2 ...


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