A bailment is the relationship established when someone entrusts his property temporarily to someone else without intending to give up title. Although bailment has often been said to arise only through a contract, the modern definition does not require that there be an agreement. One widely quoted definition holds that a bailment is “the rightful possession of goods by one who is not the owner. It is the element of lawful possession, however created, and the duty to account for the thing as the property of another, that creates the bailment, regardless of whether such possession is based upon contract in the ordinary sense or not.”Zuppa v. Hertz, 268 A.2d 364 (N.J. 1970).
The word bailment derives from a Latin verb, bajulare, meaning “to bear a burden,” and then from French, bailler, which means “to deliver” (i.e., into the hands or possession of someone). The one who bails out a boat, filling a bucket and emptying it overboard, is a water-bearer. The one who bails someone out of jail takes on the burden of ensuring that the one sprung appears in court to stand trial; he also takes on the risk of loss of bond money if the jailed party does not appear in court. The one who is a bailee takes on the burden of being responsible to return the goods to their owner.
The law of bailments is important to virtually everyone in modern society: anyone who has ever delivered a car to a parking lot attendant, checked a coat in a restaurant, deposited property in a safe-deposit box, rented tools, or taken items clothes or appliance in to a shop for repair. In commercial transactions, bailment law governs the responsibilities of warehousers and the carriers, such as UPS and FedEx, that are critical links in the movement of goods from manufacturer to the consumer. Bailment law is an admixture of common law (property and tort), state statutory law (in the Uniform Commercial Code; UCC), federal statutory law, and—for international issues—treaty.
Bailments Compared with Sales
Bailment versus Sales
In a sale, the buyer acquires title and must pay for the goods. In a bailment, the bailee acquires possession and must return the identical object. In most cases the distinction is clear, but difficult borderline cases can arise. Consider the sad case of the leased cows: Carpenter v. Griffen (N.Y. 1841). Carpenter leased a farm for five years to Spencer. The lease included thirty cows. At the end of the term, Spencer was to give Carpenter, the owner, “cows of equal age and quality.” Unfortunately, Spencer fell into hard times and had to borrow money from one Griffin. When the time came to pay the debt, Spencer had no money, so Griffin went to court to levy against the cows (i.e., he sought a court order giving him the cows in lieu of the money owed). Needless to say, this threatened transfer of the cows upset Carpenter, who went to court to stop Griffin from taking the cows. The question was whether Spencer was a bailee, in which case the cows would still belong to Carpenter (and Griffin could not levy against them), or a purchaser, in which case Spencer would own the cows and Griffin could levy against them. The court ruled that title had passed to Spencer—the cows were his. Why? The court reasoned that Spencer was not obligated to return the identical cows to Carpenter, hence Spencer was not a bailee.Carpenter v. Spencer & Griffin, 37 Am. Dec. 396 (N.Y. 1841). Section 2-304(1) of the UCC confirms this position, declaring that whenever the price of a sale is payable in goods, each party is a seller of the goods that he is to transfer.
Note the implications that flow from calling this transaction a sale. Creditors of the purchaser can seize the goods. The risk of loss is on the purchaser. The seller cannot recover the goods (to make up for the buyer’s failure to pay him) or sell them to a third party.
Fungible goods (goods that are identical, like grain in a silo) present an especially troublesome problem. In many instances the goods of several owners are mingled, and the identical items are not intended to be returned. For example, the operator of a grain elevator agrees to return an equal quantity of like-quality grain but not the actual kernels deposited there. Following the rule in Carpenter’s cow case, this might seem to be a sale, but it is not. Under the UCC, Section 2-207, the depositors of fungible goods are “tenants in common” of the goods; in other words, the goods are owned by all. This distinction between a sale and a bailment is important. When there is a loss through natural causes—for example, if the grain elevator burns—the depositors must share the loss on a pro rata basis (meaning that no single depositor is entitled to take all his grain out; if 20 percent of the grain was destroyed, then each depositor can take out no more than 80 percent of what he deposited).
Elements of a Bailment
As noted, bailment is defined as “the rightful possession of goods by one who is not the owner.” For the most part, this definition is clear (and note that it does not dictate that a bailment be created by contract). Bailment law applies to the delivery of goods—that is, to the delivery personal property. Personal property is usually defined as anything that can be owned other than real estate. As we have just seen in comparing bailments to sales, the definition implies a duty to return the identical goods when the bailment ends.
But one word in the definition is both critical and troublesome: possession. Possession requires both a physical and a mental element. We examine these in turn.
Possession: Physical Control
In most cases, physical control is proven easily enough. A car delivered to a parking garage is obviously within the physical control of the garage. But in some instances, physical control is difficult to conceptualize. For example, you can rent a safe-deposit box in a bank to store valuable papers, stock certificates, jewelry, and the like. The box is usually housed in the bank’s vault. To gain access, you sign a register and insert your key after a bank employee inserts the bank’s key. You may then inspect, add to, or remove contents of the box in the privacy of a small room maintained in the vault for the purpose. Because the bank cannot gain access to the box without your key and does not know what is in the box, it might be said to have no physical control. Nevertheless, the rental of a safe-deposit box is a bailment. In so holding, a New York court pointed out that if the bank was not in possession of the box renter’s property “it is difficult to know who was. Certainly [the renter] was not, because she could not obtain access to the property without the consent and active participation of the defendant. She could not go into her safe unless the defendant used its key first, and then allowed her to open the box with her own key; thus absolutely controlling [her] access to that which she had deposited within the safe. The vault was the [company’s] and was in its custody, and its contents were under the same conditions.”Lockwood v. Manhattan Storage & Warehouse Co., 50 N.Y.S. 974 (N.Y. 1898). Statutes in some states, however, provide that the relationship is not a bailment but that of a landlord and tenant, and many of these statutes limit the bank’s liability for losses.
Possession: Intent to Possess
In addition to physical control, the bailee must have had an intent to possess the goods; that is, to exercise control over them. This mental condition is difficult to prove; it almost always turns on the specific circumstances and, as a fact question, is left to the jury to determine. To illustrate the difficulty, suppose that one crisp fall day, Mimi goes to Sally Jane’s Boutique to try on a jacket. The sales clerk hands Mimi a jacket and watches while Mimi takes off her coat and places it on a nearby table. A few minutes later, when Mimi is finished inspecting herself in the mirror, she goes to retrieve her coat, only to discover it is missing. Who is responsible for the loss? The answer depends on whether the store is a bailee. In some sense the boutique had physical control, but did it intend to exercise that control? In a leading case, the court held that it did, even though no one said anything about guarding the coat, because a store invites its patrons to come in. Implicit in the act of trying on a garment is the removal of the garment being worn. When the customer places it in a logical place, with the knowledge of and without objection from the salesperson, the store must exercise some care in its safekeeping.Bunnell v. Stern, 25 N.E. 910 (N.Y. 1890).
Now suppose that when Mimi walked in, the salesperson told her to look around, to try on some clothes, and to put her coat on the table. When the salesperson was finished with her present customer, she said, she would be glad to help Mimi. So Mimi tried on a jacket and minutes later discovered her coat gone. Is this a bailment? Many courts, including the New York courts, would say no. The difference? The salesperson was helping another customer. Therefore, Mimi had a better opportunity to watch over her own coat and knew that the salesperson would not be looking out for it. This is a subtle distinction, but it has been sufficient in many cases to change the ruling.Wamser v. Browning, King & Co., 79 N.E. 861 (N.Y. 1907).
Questions of intent and control frequently arise in parking lot cases. As someone once said, “The key to the problem is the key itself.” The key is symbolic of possession and intent to possess. If you give the attendant your key, you are a bailor and he (or the company he works for) is the bailee. If you do not give him the key, no bailment arises. Many parking lot cases do not fall neatly within this rule, however. Especially common are cases involving self-service airport parking lots. The customer drives through a gate, takes a ticket dispensed by a machine, parks his car, locks it, and takes his key. When he leaves, he retrieves the car himself and pays at an exit gate. As a general rule, no bailment is created under these circumstances. The lot operator does not accept the vehicle nor intend to watch over it as bailee. In effect, the operator is simply renting out space.Wall v. Airport Parking Co. of Chicago, 244 N.E.2d 190 (Ill. 1969). But a slight change of facts can alter this legal conclusion. Suppose, for instance, that the lot had an attendant at the single point of entrance and exit, that the attendant jotted down the license number on the ticket, one portion of which he retained, and that the car owner must surrender the ticket when leaving or prove that he owns the car. These facts have been held to add up to an intention to exercise custody and control over the cars in the lot, and hence to have created a bailment.Continental Insurance Co. v. Meyers Bros. Operations, Inc., 288 N.Y.S.2d 756 (Civ. Ct. N.Y. 1968).
For a bailment to exist, the bailee must know or have reason to know that the property exists. When property is hidden within the main object entrusted to the bailee, lack of notice can defeat the bailment in the hidden property. For instance, a parking lot is not responsible for the disappearance of valuable golf clubs stored in the trunk of a car, nor is a dance hall cloak room responsible for the disappearance of a fur wrap inside a coat, if they did not know of their existence.Samples v. Geary, 292 S.W. 1066 (Mo. App. 1927). This result is usually justified by observing that when a person is unaware that goods exist or does not know their value, it is inequitable to hold him responsible for their loss since he cannot take steps to prevent it. This rule has been criticized: trunks are meant to hold things, and if the car was within the garage’s control, surely its contents were too. Some courts soften the impact of the rule by holding that a bailee is responsible for goods that he might reasonably expect to be present, like gloves in a coat checked at a restaurant or ordinary baggage in a car checked at a hotel.