The Ohio Court of Appeals has cleared a Beloit dealership of liability stemming from the theft of a customer's truck while it was in the lot awaiting repairs.
The three-judge panel unanimously upheld Stratton Chevrolet Co. in a suit alleging negligence and breach of bailment, the contractual obligation to return safely property entrusted into the dealership's care.
The court said owner William Anderson did provide evidence that Stratton had been negligent, but said the jury reasonably could conclude that the dealership did not violate its obligation to return the truck.
Anderson bought the 1995 Chevrolet C-3500 new from Stratton. He brought it back in September 1996 for a tune-up and minor warranty repairs.
When Anderson arrived to pick up the truck, he and the service adviser discovered it had been damaged in an apparent theft attempt, according to the court. The steering column cover was lying on the ground, the steering wheel tilt lever was broken off, the dome light had been removed, the ignition switch was damaged, the doors were unlocked, one window was down about 2 inches and there were deep scratches on the instrument panel.
According to the court, Anderson and his son then began to remove several parts from the engine in an attempt to make it inoperable. The adviser stopped them but did remove the fuel pump relay to make the engine harder but not impossible to start.
Anderson said he insisted the truck be moved inside, but the adviser testified that Anderson ordered the truck be left outdoors in an attempt to catch the thief.
Defense lawyer Christopher Tipping of Akron said, 'His instructions were to leave the vehicle as it was, with the doors to remain unlocked, the window to remain down and all the pieces strewn on the ground.'
The next day, Stratton notified Anderson that the truck had been stolen. It was never recovered, and police made no arrests. Anderson's lawyer, Bruce Smith of Alliance, said the truck was not insured and was worth about $25,000.
Anderson sued Stratton in Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas. During trial, the dealership denied any negligence, and Tipping said his client argued that it had no bailment responsibility because Anderson had demanded the vehicle be left unlocked and outdoors.
The trial judge dismissed the negligence claim, and the jury rejected the bailment claim.
The appeals court unanimously upheld the verdict. 'Based on the attempted theft of the truck and the service adviser's attempt to disable it, it was foreseeable that the truck could be stolen from the lot, imposing a duty of reasonable care on Stratton,' Judge Cheryl Waite said. Even so, the court added, there was enough evidence for the jury to conclude that Stratton was not at fault for failing to return the truck.
Smith, Anderson's lawyer, said he believes the appellate court reached the wrong legal conclusion but doesn't know yet whether his client will appeal further.
You can e-mail Eric Freedman at [email protected]