Chambers v. Morgan

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Chambers v. Morgan
1983 OK CIV APP 59
671 P.2d 89
Case Number: 59067
Decided: 10/04/1983

JOHN CHAMBERS, APPELLANT,
v.
MICKEY MORGAN D/B/A APCO TRANSMISSION, APPELLEE.

Appeal from the District Court of Tulsa County; Allen Klein, Trial Judge.

¶0 Actions by owner of car for damage to it while in possession of transmission shop for repairs. Plaintiff prevailed but appeals from order denying award of an attorney's fee under 12 O.S. 1981 § 940 .

REVERSED AND REMANDED.

Stephen C. Wolfe, Wolfe & Corbitt, Tulsa, for appellant.
Greg A. Farrar, Farrar & Farrar, Tulsa, for appellee.

BRIGHTMIRE, Presiding Judge.

¶1 The issue raised here is whether plaintiff, the prevailing party in this action to recover for damage to his car while it was in the custody of defendant's automobile repair shop, is entitled to recover attorney's fees? We hold he is and reverse.

¶2 Plaintiff filed this action in small claims court. Defendant cross-petitioned for storage charges. Eventually the matter was heard and plaintiff proved that his car was not damaged when he turned it over to defendant for repair of the transmission and that damage to the body occurred while the car was in the exclusive possession of defendant. Defendant stated he had no evidence to the contrary. The court granted plaintiff a judgment for the damage and denied defendant's claim for storage.

¶3 Following this plaintiff moved the court to award him an attorney's fee as authorized by 12 O.S. 1981 § 940 . This statute says in relevant part that in "any civil action to recover damages for the negligent or willful injury to property and any other incidental costs related to such action, the prevailing party shall be allowed reasonable attorney's fees, court costs and interest to be set by the court and to be taxed . . . as . . . costs . . ."

¶4 The trial judge denied plaintiff's request for attorney's fees under § 936 "by reason of the cause of action being one in bailment."

I

¶5 Was plaintiff's action "one in bailment?" By this phraseology we assume the judge meant that plaintiff's action was one for breach of the bailment agreement and therefore was ex contractu. If so the perception was inaccurate.

¶6 Bailment is a legal status created by the transference of possession of personal property to another for the accomplishment of some particular purpose and establishes a bailor-bailee or trust relations. Essex v. Fife, 67 Okl. 55, 168 P. 814 (1917). If the bailment is the subject of an express contract then its terms govern over those that would otherwise control by implication of law. Oklahoma Petroleum & Gasoline Co. v. Winship, 83 Okl. 146, 200 P. 844 (1921).

¶7 The law deals at some length with the subject of bailments. 15 O.S. 1981 §§ 441-518 . They are classified in § 441 as follows: "voluntary or involuntary; and for safekeeping or exchange." Leaving a car at a shop for repairs is a voluntary bailment for hire as defined by §§ 442 and 465.

¶8 Thus it has been held for nearly 60 years that where chattels are delivered to a bailee in good condition and are returned in a damaged state, negligence will be presumed to be the cause, and the bailee has the burden of showing that the loss is due to a cause consistent with due care on his part. Boyles v. Campbell, Okl., 420 P.2d 875 (1966); Merchants' Southwest Transfer & Storage Co. v. Campbell, 100 Okl. 226, 229 P. 542 (1924). One statute limits the bailee's liability for "negligence" to the value of the thing bailed. Title 15 at § 460.

¶9 These statutes and decisions demonstrate rather clearly that a bailee for hire is not strictly liable for the preservation of the bailed property, unless he expressly agrees to be, but is only bound to use ordinary care for its safety. A breach of this duty, if it results in damage, is legal negligence. Such negligence may be proved merely by showing that the bailee received the chattel in good condition and returned it damaged.

¶10 So plaintiff, suing a bailee for damage to bailed property, as he is doing in this case, need not allege any specific act of negligence.

¶11 The order denying plaintiff's request for attorney's fees is reversed and the cause is remanded with directions to hear evidence and award plaintiff a reasonable attorney's fee for the services rendered by plaintiff's attorney in both the trial court and in this court in connection with the prosecution of this appeal. Costs of this appeal are taxed against defendant.

¶12 DeMIER and STUBBLEFIELD, JJ., concur.

Footnotes:

1 Actually a more appropriate characterization would be a "bailment for mutual benefit."

2 This is even more true in small claims court where a statutory form restricts the statement of a claim to certain bare essentials.