Is a Parking Garage Responsible for Damaged or Stolen Cars?
You drive into a parking garage, take your ticket, and go off to enjoy that Taylor Swift concert you fought so hard to get tickets for. You have a great time, only to return to your car to find the back end caved in. Hit and run. No note, no nothing.
You notify your insurance company but, alas, you only carried liability insurance instead of comprehensive coverage. That means you're on the hook for the property damage done to your car.
Or does it?
You may be able to go after the parking lot under three different legal theories, depending on where you live.
When you park your car at a parking garage, you create what's called a “bailment." A bailment situation is a legal relationship that arises when someone transfers possession, but not ownership, of personal property to another for a limited purpose. As the person who paid to park there, you are the “bailor." The parking garage owner is the “bailee."
A bailment comes with duties and responsibilities. The bailee owes the bailor a duty to use reasonable care, which includes an obligation to prevent vandalism and to not let your car get stolen.
What's handy about a bailment theory is that it flips the burden of proof. In most cases, the party seeking to recover has the burden of proving that the other failed to use reasonable care. On the other hand, once the bailor shows the transfer of property, the burden is on the bailee to prove that they used reasonable care under the circumstances.
Most lot owners try to get around this by including a sentence like, “Parking here does not create a bailment," on the claim ticket or posted on a sign at the entrance. That might work in some states, but not in others. It depends on the facts of the case, such as how prominently the sentence appears on the claim ticket, how big the sign is, and where it may be in relation to the entrance. But depending on the facts, you may have a claim against the property owner based on the transfer of possession.
If you can't get the parking garage operator under a bailment theory, you might be able to get them under a license theory. A license is a contractual grant of permission to park at the parking garage in exchange for money. The owner of the garage is called the “licensor." You are the “licensee."
The license would be governed by the terms of the contract between you and the parking garage. Parking in the parking garage in exchange for payment creates a contract. The law would read certain terms into your contract, depending on the state you're in, such as you have to pay the garage to park there and they have to ensure that your car isn't damaged or stolen.
You will see that parking garages try really hard to avoid liability. Look at your claim ticket and you will see a litany of disclaimers that say they can't be held liable for virtually anything. Take a look around the garage, and you may see signs posted that say essentially the same thing. Parking garages do this so that the law doesn't read an obligation to keep your car safe and secure into your license agreement.
That might work in some states, depending on the circumstances, but not in others. A disclaimer needs to be prominent or else a court won't enforce it. If you can show that you didn't see any disclaimers before you parked your car, you may be able to make a breach of license claim if your car is damaged or stolen.
If bailment and license theories don't do the trick, you may be able to tag the parking garage under a negligence theory. Negligence is the failure to use reasonable care under the circumstances. This is similar to the duty to use ordinary care that arises under a bailment, but the burden is on you to show that the parking garage failed to use reasonable care, not the other way around.
So what is “reasonable care?" That depends on the foreseeability of the risk of car theft or damage. Look around the parking garage again. You may see an attendant in the booth (or you might not), security cameras, and perhaps even a patrolling security guard. The reason is that the parking garage is trying to minimize, or even eliminate, the chance that a car owner would be able to recover against it under a negligence theory.
One negligence theory that might have some legs is the assumption of a duty. If a parking lot operator installs security cameras, it assumes a duty to monitor them. Similarly, if it hires patrolling security guards, they have to be competent and actually patrol the ramp. If you can show that the security guard was asleep at the monitors when your car was damaged or stolen, you may be able to make out a negligence claim.
A final word on those disclaimers. They don't work if the parking garage is grossly negligent. States define gross negligence differently, but it's basically negligence on steroids. If you can show that the parking garage's behavior constituted an extreme departure from the standard of care, you'll probably get around any disclaimers.
Consult a Lawyer
So depending on the circumstances and the state you're in, you might be able to establish parking garage liability if your car gets stolen or damaged while parked in the ramp. Just make sure you file a police report and get legal advice from a lawyer before you go to court.
- Parking Lot Accidents: Who Is Liable? (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- Find Car Accident Lawyers Near You (FindLaw's Injured)
- Bumped in the Parking Lot? 3 Ways to Recover for Dents, Dings (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
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