Here is another topic dealing with the legal duties of a person who is entrusted with someone else’s property, legally known as a bailee in possession of property.

When you hire a mechanic to work on your vehicle, and you leave the vehicle in the mechanic’s possession, the mechanic is responsible for the care and custody of the vehicle, not withstanding any posted that says “not responsible” or any written or signed document such as a “waiver.”

The law is this area is well settled, and has been for a hundred years in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Law: Bailee for Hire must take care of Property

In Scott Auto & Supply Co. v. McQueen, 1925 OK 430, 226 P. 372, the plaintiff took his car to the Defendant’s body shop for a paint job. The Defendant agreed to paint it for $90.00 (what a deal!)

The Plaintiff had a Franklin Automobile, similar to the one pictured here.

When the Plaintiff returned to the shop and asked for his car, the Defenant told him, “sorry, it was destroyed by a fire last week.” The Defendant then claimed he was in no way responsible and pointed to a large sign that said Not Responsible for Cars Destroyed in Fire. Defendant also claimed that workers at the shop had notified plaintiff of the same and that Plaintiff waived liability and assumed the risk.

Plaintiff, not happy that his car was destroyed while in the custody of the mechanic entrusted with it’s care, filed a lawsuit for $2000, the market value of the car (about $25,000 in today’s dollars). Defendant argued the car was not worth more than $250.

A jury returned a verdict for $900 (perhaps the repair costs, as opposed to replacement?) and the Defendant appealed.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court wrote:

“The view we take of the matter is that a garage company cannot escape liability for destruction of cars by fire by posting a notice or giving notice to the owner of the car that the defendant will not be liable for destruction by fire, when the destruction by fire is occasioned by lack of ordinary care on the part of the defendant.

Posting the notice or giving the notice has no greater or further effect than saying that defendant will not be liable beyond the use of ordinary care to prevent the destruction by fire. The posting or giving of such notice could not lessen the defendant’s liability for negligence. The risk that the plaintiff assumed was that if his car should be destroyed by fire occasioned by means not within the control of the defendant in the use of ordinary care, then defendant should be held harmless. Notwithstanding the assumption of risk by the plaintiff and his waiver of defendant’s liability, if such was the case, still the defendant would be liable for destruction of the car by fire, if it failed to exercise the degree of care required by the law.”

1925 OK 430, ¶7 (emphasis added).

Legally, the garage shop was a bailee, or someone in possession of property and legal responsible for its care and custody.

“A bailee for hire must use at least ordinary care for the preservation of the thing bailed.”

Determining whether the shop is liable for damage or theft to a vehicle

It all comes down to whether the shop took proper precautions to prevent the loss, or if the shop or any mechanic did anything to actually increase the risk of the loss.

If the car was destroyed by a fire, ask:

  • Was the fire an unpredictable freak accident or the producet natural causes?
  • Or was someone being reckless and caused the fire?

If the car was stolen, then ask:

  • Did the shop take reasonable measures to protect the property (such as locking the doors);
  • Or was the theft totally foreseeable because of the careless actions of the garage shop?