The term “small claims” is often misleading. In New York, a small claim simply refers to a lawsuit that seeks damages of $5,000 or less. These claims are still subject to the same laws as any other lawsuit.
The Legal Difference Between Valet Parking and an Unattended Parking Lot
Indeed, small claims litigation often raises interesting questions of law. Here is a recent example from Brooklyn. The plaintiff in this case drove her car to a local movie theater and parked in its adjacent lot. While the plaintiff was inside the theater, someone allegedly vandalized her car. She subsequently sued the company that owned the movie theater and parking lot in small claims for $5,000, alleging its negligence “in failing to maintain an appropriate level of security in the lot” led to the vandalism.
In New York City, small claims are tried in the civil court. The civil court judge in this case dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint in its entirety. The judge agreed with the movie theater that it was not liable for any damages to the plaintiff’s car because “no bailment relationship was created between the parties, and that in any event, it was not negligent.”
A “bailment relationship” refers to a situation where one person transfers possession (but not ownership) of an item of personal property for a particular purpose, with the understanding that the property must be returned once that purpose is fulfilled. A common example of a bailment relationship is leaving your car with a valet. The valet takes possession of your car with the understanding she must return it when you return. If the valet takes your car and crashes it, the valet’s employer would be liable for breaching its bailment relationship with you.
In this case, there was no irresponsible valet. The plaintiff simply left her car in an unattended parking lot. This did not create a bailment relationship, the civil court judge explained, because the plaintiff “did not relinquish possession or control of her vehicle at any time, as she could enter and exit the lot without supervision, select her own parking space, lock her own car, and retain the key.”
As for the plaintiff’s negligence claim, the judge said there was no evidence that the movie theater could have “reasonably predicted” the vandalism of the car. A business is not liable for inadequate security unless it has reason to believe, based “on the prior occurrence of the same or similar criminal activity at a location sufficiently proximate to the subject location” that there is a foreseeable risk to customers. Even then, there must be some evidence that increased security would actually prevent the criminal activity. In this case, the judge said the plaintiff could not prove that.