What’s So Different About Bailment?, 0320 COBJ, SC Lawyer, March 2020, #28

AuthorBy Judge James A. Turner
PositionVol. 31 Issue 5 Pg. 28

What’s So Different About Bailment?

Vol. 31 Issue 5 Pg. 28

South Carolina BAR Journal

March, 2020

By Judge James A. Turner

A funny thing happened while considering oral arguments the other day in a negligence case. The attorneys changed their legal positions and insisted bailment law actually applied. Both counsel also agreed that the controlling case in South Carolina was Hatfield v. Gilchrist, which counsel urged the court to review carefully prior to reaching a decision.1 Economic policy motions frequently provide support for legal principles. For example, the legal standard of care for Gilchrist as a constructive bailee was interpreted as identical because he still received an economic benefit. I happened to be the trial judge in that case. The trial and subsequent appellate rulings culminated in a scholarly and comprehensive appellate opinion written by Judge Ralph King Anderson that clarified the nuances of bailment law in our state. The factual background of the case involved the towing of a private vehicle that was illegally parked in a section of downtown Charleston. Those familiar with parking in downtown Charleston are aware that visitors frequently park in areas without a meter marked by a posted sign with a time limit. Testimony varied as to the length of time that the vehicle remained parked. At trial, plaintiff adduced evidence of extensive damage done to his vehicle by vandals while the vehicle was at defendant’s storage facility.

The threshold inquiry required a determination of whether a bailment had actually occurred. Williston defines bailment as “the rightful possession of goods by one who is not the owner.’’2 Case law, however, has traditionally emphasized that a delivery by the bailor must occur.3 Thus, what type of bailment has occurred if a towing service towing away a car can be construed as meeting the criteria of delivery by the bailor?

Prior to Hatfield, it was well settled in South Carolina that three exclusive bailment classifications existed. The first classification is a bailment for the sole benefit of the bailor. Under this classification, the bailee is held to a duty of mere slight care and liability attaches only upon proof of gross negligence. McLaughlin v. Sears Roebuck & Co. is the classic case illustrative of this standard.4 There, the South Carolina Supreme Court reasoned that although purchasing new tires and leaving the old ones might initially suggest a bailment for mutual benefit, an action based on the old tires being unavailable months later moved the analysis to that of a bailment for the sole benefit of bailor. Unfortunately, McLaughlin also explains the heightened gross negligence standard of conduct in terms of failing to use ordinary care, which sounds like simple negligence.

The second classification of bailments is that of the bailment solely for the benefit of the bailee. The paucity of authority that exists on this classification is essentially confined to Am.Jur. and C.J.S. annotations. Query whether a tow and storage ultimately resulting in monetary payment to the bailee without the perception of ascertainable benefit to the bailor might conform to this classification. If so, the bailee would have been held to a duty of great care and liable for slight negligence. The third and final classification is the most frequently applied and litigated: the bailment for mutual benefit, which requires the bailee to exercise ordinary care while in the custody of the article.5

These classifications remain the law in our state and were applied in the seminal case...

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