James Fowler, an Orlando, FL, attorney, drove his yellow 2014 Ferrari Italia Spider to a lawyers’ meeting at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club — a Marriott property in Florida.
He parked the Ferrari and left the keys with the valet, an employee of the parking lot operator, Seven One Seven Parking Enterprises Inc., who agreed to keep the Ferrari parked in front of the hotel. Fowler then checked into the hotel and attended the meeting.
As you might have guessed already, the Ferrari got stolen. According to the story first broken by Jamal Thalji of the Tampa Bay Times, and the complaint filed by Fowler in the ensuing litigation, here’s how it all came down.
Chloe Rimmer, 24, and Levi Miles, 28, met for the first time at the Vinoy. They checked into the hotel, taking a room that had been reserved under the name Janelle Maxwell. Rimmer gave the desk clerk her credit card, which was declined. After a second credit card was also declined, Rimmer paid cash for the room. Neither Rimmer nor Miles was asked to provide any identification to the hotel.
Sure, take it
Around midnight, Miles and Rimmer walked up to the valet stand and asked for the keys to the Ferrari. When the valet asked for the claim ticket, Miles said that he had left it in the Ferrari, and agreed to bring it back. It was pretty busy, and Miles was impatient and demanding, so the valet gave Miles the keys.
Miles and Rimmer got into the Ferrari and sat in it for some time. Soon, the valet “figured he was not getting a tip,” and stopped paying attention. Shortly after, Miles and Rimmer drove off in the Ferrari.
They didn’t make it very far. At about 12:30 a.m., an alert police officer saw the Ferrari, thought that Miles wasn’t driving it very well and noticed that the taillights were out. The officer pulled them over.
Miles claimed to be a Marine driving his father’s car. Asked about the malfunctioning taillights, Miles exclaimed, “I thought I just got those fixed!” The police found two grams of cocaine on top of the center console, which Miles insisted he knew nothing about. Rimmer also had marijuana in her purse.
According to the police report, Miles kept changing his story. His last version was that he had just met Rimmer and they went back to the Vinoy to get her car. She noticed the Ferrari. Wanting to impress her, he said it was his car. He just wanted to take her for a ride and intended to bring the Ferrari back after a few hours.
Rimmer generally supported that story. They went to the Vinoy to get her car when Miles asked the valet for the keys to the Ferrari. She acknowledged thinking it odd that Miles didn’t seem to know how to drive the car, but he did manage to get it going. Asked why she went along, she replied, “I’m in a Ferrari. This is nice!”
Miles and Rimmer were promptly arrested. The arresting officer asked another officer to go over to the Vinoy and see if they were missing a Ferrari.
Rimmer was charged with possession of marijuana. Miles was charged with grand theft, possession of cocaine and habitually driving with a suspended license.
His defense? The valet gave him the keys, so technically he didn’t steal the car.
Fowler filed suit against Marriott and the parking operator, claiming ordinary and gross negligence. Aside from the obvious negligence in giving the keys to Miles without the claim check, Fowler alleges that, given numerous similar incidents at the Vinoy that Marriott and 717 should have been aware of, they should have been more security conscious.
Fowler also asserts that Marriott was grossly negligent in renting the room to Rimmer and accepting her cash payment without any identification.
Fowler claims several types of damages:
- The cost of his inspections and repair bills
- Loss of use of the Ferrari for eight days
- Lost revenue because he had to screw around with this during normal working hours
- Diminished value, since the Ferrari is now a car “with a story”
This case is nearly identical to the case in “Dude, Where’s My Car?” (January 2017, “Legal Files,” p. 50). Both cases involve a guest entrusting an exotic car to a hotel valet. The valets then gave the car keys to people other than the owners.
In both cases, the valet was a contractor independent of the hotel. The major difference between the cases is the fact that Mr. Fowler’s Ferrari was returned to him, apparently without damage, while the Porsche Panamera in the January 2017 story disappeared into the ether.
When Fowler left his car with the hotel valet, a bailment was created. Part of that arrangement was the implicit agreement that he would get the car back in the same condition as he left it. The fact that a third party intervened does not relieve the valet of its duty of care owed to Fowler.
The nature and amount of damages claimed is where these two legal files differ. The Porsche Panamera was never recovered, so the liability is for the full value of the car. In that case, the parties simply disagreed about the value.
In this case, the police quickly recovered the Ferrari — without significant physical damage.
The general rule of bailments states that when property is damaged in the bailee’s control, damages are measured by the difference between the fair market value of the property before and after the damage. If the damage can be repaired, damages are generally the cost of the repair.
Following this rule, Fowler should be entitled to receive costs associated with inspecting the car and repairing any damage directly caused by the thief. Damages may also include the value of the lost use of the car. That can be a tricky amount to establish.
While Fowler alleges that he did not have the car for eight days, it is difficult to place a value on that. If he drove the Ferrari as his daily driver, he could be expected to claim the cost of renting another one, except that it’s really hard to rent a Ferrari 458. If he drove the Ferrari infrequently, then the lost use may not add up to much. However, he should be able to recover any expenses to get back home and so on.
The diminished-value claim is a tough one to analyze. “Legal Files” has written many times that a car’s value can be diminished even after being “perfectly” repaired, as buyers will always wonder about the “perfection” and they can always find another example that has not suffered any damage. However, we are unaware of any case where diminished-value damages were recovered without some attendant physical damage.
Fowler will have to prove that his car has suffered an actual diminution of value due to the theft and now having “a story.” The hotel and valet company will likely counter that the car was missing for only a short time, without significant damage, and having been driven by an idiot for a short time is not a story that diminishes value.
Fowler’s final claim is for lost earnings while pursuing the matter. It seems unlikely that he will prevail on this claim. While it might seem reasonable that he should recover this, we just don’t think the law has evolved to that point.
Are you sure you want to valet park?
The takeaway from these two cases may be that when you expect to have to use a valet parking service, leave your exotic car at home. It may just be too risky.
You have to recognize that appearances can be deceiving.
The hotel name may be just a brand, with the property actually owned by another entity and perhaps even operated by a third.
Most hotels, restaurants and other business establishments contract out their parking services to third-party operators, admittedly for liability purposes. So the company name on the building may not be the one who is in control of your car, and the hotel company may have no responsibility for your loss. If the operator is inadequately funded or insured, you and your insurance company may be left holding the bag.
You should also consider that leaving your keys with the valet is risky, no matter how much you discuss security or how earnest the valet may appear to be. They can be very busy and unable to keep their eyes on everything. They take bathroom breaks, and their shifts change. The valet you met when you dropped off the car may be nowhere around when the theft occurs.
Are you better off parking the car yourself? That’s hard to say. Parking it yourself means you lock the car and keep your keys, so your security is largely based upon the security systems of your car.
However, parking lots are always high-traffic areas, and they are not always closely monitored. Valet parking seems safer, in the sense that some human being has eyes on your car — or it’s parked in a more secure location.
However, these cases point out that there is a pretty good potential for human error.
Maybe it’s best to just drive something more expendable. ♦
JOHN DRANEAS is an attorney in Oregon. MICHAEL R. LOWITT is an attorney who practices in New York and Connecticut. Their comments are general in nature and are not intended to substitute for consultation with an attorney. Draneas can be found at www.draneaslaw.com.