Burch v. Ford, A-1013-21

CourtNew Jersey Superior Court – Appellate Division
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM
PartiesEUGENIA T. BURCH, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. KINDLE FORD, Defendant-Appellant.
Docket NumberA-1013-21
Decision Date22 November 2022

EUGENIA T. BURCH, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.

KINDLE FORD, Defendant-Appellant.

No. A-1013-21

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

November 22, 2022


This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court." Although it is posted on the internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.

Submitted October 12, 2022

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cape May County, Docket No. DC-000633-21.

Dengler & Lipski, attorneys for appellant (Christopher P. Morgan, on the brief).

Respondent has not filed a brief.

Before Judges Accurso and Natali.

PER CURIAM

Defendant Kindle Ford appeals from an order awarding plaintiff Eugenia T. Burch $8000 after a trial in the Special Civil Part. On appeal, defendant

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argues the court erred in holding it liable, and awarding damages, because plaintiff: (1) lacked standing to bring her claim; (2) failed to prove defendant breached any duty to her; and (3) did not support her damages claim with competent evidence. Having reviewed the record before us, and in light of the applicable law, we are satisfied the court's factual findings sufficiently established plaintiff's standing and supported the imposition of liability against defendant as a bailee. We reach a different determination regarding the court's damages award and conclude additional findings are required. We accordingly affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

I.

In 2016, plaintiff purchased a 2006 Ford Fusion with 130,000 miles for $8,000. After receiving a recall notice in 2019 regarding the vehicle's airbags, plaintiff had the vehicle towed to defendant's service department where it remained on defendant's property for several months. When plaintiff called defendant to reclaim her car, however, defendant informed her it was no longer on the lot. Three days later, plaintiff filed a police report claiming her vehicle was stolen from defendant's property.

On April 30, 2021, almost two years after she reported the vehicle stolen, plaintiff filed a complaint against defendant seeking $15,000 in damages.

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According to plaintiff, when she initially contacted defendant to service her vehicle, an employee collected her debit card information, agreed to complete the recall work, and instructed her to bring the vehicle to defendant's service department. She also testified she spoke to a second representative after she had the car towed and he confirmed defendant would service her vehicle.

Plaintiff maintained she regularly contacted defendant while it was in possession of her car. At some point after the vehicle was delivered to the lot, defendant's employees informed her they could not work on the vehicle until she addressed several of their concerns. Specifically, plaintiff stated defendant asked her to provide a key to the vehicle, clean the interior of the car, and provide proof of ownership. Plaintiff testified she previously left a key in the glove compartment at the time the car was towed, provided a copy of her registration to defendant's service representative, and cleaned the car at defendant's request. She also claimed the key she provided to defendant was the vehicle's only key.

Defendant's operations manager refuted plaintiff's testimony. He stated plaintiff never left defendant a key, the vehicle remained in an unsanitary condition while on the property, and defendant never received proof that plaintiff owned the car. He further testified the parties did not execute a repair

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order, a requirement before work can commence on any vehicle. The operations manager also explained he was unaware of the circumstances surrounding the car's disappearance and assumed either plaintiff removed the vehicle herself or it was repossessed.

After considering the documentary evidence and testimony, the court determined defendant owed plaintiff a duty of care, which it breached when the car went missing while in its possession. As the court explained, defendant acknowledged receipt of plaintiff's vehicle, and the car disappeared "while it was in [defendant's] possession for the purposes of [defendant's] business."

As to damages, plaintiff demanded the purchase price of the vehicle as well as reimbursement for costs associated with hiring cabs and rental cars. The court awarded plaintiff $8000, the amount she paid for the car, but denied her request for any additional damages due to the lack of evidentiary support.

II.

We first address the standard of review that guides our analysis. In an appeal from a bench trial, "[f]indings by the trial judge are considered binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Invs. Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). "[W]e do not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless

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. . . convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Ibid. (quoting Fagliarone v. Twp. of N. Bergen, 78 N.J.Super. 154, 155 (App. Div. 1963)). "A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts[, however] are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

III.

Defendant first argues plaintiff lacked standing to pursue her claim because she failed to provide a title to the vehicle or other evidence sufficient to prove ownership. We disagree.

Standing "requires a sufficient stake and real adverseness with respect to the subject matter of the litigation [and a] substantial likelihood of some harm visited upon the plaintiff in the event of an unfavorable decision . . . ." Jen Elec., Inc. v. Cnty. of Essex, 197 N.J. 627, 645 (2009) (first alteration in original) (quoting In re Adoption of Baby T, 160 N.J. 332, 340 (1999) (citations omitted)). Plaintiff more than sufficiently established standing as she testified to owning the vehicle. She also produced insurance documentation indicating the car was

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registered to her, as well as a police report which contained similar information, and a recall notice identifying her as the owner.

IV.

We next address the court's liability findings. Defendant asserts the court erred in concluding it owed plaintiff a duty of care. Specifically, it claims: "the trial court's finding that [defendant] owed a duty to [p]laintiff regarding the [v]ehicle is erroneous because no bailment was created." Defendant further argues that even if a bailment was created, it was merely gratuitous and, thus, defendant cannot be held liable because plaintiff...

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