Dubey v. Public Storage, Inc.

Decision Date23 October 2009
Docket NumberNo. 1-09-0094.,1-09-0094.
Citation918 N.E.2d 265,335 Ill.Dec. 181
PartiesVartika DUBEY, Plaintiff-Appellee and Cross-Appellant, v. PUBLIC STORAGE, INC., a Foreign Corporation, Metropublic Storage Fund, a California Limited Partnership, and PS Illinois Trust, a Public Storage Company, Defendants-Appellants and Cross-Appellees.
CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois

Justice FITZGERALD SMITH delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff Vartika Dubey filed suit against Public Storage, Inc., Metropublic Storage Fund, and PS Illinois Trust (collectively "Metropublic" or "defendant") to recover damages she incurred arising out of the loss of her personal property from a storage unit. Dubey claimed that such loss was the result of an alleged breach of contract, a conversion, and a violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (Act) (815 ILCS 505/10a (West 2002)) on the part of Metropublic. The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff on all three claims. Metropublic now appeals alleging that the trial court erred by (1) granting plaintiff three recoveries for a single injury, (2) granting plaintiff damages in excess of the contractual limitation provision, (3) finding liability on the Act claim based on Metropublic's negligence, (4) improperly awarding plaintiff punitive damages, and (5) granting attorney fees pursuant to the Act claim. On cross-appeal, Dubey urges this court to increase her compensatory damages award. For the following reasons, we affirm as modified and remand for a reduction of certain damages.

I. BACKGROUND

On September 14, 2002, Dubey entered into a rental agreement with Metropublic for the rental of a storage unit. Dubey was shown to her new storage unit by an employee of Metropublic and was shown how to open and lock the storage unit. Metropublic has a policy of locking vacant units with their own locks. Dubey signed and initialed the rental agreement, which contained provisions stating that the aggregate value of all personal property stored in the unit would not exceed $5,000, and that Metropublic's total liability for any loss would not exceed $5,000. The provisions stated in pertinent part:

"3. USE OF PREMISES AND PROPERTY AND COMPLIANCE WITH LAW. Occupant shall store only personal property that belongs to Occupant. Because the value of the personal property may be difficult or impossible to ascertain, Occupant agrees that under no circumstances will the aggregate value of all personal property stored in the Premises exceed, or be deemed to exceed, $5,000 and may be worth substantially less than $5,000.

* * *

5. LIMITATION OF OWNER'S LIABILITY; INDEMNITY. Occupant shall indemnify, defendant, and hold Owner and Owner's Agents harmless from and Loss incurred by Owner or Owner's Agents in any way arising out of Occupant's use of the Premises or the Property. Occupant agrees that Owner's and Owner's Agents' total responsibility for any Loss from any cause will not exceed a total of $5,000.

* * *

9. TERMINATION AND DEFAULT. Owner may terminate this Rental Agreement at the expiration of any term by giving written notice to Occupant by certified mail not less than seven (7) days before expiration of the term, or two (2) days if Occupant is in default under the Rental Agreement. * * * If Occupant defaults under any of his obligations under this Rental Agreement, Owner may pursue any remedies available to Owner under applicable law or this Rental Agreement."

Dubey alleged in her complaint that she stored over $150,000 worth of personal property in her storage unit. Her rent was always paid on time and current, yet her property was sold at public auction by Metropublic without any notice to Dubey. Dubey alleged breach of contract, conversion, and violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, in her second amended complaint.

Defendants responded that they satisfied all the requirements of the Self-Service Storage Facility Act (770 ILCS 95/1 et seq. (West 2002)), and therefore Dubey was barred from bringing her action. Defendants also claimed that Dubey, in violation of the terms of the rental agreement, stored her personal property in a storage unit other than the one shown on her rental agreement, which bars her from bringing this action. Additionally, defendants filed a counterclaim for breach of contract alleging that Dubey, after initialing the provisions in the rental agreement which prohibited storage of items worth over $5,000, stored property valued in excess of $5,000, heirlooms, and valuable or irreplaceable property.

At the jury trial on the breach of contract and conversion claims, the following evidence was presented. Dubey was interested in renting a storage unit so her husband contacted Metropublic. The next day, Dubey went to Metropublic and spoke to Lisa Jarock, the property manager. She told Jarock that she wanted a bigger unit because she wanted to store bigger items in it like a refrigerator, washer, dryer, dishwasher, and a basketball hoop, among other things. Dubey was not informed by Jarock at that time about any limitation on the value of the property to be stored. After choosing the size of her rental unit, which was the larger of the two shown to her, Dubey left the storage facility to pick her daughters up from school. Upon her return, Jarock presented her with a rental agreement to sign. Jarock put the rental agreement on the counter and briefly explained what each paragraph meant, then pointed to the space for Dubey to place her initials. It took less than five minutes for Jarock to explain the contract to Dubey, and Dubey testified that she did not have time to read every part of the contract. Dubey further testified that Jarock did not stress or point out that she could not store more than $5,000 worth of property in a unit. Jarock only told Dubey that Metropublic would not cover damages for theft or flood.

Dubey testified that she did not look at the unit number on the rental agreement and that it was not stressed to her by Jarock. Dubey signed up to pay her rent automatically through her credit card each month. After signing the rental agreement, Jarock led Dubey to unit E-11, removed the Metropublic lock that was there, and put Dubey's lock, which she had purchased from Metropublic, on the unit. Dubey then asked Jarock how she would be able to find the unit next time she came. Dubey's daughter pointed out a small statue of a gnome near the unit, and Jarock agreed that the gnome would be a good way for Dubey to remember her unit's location.

A day or two later, Dubey arrived at her storage unit with a moving truck and unloaded her personal belongings. Dubey returned to her unit at least twice a week through October, a couple times in November, and at least once in December. In early February of 2003, Dubey visited her storage unit with her husband. She tried to unlock it, but it would not open. She went to the office and spoke to Victoria Kitchen, the former property manager. Kitchen asked where her unit was and when Dubey told her, she stated that such unit was not hers. She then accompanied Dubey back to the unit. Dubey explained that the unit was the same one she had been coming to since September of 2002, and she pointed to pieces of broken plastic from her television that were outside of the unit. Kitchen removed the Metropublic lock that was on the unit and opened it. The unit was empty except for some broken pieces of Dubey's daughters' toys.

Kitchen told Dubey that her property had been auctioned off. She told Dubey that her rent had not been paid and that Metropublic records showed that there was $191 in past-due rent for unit E-11. However, unit E-11 was rented to someone by the name of Maria Cruz, and Dubey's rental agreement showed that her unit was C-10. Cruz's rental agreement had a computer-generated designation of unit number E-12. Such unit number had been scratched out and next to it, handwritten, was the number E-11. The initials "L.J." were next to it.

Dubey explained that her rent was automatically paid through her credit card each month. Kitchen told Dubey her belongings had been auctioned off in January. Dubey asked what they would have done with her pictures and paperwork, which consisted of baby pictures, wedding pictures, accounting and paperwork, and graduation certificates. Kitchen told Dubey that they probably threw them out, but then would not tell Dubey where the garbage was when she asked.

The items auctioned, including a refrigerator, washer, dryer, bikes, lawnmower, television, and jewelry, had a market value of $99,145.

Evidence was presented as to Metropublic's general policies as well. If a mistake was made on a rental agreement, such as a change of a rental unit number, a manager was permitted to scratch something out and initial it, but a tenant was not required to initial it as well. A property manager could make changes without consulting a superior. Metropublic was aware of more than one instance where a tenant put her property in a unit different from that which appeared on the rental agreement.

At trial, the jury returned verdicts in favor of Dubey for both breach on contract and conversion, in the amount of $5,000 each. Dubey was awarded punitive damages for conversion in the amount of $745,000.

The trial court tried count III of Dubey's complaint, alleging a violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, without a jury. On June 16, 2008, the court found in favor of Dubey and awarded her compensatory damages in the amount of $69,145, and punitive damages in the amount of $207,435. The court further awarded attorney fees and costs to Dubey in the amount of $185,849.34.

Metropublic and Dubey both filed a series of posttrial motions, all of...

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