Attorney General: Johnston and Jaekle, Auditors of Public Accounts, 1994-018 Formal Opinion, Attorney General of Connecticut

Attorney General's Opinion

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal

July 29, 1994

Kevin P. Johnston
Robert G. Jaekle
Auditors of Public Accounts
State Capitol
210 Capitol Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106-1559

Dear Messrs. Johnston and Jaekle:

In your letter of April 26, 1994, you asked several questions concerning the responsibility of the Southern New England Telephone Company ("SNET") for state-owned telecommunications equipment that was stolen from a SNET truck. You have informed us that the University of Connecticut (the "University"), which owns the equipment, did not pursue a claim against SNET, and you have asked two questions:

First: Does SNET have responsibility for State equipment in its custody?; and,

Second: If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, is there a valid c1aim against SNET?

You have also offered your opinion that a valid claim cannot be compromised without utilizing the procedures of Conn. Gen. Stat.,  3-7.1 You are advised, for the reasons set forth below, that although SNET has some level of responsibility for State equipment in its custody, the factual situation contained in your questions does not create a valid claim in favor of the State of Connecticut. In order to respond properly to your inquiry, it was necessary to obtain additional information about the legal relationship between the University and SNET. There have been contracts in effect for the last five years, for the maintenance by SNET of telephone equipment on the University's Storrs campus. SNET vehicles carry parts and equipment owned by the University as they respond to calls for service. This arrangement permits the SNET employees to have immediate access to spare parts as they provide service to customers, without returning to a central location. Further, at the request of the University, SNET vehicles containing University equipment were parked on University property in the evenings and on weekends. The University's reason for making this request was to be able to utilize the services of SNET personnel during the full State employee work day, without paying for transportation time between the campus and the SNET area office, for one-half hour at the beginning and end of each work day. As you stated in your inquiry, a SNET vehicle was stolen between August 31, 1993, and September 1, 1993, and the State-purchased equipment in the vehicle has not been recovered. Information provided to this office indicates that the vehicle was locked at the time of the theft.

Our analysis of your inquiry begins with the question of whether the University has a claim against SNET. It is, therefore, necessary to determine whether, based upon the relationship between the University and SNET, a court would recognize as valid a claim asserted by the University against SNET. In order to do so, it is necessary to determine the legal nature of the informal entrustment of University equipment to SNET. It is clear that the relationship between the University and SNET is that of a bailment based upon an implied contract:

"A bailment is a consensual relation and it includes, in its broadest sense, any delivery of personal property in trust for a lawful purpose." Pinto v. Bridgeport Mack Trucks, Inc., 38 Conn. Sup. 639, 641, 458 A.2d 696 (1983). "The essential element of bailment is the express or implied assumption of control over the property by the bailee." Lissie v. Southern New England Telephone Co., 33 Conn. Sup. 540, 543, 359 A.2d 187 (1976); see also Malone v. Santora, 135 Conn. 286, 289, 64 A.2d 51 (1949); On Site Energy Corporation v. Sperry Rand Corporation, 5 Conn. App. 326, 331, 498 A.2d 121, cert. denied, 197 Conn. 818, 501 A.2d 388 (1985); Desmond v. Wall, 39 Conn. Sup. 503, 504, 466 A.2d 804 (1983). In Zeterstrom v. Thomas, 92 Conn. 702, 704, 104 A. 237 (1918), the court defined a bailment as "a delivery of goods in trust upon a contract, express or implied, that the trust shall be duly executed, and the goods restored by the bailee, as soon as the purpose of the bailment shall be answered."

Hartman v. Black & Decker Mfg. Co., 16 Conn. App. 1, 6-7, 547 A.2d 38 (1988).

The responsibilities of a bailor and a bailee are determined by the nature of the bailment; namely, whether it is for the bailor's sole benefit, the bailee's sole benefit or for mutual benefit. Hartman, 16 Conn. App. at 7. It is clear from the information we have concerning the University's arrangement with SNET that the benefit accrued solely to the bailor; namely, the University. By keeping State-owned equipment in a SNET vehicle, the University received the benefit of having its parts immediately available when SNET personnel arrived in response to service calls. By virtue of having the SNET vehicles on campus overnight and weekends, the University received the benefit of SNET service personnel during the entire employee work day. There was no discernable benefit to SNET. Accordingly, the bailment was for the sole benefit of the bailor, i.e., the University, and the standard of care imposed on the bailee, i.e., SNET, was reasonable care. See Hartman, 16 Conn. App. at 8, n.4.

The inquiry then turns on whether there is any information that would support a finding that SNET breached a duty of reasonable care to the University. On the facts as presented, we cannot conclude that such a duty was breached. Although there are not many reported cases concerning gratuitous bailments for the benefit of the bailor, the case of National Broadcasting Co. v. Rose, 153 Conn. 219, 215 A.2d 123 (1965) is instructive. In National Broadcasting Co., a puppet maker retained possession of the puppets and costumes of a defunct television series after the show ended. All of the materials were owned by the television network. The property was destroyed by a fire at the puppeteer's residence, and the television network sued the puppeteer, alleging that he breached his duty as a bailee. The trial court found that the duty was not breached, and the Supreme Court affirmed. The court first reaffirmed its earlier holdings on the appropriate standard of care:

In Welch v. Boston & A.R. Co., 41 Conn. 333, 343, we approved the standard of reasonable care under the circumstances, saying: "A bailee without reward is responsible for such care as a prudent man takes of his own property; in other words, for ordinary care." See also Beers v. Boston & A.R. Co., 67 Conn. 417, 427, 34 A. 541. "[A]n increasing number of the modern authorities" have adopted this standard. 8 Am. Jur. 2d, Bailments 1099  210, 1107  216; [Citations omitted.]

National Broadcasting Co., 153 Conn. at 224.

In National Broadcasting Co., the court then held that any presumption of negligence was overcome by the bailee's explanation that the loss was not due to its failure to exercise reasonable control over the bailed goods. In the situation presented by your question, nothing in the facts demonstrates any negligence on the part of the bailee. Indeed, the theft of a SNET vehicle occurred on property that was owned and controlled by the University. Other than locking the vehicle, it is difficult to conceive of what SNET could have done to prevent the theft.2 Under basic principles of negligence, one cannot be found liable unless there is a breach of a duty to exercise due care to prevent foreseeable harm. Pinto v. Bridgeport Mack Trucks, Inc., 38 Conn. Sup. 639, 643, 458 A.2d 696 (1983). In the absence of any information that SNET failed in such a duty, the State of Connecticut has no valid claim against it. In response to your questions, you are advised that SNET, as a bailee of State-owned equipment, owed the University a duty of reasonable care. However, there is no information that SNET breached that duty, and, therefore, no valid claim may be brought against it.

Very truly yours,

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL
ATTORNEY GENERAL

Paul M. Shapiro
Assistant Attorney General

RB/PMS/l


Footnote:

1 The section of Conn. Gen. Stat.,  3-7 that pertains to the compromise of disputed claims is 3-7(c), which provides: Upon the recommendation of the attorney general, the governor may authorize the compromise of any disputed claim by or against the state or any department or agency thereof, and shall certify to the proper officer or department or agency of the state the amount to be received or paid under such compromise. Such certificate shall constitute sufficient authority to such officer or department or agency to pay or receive the amount therein specified in full settlement of such claim. The record of any compromise effected pursuant to the provisions of this section shall be open to public inspection in accordance with section 1-19.

2 It is conceivable that SNET may assert a claim against the University for the loss of its vehicle. Our position in such a case would be that an owner of a vehicle who parks and leaves with his keys is a licensee, not a bailee, and that no duty is created. See Rokosa v. Hartford Jai Alai, Inc., 37 Conn. Sup. 620, 622, 430 A.2d 1318 (1981).


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