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Mainardi v. Wagner Airways

A-3846-03T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

WAREHOUSES; CONVERSION—Where the operator of a storage facility legitimately imposes pre-conditions to an owner’s right to remove its goods from the facility, the operator is not guilty of conversion on the property owner’s theory that it is being deprived of the property.

The owner of a small airplane entered into a Common Hangar Tenant Agreement with an airport operator for the storage of the plane. Under the agreement, the operator was responsible for retrieving the plane from the hangar whenever the owner requested it and for returning the plane to the hangar when it returned from a flight. The lease was terminable without cause on thirty-days’ notice by either party. Pursuant to that provision, the operator sent a termination letter to the owner. It gave no reason for the termination. In response, the owner wrote the operator about a hangar rash he discovered on his plane. He then sued, alleging that his hangar lease was improperly terminated.

The owner then asked the operator to remove his plane from the hangar so he could take it out for a flight. The operator refused, explaining that it was concerned about the owner’s lawsuit because it had already been accused of causing hangar rash. The operator told the owner to remove the plane himself. When the owner arrived at the hangar with a police officer, the operator told the officer about the lawsuit and said it would remove the plane under the officer’s supervision but only if the owner signed a release relieving the operator from any responsibility should there by any damage or hangar rash. The owner then prepared a release and initially was willing to sign it, but never did so. He claimed that he never signed the release because the operator stated that it still would not move the plane until it was first inspected and deemed flight worthy. The owner then sued for damages for conversion based on the period that he could not retrieve his plane from the operator. He also claimed that the operator’s actions were in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act (CFA).

The lower court found that the owner always had access to his plane and that the operator was willing to clear a path so that the owner could move the plane himself. The Court also found that the operator made efforts to let the owner to take his plane out even though it was unwilling to move it for him without a “hold harmless” release. It held that the insisting on a release was reasonable under the circumstances. Therefore, the lower court dismissed the owner’s claims.

To prove conversion, a plaintiff, by a preponderance of the evidence, must show that there was an unauthorized assumption and exercise of the right of ownership over goods belonging to another. Here, the owner claimed that the operator’s actions constituted conversion because it intentionally deprived him of the use of his plane solely because he claimed that his plane had hangar rash on it. The Appellate Division agreed with the lower court that the operator’s refusal to remove the plane from the hangar was based on reasonable conditions and constituted a solid defense to the claim of conversion.

The owner also argued that making him remove the plane himself was unreasonable because it was a difficult task and it was extremely uncommon for plane owners to move planes themselves. In response, the operator testified that a plane the size of the owner’s could be moved by one person, or in the alternative the owner could have hired someone to assist him or do it for him.

Finally, the owner argued that the operator’s locking the plane in the hangar and refusing to bring it out was an unconscionable commercial practice in violation of the CFA. The Court disagreed, holding that even if the lower court had ruled that the operator was guilty of conversion, it would still not have fallen under the CFA because there was no evidence of deception or coercion. Therefore, the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, dismissing the owner’s CFA and conversion claims against the operator.

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