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ZACHARIA v. HARBOR ISLAND SPA

July 15, 1981

Sarah ZACHARIA, Plaintiff,
v.
HARBOR ISLAND SPA, INC., Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: NEAHER

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Asserting jurisdiction based on the parties' diverse citizenship and an amount in controversy over $ 10,000, plaintiff commenced this action against defendant hotel to recover $ 19,145, the value of three uninsured items of jewelry allegedly stolen with other contents of plaintiff's hotel safe deposit box on December 8, 1979. Defendant, a Florida corporation, has moved for summary judgment limiting plaintiff's recovery to $ 1,000, the maximum liability imposed on innkeepers by statute, § 509.111(1), Florida Statutes Annotated. The parties agree that the law of Florida governs this suit.

 Plaintiff arrived at defendant's Miami Beach hotel on November 17, 1979. On arrival she signed a registration card which in capital letters immediately above the signature line, stated "Hotel's liability is limited as provided in posted "important notice to guests'." At the same time she requested and was furnished a safe deposit box to store her jewelry. To obtain it she signed two cards. The first, captioned "Harbor Island Spa Statement of Value", contained a declaration certifying that the value of the items she was entrusting to the hotel "does not exceed One Thousand Dollars ($ 1,000)", and that any additions would not cause the value to exceed that amount. The form also acknowledged that this representation of value was an inducement to the hotel to accept the items for safekeeping. The second card, entitled "Safe Deposit Box Statement of Value", clearly stated in capital letters that the hotel was liable only for the loss of items caused by the fault or negligence of the owner, operator or an employee, but that in any event liability was limited to $ 1,000. In smaller type in the lower portion of this card appeared the same declaration about value contained on the first card, although blanks were left for the names of the guest, the hotel and the date.

 The latter card, which contained signature lines on the back, was kept at the front desk. Guests obtained access to their safe deposit boxes by going to the front desk and signing their name on the back of the card. The clerk authenticated the new signature against the original on the front and then procured the box for the guest. Between her arrival on November 17, 1979 and December 7, 1979, plaintiff went to her safe deposit box 36 times, as reflected by her signatures. On December 8 it was discovered that someone, possibly a desk clerk named Robert Kane who disappeared that day, had broken into plaintiff's box and taken the contents.

 In Florida, as in most States, the traditional common law rule was that innkeepers were almost absolutely liable for the loss of property entrusted to them, e.g., O'Brien v. Vaill, 22 Fla. 627, 1 So. 137 (1883); 40 Am.Jur.2d, Hotels, Motels and Restaurants, § 126. Florida, however, like most States, has abrogated the common law rule by statute. The law in effect at the time of the theft of plaintiff's jewels provided:

 
"(1) The operator of a public lodging establishment is under no obligation to accept for safekeeping any moneys, securities, jewelry or precious stones of any kind, belonging to any guest, and if such are accepted for safekeeping he shall not be liable for the loss thereof unless such loss was the proximate result of fault or negligence of the operator. However, the liability of the operator shall be limited to $ 1,000 for such loss, if the public lodging establishment gave a receipt for the property (stating the value) on a form which stated, in type large enough to be clearly noticeable, that the public lodging establishment was not liable for any loss exceeding $ 1,000 and was only liable for that amount if the loss was the proximate result of fault or negligence of the operator." § 509.111, F.S.A.

 Also in effect at the time was § 509.101, which provided that an innkeeper could prescribe reasonable rules for the "government and management" of the hotel, to become part of the contract between innkeeper and guest fixing their respective liabilities and obligations. This statute also required that a copy of such rules be posted together with a copy of § 509.111, supra, "in each bedroom of lodging establishments and also in the office, hall or lobby." *fn1"

 Defendant, relying on § 509.111, supra, contends that its liability is limited to $ 1,000 because it complied with its provisions. Plaintiff disputes that the requirements of § 509.111 were satisfied, and asserts that the facts, which are in dispute, show that defendant waived the limitation defense or should be estopped to raise it. She argues further that the failure to show compliance with the posting provisions of § 509.101 also precludes summary judgment.

 On the present record the Court has no difficulty in concluding that the "Safe Deposit Box Statement of Value" functioned as a statutory receipt in compliance with § 509.111(1). As previously noted, the upper portion of this card stated in type that very plainly is "large enough to be clearly noticeable," that the establishment was not liable except for losses caused by the fault or negligence of the owner, operator or employee of the hotel, and that in such cases liability was limited to $ 1,000. It is true the card contains no blank space for the guest to declare the value of the property, but this was provided by the declaration in the lower portion, repeated from the "Harbor Island Spa Declaration of Value", which states that the value of the property and any subsequent additions does not exceed $ 1,000. We cannot say, given the statute's limitation of liability to $ 1,000 for the specified kinds of losses, that this printed, pre-established statement of value is inconsistent with the statute's requirement that the hotel give a "receipt for the property (stating the value)." From the viewpoint of the parties, the actual value of items entrusted to the hotel is irrelevant, since liability for the negligent loss of items entrusted for safekeeping is limited in amount to $ 1,000. In effect, if the statute is otherwise complied with, the value of any property that is accepted for safekeeping in a Florida hotel will not exceed $ 1,000 whatever its true value may be.

 Although there is not a genuine issue that plaintiff signed the cards and that the safe deposit receipt was kept for her use at the front desk, plaintiff avers that when she signed the "Harbor Island Spa Statement of Value" card at the registration desk, the clerk answered her question about its purpose with "something to the effect of don't worry about it, it's nothing, it's just for the Spa's records." Zacharia Affid. at 1. Pointing to the large "X" placed across this card, see Def. Exh. C, and asserting that the blanks for her name on both cards were never filled in, she contends that defendant has waived the protection of the statute or is estopped from raising it to limit her claim because she was "lulled into a false sense of security." Reiver Affd. at 3.

 Waiver and estoppel were found in Fuchs v. Harbor Island Spa, Inc., 420 F.2d 1100 (5th Cir. 1970); Garner v. Margery Lane, Inc., 242 So.2d 776 (4th Dist.Fla.App.1970); and Safety Harbor Spa, Inc. v. High, 137 So.2d 248 (2d Dist.Fla.App.1962), but the present action is factually far removed from those cases.

 First, the principal basis for waiver in Fuchs and Safety Harbor Spa, supra, and the alternative basis in Garner, supra, was that the hotels did not accept the items for safekeeping in the manner contemplated by the statute. In Garner, the jewelry was accepted without an estimate of its value, see 242 So.2d at 779. In Fuchs, the innkeeper had done nothing to indicate to the guest that the inn's liability was limited, see 420 F.2d at 1101, 1102. In Safety Harbor Spa the procedure followed for accepting valuables, as in Fuchs, was not in "strict compliance" with the statute's requirements, see 137 So.2d at 249. In the present case, however, we have already determined that the procedures defendant employed, viz., presentation of the "Safe Deposit Box Statement of Value", complied with the statute's requirements. The fact that blanks for plaintiff's name were unfilled on the cards she signed is unimportant, since plaintiff's signature adequately identified the author of the declarations contained on the cards.

 Second, in both Garner and Fuchs, supra, the hotel's registration card warned in capital letters that "Money, jewels and other valuable packages must be deposited at the office to be kept in the safe, otherwise the management will not be responsible for any loss." This was held to provide a basis for waiver and estoppel under Florida law, since the plaintiff guest reasonably could have believed from the context that the clause following "otherwise" constituted a representation that the hotel would accept responsibility for the full value of the items if they were brought to the office. See 420 F.2d at 1102; 242 So.2d at 779-80.

 Here, the statements allegedly made by the desk clerk cannot reasonably be taken to mean that the hotel was willing to accept plaintiff's jewels at their full value, contrary to both the warning contained on the registration card that the hotel's liability was limited, and the statements contained in the second card plaintiff signed. Nor do we think that the statements made can estop defendant because plaintiff now claims they made her believe the cards were insignificant. She knew she had to sign the cards to obtain a safe deposit box. The hard fact is that when plaintiff signed those cards, the words which we have already held were sufficient under the Florida statute to limit the innkeeper's liability, were ...


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