Monday, January 10, 2011

Garageman's Lien Lifted -- Collision Shop Failed to Establish that It Had Obtained Owner's Consent

Wood v. First Class Collision

(Sup. Ct., Nassau Co., decided 12/10/2010)

The world of liens, pronounced with two syllables -- "lee-uhns" -- south of the Mason-Dixon Line, can be murky and misunderstood.  Indeed, my very own kind -- lawyers -- are prone to using the term recklessly, often mistakenly referring to disputed obligations, claims and debts as liens.  As our state's Court of Appeals has noted, however, "[t]he creation of a lien requires agreement or statute[.]" Teichman v. Community Hosp., 87 N.Y.2d 514, 521 (1996).

New York's Lien Law is both arcane and archaic.  Here in New York we have statutorily created liens on vessels, liens on monuments, gravestones and cemetery structures, liens for labor on stone, mold liens, liens for the "services" of stallions or bulls, artisans' liens on personal property, self-service storage facility liens, liens of bailees of animals, liens of bailees of motor vehicles, motor boats or aircraft, liens of manufacturers and throwsters of silk goods, liens of bailees for hire, liens of truckmen and draymen, liens of motion picture film laboratories, liens of hospitals, and corporate mortgage liens against real and personal property.

This case pertains to the purported lien of a bailee of a motor vehicle, existing under New York Lien Law § 184 and otherwise known as a garageman's lien.

After hitting a parked car on April 24, 2010, petitioner's husband arranged for respondent First Class Collision to tow petitioner's 2005 Chevy Equinox to respondent's body shop for an estimate.  According to petitioner, the respondent body shop provided her husband with a $7,000 verbal repair estimate that was later reduced to $5,000.  Lacking collision coverage on the Equinox, petitioner told one of the respondent LLC's members, Greg Sbrocchi, that she could not afford pay $5,000 to repair the vehicle and asked him to get "used" parts to reduce the cost.  Petitioner contended that the respondent offered to buy the vehicle for $500 although it was valued at $9,000, and when she refused, respondent sent her a notice of lien.

The body shop's version of the parties' interaction was starkly different, of course.  Sbrocchi averred in an affidavit that petitioner's husband came to his office on or about April 24, 2010 and requested that he pick up the car and tow it to Sbrocchi's shop for an estimate. Sbrocchi stated that petitioner's husband came back to his shop the next day, April 25 , 2010, and signed a written authorization for repairs.  Sbrocchi further claimed that on May 1, 2010, petitioner's husband again returned to his shop and was given a written repair estimate.  Sbrocchi alleged that on May 8, 2010, the petitioner herself came to his shop and told him that she did not have insurance coverage and would not pay for the repairs and asked that the car be towed to her house. In response, Sbrocchi told her that she would have to pay for the towing and storage charges that already had accrued and, when petitioner eventually refused to pay those towing and storage charges, he served petitioner with a notice of lien and sale.

Petitioner then commenced this special proceeding by order to show cause pursuant to New York Lien Law § 201-a to lift respondent's notice of lien and sale.  Respondent cross-moved to dismiss petitioner's application and for summary judgment compelling petitioner to pay the respondents the towing and storage charges it sought.

In granting petitioner's application and lifting the notice of lien and sale, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Randy Sue Marber found respondent's version of the parties' interaction to be incredible and concluded that respondent had failed to establish that it had performed garage services or stored the vehicle with the owner's consent:
Pursuant to Lien Law § 184 (1), a garage keeper who tows, stores, repairs maintains or otherwise furnishes services or supplies to a motor vehicle, at the request or with the consent of the owner, has a lien upon such vehicle to the extent of the sum due for the services performed. A garage keeper may maintain a lien against a vehicle where the garage keeper performed garage services or stored the vehicle with the owner's consent for an agreed upon price or, in the absence of an agreement, for a reasonable price.  General Motors Acceptance Corp.  v.  Anthony J. Minervini, Inc.,  301 A.D.2d 940 (3d Dept. 2003).  Under Article l2-A of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, the garage must be a duly registered motor vehicle shop.

[Section] 184 of the Lien Law, which is in derogation of common law, must be strictly construed.  Phillips  v.  Catania, 155 A.D.2d 866 (4th Dept. 1989). It is the garage keeper's burden to establish that it has performed garage services or stored the vehicle with the owner's consent.  National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburg, Pa. v. Eland Motor Car Co., Inc., 85 N.Y.2d (1995), clarification denied 87 N.Y.2d 1002 (1996).

A lien is specific to the vehicle upon which repairs were made (National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburg, Pa.  v.  Eland Motor Car Co., Inc., supra at p. 730) and an estimate of repairs does not create a lien  (Mercedes-Benz Credit Corp.  v.  One Stop Auto Truck Ctrs., 170 Misc2d 354, 650 N.Y.S.2d 913 (Supreme Nassau Co.1996)).  Moreover, storage fees must specifically be authorized in order to be included as par of a lien on the vehicle.  Where a garage keeper claims more than is actually due, he or she is guilty of conversion and liable to the owner in damages.  BMW Bank of N Am. v. G & B Collsion Ctr., Inc.,  46 A.D.3d 875 (2d Dept. 2007);  F&N Corvette Classics v. Corvette Repairs, Inc., 206 A.D.2d 349 (2d Dept.1994 ).
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It is the Court' s responsibility, therefore, to determine the reasonableness of the amount claimed in the lien.  Munro v. Autosports Designs, Inc., 185 Misc.2d 821 , 714 N.Y.S.2d 415 (Supreme Nassau Co. 2000).  Refusal to release property based on the improper assertion of a lien can give rise to a cause of action for conversion.  Grant Street Canst., Inc. v. Cortland Paving Company, Inc., 55 A.D.3d 1106 (3d Dept. 2008).  

Reviewing the Respondent, Greg Sbrocchi' s Affidavit and examining the exhibits attached to the Respondents' Cross-motion lead the Court to conclude that the Petitioner never received the authorization (Exhibit A) or estimate (Exhibit B). Specifically, the Respondent claims to have obtained the Petitioner's husband's signature on the authorization on April 25, 2010.  However, Exhibit A contains storage charges from April, 2010 to June 9, 2010.  Mr. Sbrocchi's statement and the Exhibit are inconsistent.  Additionally, the Estimate (Exhibit B) is dated July 12 2010. As such, it could not have been provided to the Petitioner's husband on May 1 , 2010.  These exhibits establish that the statements made by Mr. Sbrocchi in his Affidavit are not credible.  As such, the Court finds that the Respondents have not established that the storage charges were authorized and the Lien is improper.

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