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Ellis v. Tri State Realty Associates LP.

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

February 27, 2015

SCOTT ELLIS and DEBORAH ELLIS, Plaintiffs,
v.
TRI STATE REALTY ASSOCIATES LP, Defendant.

Submitted: November 13, 2014

Amended: March 4, 2015

Upon Defendant Tri State Realty Associate LP's Motion for Summary Judgment GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART[Amended][1]

John D. Balaguer, Esquire, White & Williams LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Plaintiffs Scott Ellis and Deborah Ellis.

Colin M. Shalk, Esquire, Casarino Christman Shalk Ransom & Doss, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Defendant Tri State Realty Associates, L.P.

ERIC M. DAVIS JUDGE

Introduction

This is a civil contract action that also asserts various tort claims. In this action, Plaintiffs Scott Ellis and Deborah Ellis (collectively the "Plaintiffs") allege that, due to Defendant Tri State Realty Associates L.P.'s ("Tri State") wrongful conduct, certain personal property of Plaintiffs was taken and disposed of by a third party.

On October 2, 2014, Tri State filed Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (the "Motion"), asking the Court to dismiss (i) Counts I through IV of the complaint; (ii) any claim for treble damages; (iii) the request for compensatory damages in an amount of $30, 000; and (iv) any punitive damages claims by Plaintiffs.

For the reasons stated in this Opinion, the Motion is DENIED with respect to summary judgment dismissing Counts I through IV, and the Motion is GRANTED with respect to applying the Value Limit Clause to Counts I, III and IV, and with respect to dismissing Plaintiffs' punitive damages claim.

Procedural Background

Plaintiffs filed suit against Tri State on March 6, 2014. In the Complaint, Plaintiffs assert five claims: (i) Negligence or Gross Negligence (Count I); (ii) Trespass and Conversion (Count II); (iii) Breach of Contract and Breach of Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing (Count III); (iv) Breach of Constructive or Involuntary Bailment (Count IV); and (v) Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Trade Practices (Count V). Subsequent to the filing of the Complaint, the parties agreed to the dismissal, with prejudice, of Count V. On September 24, 2014, the Court, thereafter, entered the Amended Partial Stipulation of Dismissal of Count V: Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Trade Practices, of the Complaint.

On October 3, 2014, Tri State filed the Motion. The Motion seeks summary judgment on all claims asserted by Plaintiffs. The gravamen of the Motion is that Mr. Ellis is limited in his claims against Tri State by the contractual provisions contained in an agreement (the "Contract") entered into by Mr. Ellis and Tri State. In making its arguments, Tri State relies heavily on provisions of the Contract that limit (i) the types of claims that can be asserted by Mr. Ellis and (ii) the amount of any liability Tri State can have for any wrongful or improper foreclosure or sale of the contents of the property Mr. Ellis stored under the Contract. In addition, Tri State seeks summary judgment against Ms. Ellis, arguing that she is not an intended third party beneficiary of the Contract and that Tri State owes her no duty, contractual or otherwise.

On October 31, 2014, Plaintiffs filed Plaintiffs' Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (the "Opposition"). In the Opposition, Plaintiffs argue that questions of fact exist with respect to all the claims asserted in the Complaint. Moreover, Plaintiffs contend that the question of punitive damages is a question of fact for a jury and not one ripe for summary judgment under the facts of this case. Plaintiffs contend that their claims do not arise under the Contract and, therefore, none of the provisions of the Contract limit the claims asserted in the Complaint.

On November 13, 2014, the Court held a hearing on the Motion and the Opposition. Counsel for Plaintiffs and Tri State appeared and had an opportunity to be heard. After hearing oral arguments, the Court took the matter under advisement.

Factual Background

At this stage in the proceeding and for purposes of the Motion, the parties do not dispute the material facts. Accordingly, the Court will use the facts as set forth in the Opposition.

Facts:

Plaintiffs purchased a new home in early 2013. Plaintiffs chose to store certain personal possessions at Tri State's self-storage facility at 100 Hickman Road, Claymont, Delaware (the "Facility"). On May 10, 2013, Mr. Ellis entered into the Contract with Tri State regarding the storage of Plaintiffs' personal property, in this case furniture, at the Facility. The Contract is signed by Mr. Ellis and Jane Lawson, Tri State's employee and manager of the Facility. Under the Contract, Mr. Ellis agreed to pay $160.00 per month for the use of unit 016 (the "Unit") at the Facility. There is no evidence that Mr. Ellis ever failed to make a monthly payment or that any payment was not paid on a timely basis.

In June 2013, Ms. Lawson conducted a file review of the units at the Facility. Ms. Lawson erroneously determined, when looking at Tri State's computer system that the contents of the Unit had been auctioned off to a buyer, Donald Boone. In reality, the auction had occurred in April 2013, prior to when Mr. Ellis rented the Unit. Mr. Boone had purchased the previous occupier's property from the Unit and not Plaintiffs' property.

Ms. Lawson physically examined the Unit and observed that there was a lock on the Unit. Despite this, Ms. Lawson did not check Tri State's computer system to determine if the Unit had been rented to a new occupant. As stated above, Tri State had leased the Unit to ...


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