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August 22, 1997


Appeal from the Judgment entered August 21, 1996 in the Court of Common Pleas of Montour County, Civil Division, No. 483 of 1994. Before NAUS, J.

Before: Beck, Saylor, And Montemuro,* JJ. Opinion BY Saylor, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Saylor


Filed August 22, 1997

Marsha Castetter (Appellant) has appealed from a judgment entered in favor of Mr. "B" Storage (Appellee) following a non-jury trial in the Montour County Court of Common Pleas. We reverse.

A review of the record reveals the following facts. Appellee, which is owned and operated by the Bebenek family, is a self-storage facility located in Danville, Pennsylvania. On February 21, 1994, Appellant executed a written contract with Appellee for the rental of a self-storage unit. The contract provided that in the event of a default in rental payments, Appellee was entitled, after giving proper notice, to sell Appellant's property in order to satisfy unpaid rent.

When she rented the storage unit from Appellee, Appellant was in the process of separating from her husband. With the help of her father and grandfather, Appellant moved all of her personal property out of her marital residence, a five bedroom house, and into the leased storage unit. Once all of her belongings, valued at $1,838.00, had been placed in the storage unit, Appellant secured the unit with a lock given to her by her grandfather. She kept a key for her own use and gave a key to each of her parents.

One month later, at Appellant's request, her father, Calvin Wetzel, Jr., placed her car, a Mercury Sable, in the storage unit. He used the key which Appellant had given him to open the unit. At that time, the bank loan on Appellant's vehicle was in default.

Thereafter, on May 24, 1994, Appellant received a written notice from Appellee, which informed her that she owed $162.80 in rental and late fees for the storage unit. The notice did not state that Appellee planned to sell or otherwise dispose of Appellant's property nor that it had a lien on such property. This was the only written notice Appellant ever received from Appellee. After an unsuccessful attempt to reach Appellant by phone at her parent's residence, Appellee put a second lock on the storage unit in order to restrict Appellant's access to the leased space, pending payment of her past due rent. Appellant was never informed that a second lock had been placed on the unit.

Sometime later, a collection manager from Montour Bank, John Liash, who was seeking to repossess Appellant's vehicle, asked for Appellee's permission to verify that the car was located in the storage unit; such permission was given without Appellant's knowledge or consent. Mr. Bebenek opened the second lock which had been placed on the storage unit as the result of Appellant's delinquency in rent. The record is unclear as to whether or not Appellant's lock was on the unit at that time, and if so, how it was opened.

Mr. Liash verified that Appellant's car was in the leased space and was advised by Appellee that Appellant's delinquency in rent had to be paid in full before the bank would be permitted to remove the vehicle from the storage unit. The bank paid Appellant's storage bill and the car was repossessed. At that time, all of Appellant's personal possessions were still in the unit. No one who was present during the car's repossession could recollect whether or not the unit was secured after the repossession.

Thereafter, Appellant and her mother were driving on a public road past Appellee's storage facility when they happened to notice that the door on Appellant's storage unit was ajar. Upon further investigation, they realized that the unit had been left unlocked, and all of Appellant's personal property, including sentimental items such as her high school yearbooks and her children's toys, had been taken out of the unit. The space which Appellant had leased from Appellee was "completely empty."

Immediately, Appellant contacted Appellee to inquire as to the whereabouts of her belongings. Appellant claims that she was told, by an employee of Appellee, that "the workers...cut the lock and took [her property]." Appellee denies having any knowledge regarding the fate of Appellant's property.

Appellant filed a complaint on October 20, 1994, seeking actual damages in the amount of $1,838.00, and punitive damages in the amount of $5,514.00. A non-jury trial was held on October 18, 1996. A verdict was rendered in favor of Appellee. ...

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