Sometimes we personal injury lawyers take cases on a contingent fee basis that primarily involve property losses. An example would be cases in which the personal property of a person that is stored in a rental storage unit is seized to pay past-due rent.
If the storage unit renter fails for some reason to pay the rent, there are legal procedures whereby the storage facility operator can seize the property stored in the unit and auction it to apply toward the rent that is owed. There are several things that can go wrong in this process to the detriment of the storage unit renter.
Storage unit operators are required to follow statutes in the State of Washington that govern the seizure and auctioning of the contents of a storage unit for the nonpayment of rent. These procedures are contained in Chapter 19.50 Revised Code of Washington.
If the procedures are not followed, the seizure and auctioning of the property in the unit are invalid. Mistakes can be made in following the statutory procedures, in which event the renter may not even know that the property is being sold, whether or not there is any past-due rent.
The result is that the property can be auctioned off, after which there is usually no way to get it back. In these circumstances, the renter’s only remedy may be a lawsuit against the storage facility operator to collect money equivalent to the value of the property that was auctioned off.
Further, even though the property can be auctioned off, in the State of Washington personal papers and personal photographs of the renter must be stored by the storage facility operator for a period of six months after the auction sale, for return to the renter if the renter seeks to get those items back.
Generally, the statutorily required procedure is for the storage facility operator to send the renter a notice of lien for failure to pay rent, followed by a notice of auction. The notice of auction must give the renter 14 days notice of the auction. During those 14 days the renter can pay the unpaid rent and reinstate the rental agreement.
One of the keys to this process is that if the renter changes his or her place of residences after first renting the storage unit, the renter must give the storage unit operator a written notice of the change of address. Otherwise, the storage facility operator will validly send lien and auction notices to the old address, and the tenant will never receive the notices. In those circumstances, the renter may not have a remedy against the storage facility operator for the value of the property auctioned off.
There are other problems having to do with the storage unit rental agreement. These are drafted by the storage unit operator into a standard form agreement that favors the operator in every manner conceivable. You can go onto the internet to research language used in these agreements.
There are associations of storage unit operators or related entities that have honed language for use in these agreements to protect the operators from suits for the improper sale of the proceeds of the renter’s property. There are several problems with the language that has developed and that is used in some form or another in every storage unit rental agreement in America.
The first problem is that the storage rental agreement is non-negotiable. In other words if the prospective unit renter can’t agree with the language of the operator’s standard form rental agreement, the renter must either not rent or agree to the language anyway. Since all storage unit operators use the problematic language, the renter has no choice but to agree if the renter needs a storage unit. These circumstances may render the rental unit agreement a contract of adhesion. Courts do not enforce contracts of adhesion.
herefore the attempts by operators to shove contract provision down the throat of a renter may not work, and the offending language may be voided. The legal concepts involved here are far, far too complex to explain in this paper. If a storage unit renter finds themselves confronted for a bogus sale, they should contact a personal injury attorney, who can try to get the rental agreement declared contract of adhesion.
The second problem is language in the contract that takes several forms, but all add up to limiting the operator’s liability to a fixed sum of money, usually $5,000.00. This language may provide that the renter agrees to store no more property in the storage unit than the fixed sum of $5,000. If you are storing a valuable old car in a unit, that might not work too well for the renter if there is a fire or the car is otherwise damaged because these car are often more valuable than $5,000.
Other liability language might be a requirement that the renter secure insurance for the property in the unit. To the extent that the renter doesn’t secure insurance, the renter agrees to be self-insured, in which event the storage unit operator isn’t liable for losses that exceed the amount of insurance carried or any self-insurance provided by the renter.
The other legal route to attack language limiting the rental facility operator’s limitation of liability is the Doctrine of Unconscionability. Under this doctrine, the courts will not enforce agreements that are patently unfair in their inception, especially when the bargaining position of the parties is unequal. Again, this too is a very complex area of the law that cannot be explored in this paper, and require the services of a personal injury lawyer.
Finally, there are frequently state statutes in the various states that dictate what kind of language is permissible in these rental agreements. Unfortunately, storage facility operators have lobbyist who play a role in the adoption of these laws. The renters of these units, many of whom are not even known when these laws are adopted, are usually unrepresented when the laws are lobbied. And the public is thus victimized as is so often the case when state legislatures start adopting liability laws for the benefit of special interests, like storage facility operators.
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