In bailments, the legal norm is a care commensurate to the hazard, i.e. the amount and kind of care that would be exercised by an ordinarily prudent person in the same or similar circumstances. The character and amount of risk go far, either to decrease or increase degree of care required. The value of property, its attractiveness to light-fingered gentry, and ease or difficulty of its theft have much to say with triers of fact in determining whether there has been exercised degree of care commensurate to risk, whether bailment be gratuitous or otherwise. However unsatisfactory it may be, until legal acumen has developed and formulated a more satisfactory criterion, that of ordinary care should be followed in every case without regard to former distinctions between slight, ordinary, and great care.
A woman left her engagement ring, a platinum piece set with a large cabochon sapphire surrounded by diamonds, with the concierge of a hotel where her jeweller was one of its regular patrons and personally known to the management. The ring was meant to reach her jeweller for certain repairs. The ring was not properly stored and was lost. The woman now filed an action seeking to recover against the hotel for the value of a lost ring. The trial court awarded judgment to the woman, for the value of the engagement ring and denied the hotel's alternative motion for judgment or for a new trial. It held that the hotel, as bailee, was under a duty of exercising ordinary care over the items of those in the hotel.
Was the hotel a bailee that was required to exercise ordinary care?
The Court agreed with the trial court that the hotel was a bailee under a duty of exercising ordinary care. Further, the court held that the bailee had the burden of proving that the loss did not result from his negligence. This burden was not merely the burden of going forward with proofs, nor shifting the burden, but the burden of establishing before the jury that his negligence did not cause loss. Because the care required was that of the ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances, it was obvious that, whatever defendant's care of its own property may have been, it would not alter the standard of care applicable to plaintiff's own property in its hands as bailee.