COA: Bailment applies in business arrangement gone bad

Despite the pro se defendant claiming he had never heard the word “bailment,” the Indiana Court of Appeals found he became the bailee when he threatened to shoot his friend and pseudo-tenant in a dispute that started with the purchase of a brand new motorcycle.

Blake Winters entered into a business arrangement with his friend and fellow motorcycle enthusiast Kyle Pike that allowed Pike to continue running his motorcycle repair shop on a small parcel of land that Winters started leasing in 2019.

During the summer of 2020, Winters, a gun enthusiast, wanted to show his new silencer to Pike, but when he visited and saw Pike had bought a new motorcycle, he became angry. Winters shoved Pike to the ground and choked him. As he was leaving, Winters said he was going to sell all of Pike’s stuff and threatened to shoot Pike if he came on the property.

Later, Winters sent a text saying Pike could have the items in the shop in exchange for $5,000.

Pike and his wife, Mirissa, filed a cease-and-desist letter, demanding Winters and his wife, Jamie, not remove or sell any of the items from the shop. Also, the Pikes requested they have access to the shop so they could remove their personal property. When the Winterses refused, the Pikes filed a replevin action.

The Hendricks Superior Court ruled the Pikes were entitled to have certain items in the shop returned and to be reimbursed for the missing or unaccounted-for items. Also, the Winterses, who were representing themselves, were ordered to pay the Pikes $26,000 for the unaccounted-for items plus any amount determined due and owing after the items were retrieved.

Appealing the ruling, the Winterses claimed the trial court improperly based its decision on the theory of bailment rather than replevin. They claimed the Pikes’ complaint did not alert them to the applicability of bailment law and, according to his appellate brief, Blake Winters “had not even heard the word ‘bailment’ until reading the (Trial) Court’s order.”

But the Court of Appeals was not persuaded, affirming the trial court’s decision in Blake Winters and Jamie Winters v. Kyle Pike and Mirissa Pike, 21A-PL-27.

When the Winterses leased the parcel of land that contained Pikes’ shop, they agreed Kyle Pike would pay Blake Winters $400 per month plus lawn-mowing services in exchange for the right to continuing using the shop to operate his mechanic’s business.

At the appellate court, the Winterses argued the arrangement was not a contract for bailment and they had never accepted the items as bailees. Also, pointing to Stubbs v. Hook, 467 N.E.2d 29, 31 (Ind. Ct. App. 1984), trans. denied (1985), they asserted they did not have exclusive possession of the items because Kyle Pike retained the shop’s key and code.

The Court of Appeals found Stubbs was analogous, but only up to a point.

“Immediately after Blake shoved and choked Kyle in the Pikes’ driveway, Blake told (and later texted) Kyle that if he set foot on the Property, Blake would shoot him. At this point, Kyle’s key and access code became worthless, from both a legal and a practical standpoint,” Judge Terry Crone wrote for the court. “Legally, he would now be considered a trespasser if he were to approach the Shop to retrieve his items, and, practically speaking, he knew that approaching the Shop could cost him his life, particularly given that Blake was a gun enthusiast.

“Moreover, we believe that Blake’s threats to shoot Kyle as well as his assertion that he was going to sell all of Kyle’s items amount to an acceptance and exertion of control over Kyle’s items sufficient to imply a bailment,” Crone continued. “… Blake’s subsequent attempt to negotiate a return of Kyle’s items in exchange for $5000 underscores his perception of his own control over the items.”

In a footnote, the court addressed the Winterses’ additional argument that they did not have exclusive possession because they were leasing the property from Nicholas Farms. The appellate panel disagreed and found the relevant agreement was the verbal one between Blake Winters and Kyle Pike. Further, the panel pointed to the testimony of Ted Nicholas, which showed he had no oversight and was unaware of the agreement between the other two men.

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