Appeal from the Circuit Court of Boone County. Nos. 03-SC-293 & 03-SC-306. Honorable J. Edward Prochaska, Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bowman
After two separate small claims bench trials, defendant Paradise Park, Inc. (PPI), was found liable for conversion, illegal eviction, and negligent failure to protect property. PPI seeks to reverse the trial court's rulings. Because both cases arise from a common set of events, the cases have been consolidated on appeal. We affirm the trial court's decisions.
Plaintiff Romas Dargis filed a small claims complaint on October 21, 2003, to recover the value of a deck that PPI and its vice-president, Anthony J. Dini in his individual capacity, allegedly converted for their own uses at a trailer park owned by PPI. Shortly thereafter, on November 4, 2003, plaintiff Lucia Zuro filed a small claims complaint to recover the value of property that was damaged or stolen allegedly as a result of PPI illegally evicting her from its trailer park. Zuro served summons upon PPI, and Dargis served summons upon Dini. Attorney Mark E. Thompson subsequently filed appearances on behalf of Dini in the Dargis case and on behalf of PPI in the Zuro case. On November 25, 2003, attorney Thompson filed separate answers to the two complaints, denying all of the allegations.
On January 13, 2004, and on February 3, 2004, Judge J. Edward Prochaska conducted separate bench trials on the Dargis case and on the Zuro case, respectively. After considering testimony and exhibits, Judge Prochaska issued two written opinions, making findings of fact and conclusions of law, and explicitly incorporating his opinion on the Dargis case into his opinion on the Zuro case. The following are the collective findings and conclusions of Judge Prochaska.
Zuro contracted with PPI to rent seasonal recreational vehicle (RV) campsite S50 at Paradise Park during the 2003 season, which ran from April 11 to October 26, 2003 (weather permitting), for a fee of $1,100, payable in equal one-third installments by May 31, 2003. The site contract, entitled "Seasonal Site Contract," permitted Zuro to maintain a trailer on the campsite, to use and enjoy common facilities, and to entertain visitors who registered with and paid a daily fee to PPI. However, it explicitly stated: "This contract creates a license and does not create any ownership or leasehold interest in any RV site or in Paradise Park." The contract also stated:
"No site Alterations such as bushes, trees or permanent fixtures may be done with out consent of management. Decks are permitted, with approval of the management, and a signed deck contract. Maximum width of decks is 10 ft. *** Any decks, bushes, patio blocks, etc installed on your site must remain when you leave."
PPI reserved the right to terminate the contract, as well as the use and enjoyment of the common facilities at Paradise Park, for violation of terms of the contract. PPI also reserved the right to assign RV sites at the expiration or termination of the contract, but restricted the trading or reassignment of sites and contracts without its express permission. The contract contained an exculpatory clause, the terms of which hold PPI harmless, release PPI from liability, and provide a waiver of all causes of action against PPI, for any property damage "related to occupancy and use of an RV site." Finally, the contract required all seasonal campers to maintain insurance for any and all property damage.
Zuro occupied site S50 and owned a 10-foot by 30-foot portable wood deck, which was maintained on the site. Dargis, who was Zuro's guest at the campsite and who had not signed a site contract with PPI, purchased that deck from Zuro for $5,000. He subsequently maintained and improved it prior to selling it to an unnamed third party in the fall of 2003.
At some time during the 2003 season, PPI promulgated a new policy that required each camper who had a deck to sign a deck contract that charged a $200 fee in order to maintain a deck on a campsite. Zuro and Dargis opposed this policy and organized a group of campers to protest it. Dargis then began to remove the deck from site S50, but PPI's security agents prevented him from doing so.
On October 18, 2003, Zuro and Dargis were evicted from the campsite and were given two hours to pack their belongings, after Dini, an agent of PPI, gave Zuro a document entitled "Termination of Contract," which stated:
"As of October 18, 2003 at 2:30 P.M. your contract has been terminated affective [sic] immediately. As of this point in time you are no longer allowed on this property and are requested to leave immediately."
As a result of the sudden eviction, Zuro was forced to leave at the campsite many of her personal belongings both inside and outside the trailer. When PPI permitted Zuro to return to her trailer on October 30, 2003, many of her items were damaged or missing.
Although no reason for the eviction was given on October 18, 2003, Dini testified at trial that Zuro and Dargis were evicted in order to prevent them from removing the deck, which PPI believed to be its property. At trial, Zuro and Dargis testified that they were evicted in retaliation for their efforts to organize other campers to oppose the new deck policy. Judge Prochaska determined that a combination of the two reasons probably led to the eviction.
After hearing the evidence at the trials, Judge Prochaska found that PPI and Dini unlawfully converted the deck for their own uses and unjustly enriched themselves at Dargis's expense. He found that PPI unlawfully evicted Zuro and negligently failed to protect Zuro's property.
Judge Prochaska's unlawful conversion determination was based upon the contract between Zuro and PPI. He found that Zuro's ownership of the deck was undisputed, that the contract did not preclude her from selling the deck, and that the contract did not prevent subsequent sale of the deck to a third party. Because Dargis was not a party to the contract between Zuro and PPI, PPI had no legal right to prevent him from removing the deck once he purchased it from Zuro. When they prevented ...