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Zacharia v. Harbor Island Spa Inc.

decided: June 25, 1982.

SARAH ZACHARIA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT
v.
HARBOR ISLAND SPA, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE



Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Edward R. Neaher, Judge), dismissing the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Newman, Cardamone and Winter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Winter

WINTER, Circuit Judge:

This appeal of a diversity case raises issues as to the meaning of a Florida statute limiting the liability of hotels for losses of valuables entrusted to them by guests. Plaintiff's action for damages resulting from the loss of jewelry was dismissed by Judge Neaher for lack of jurisdiction. That opinion is reported at 519 F. Supp. 456 (E.D.N.Y. 1981).

We reverse.

BACKGROUND

Florida provides hotels with a statutory method of limiting their liability for the loss of valuables which they accept for safekeeping from guests. The pertinent statutory language reads:

liability . . . shall be limited to $1,000 for such loss if the [hotel] gave a receipt for the property (stating the value) on a form which stated, in type large enough to be clearly noticeable, that the [hotel] was not liable for any loss exceeding $1,000 and was only liable for that amount if the loss was the proximate result of fault or negligence of the operator.

Fla. Stat. § 509.111(1) (1979).

On November 17, 1979, the plaintiff, Mrs. Sarah Zacharia, checked into defendant's Harbor Island Spa Hotel in Miami Beach. She signed a registration card which stated " Hotel's Liability is Limited As Provided in Posted 'Important Notice to Guests'." Soon thereafter, she sought the use of a Hotel safe deposit box to store her valuables. At the Hotel's request, she signed two cards. The first, Card (1), was entitled "Harbor Island Spa, Inc. -- Statement of Value." The second, Card (2), was entitled "Safe Deposit Box -- Statement of Value." These are set out in the margin.*fn1 Both cards state that the Hotel's liability is limited to $1,000 for loss of valuables deposited in a safe deposit box. Each contains language certifying that the aggregate value of items on deposit will at no time exceed $1,000. The limitation provisions of Card (1), however, were crossed out and Zacharia was not asked to fill in the blanks on Card (2) for her name, the Hotel's name and the date of deposit. The parties dispute what she was told by Hotel employees, Zacharia claiming the desk clerk told her not to worry about the cards which were merely for the Hotel's record, the Hotel denying such statements were made.

On some 36 occasions Zacharia sought access to the safe deposit box and signed the reverse side of Card (2) in order to verify her identity. Neither on the first nor on any later occasion was she given any document evidencing either a deposit of valuables or the potential limitation on the Hotel's liability.

On December 7 or 8, 1979, many safe deposit boxes, including Zacharia's, were emptied by a thief, apparently a desk clerk who vanished at the same time as the contents of the boxes. Zacharia's claim of loss is in excess of $10,000. The Hotel, on the other hand, is prepared to present evidence that her original claim escalated sharply after a phone call to New York from the Hotel lobby.

Alleging diversity of citizenship and an amount in controversy exceeding $10,000, Zacharia brought an action in the Eastern District of New York. The District Court granted the Hotel's motion for summary judgment, holding that on the undisputed facts the Hotel satisfied the requirements of § 509.111(1) and that its liability to Zacharia was limited to $1,000. It then dismissed the action sua sponte for want of subject matter ...


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