There has been a long-standing debate within the self storage industry about when the first self storage facilities were built. The general census is that the first self storage facilities were built in the southwest in the mid-1960's. Strangely the legal history of the industry -- a tenant suing an owner for damage to stored property -- dates back at least to the mid-1920's. In 1925, an apparel company rented a storage room from Reading Cold Storage and Ice Company. Reading operated a warehouse but one of its customers asked to rent a room for its exclusive use. The storage company agreed to rent the customer a “climate controlled” (it was cooled) room for $35 per month. The customer had a key to the room and access to the room at all times without obtaining the warehouse's permission. The two-sentence agreement between the parties read as follows:
"We will be glad to rent the Storage Room No. 6 to you at the rate of $ 35.00 per month for storage purposes. The above price does not include insurance on the stored goods."
In the Fall of 1927, the parties were in litigation over damage to the customer’s stored property. The customer alleged that it discovered a strange liquid was dripping from numerous places in the ceiling and it damaged the stored property. The customer sued the warehouse to recover the value of the damaged items. The trial court ruled that the warehouse was not liable for the damage. The court found that the customer rented a room on a month-to-month basis and that it had exclusive possession and use of the room. The stored property was not delivered to or handled by the warehouse, nor was the warehouse operator informed when the goods were placed in the room or removed from it. No property receipts of any character were asked for or ever issued.
The trial judge concluded that the contract was not a bailment, as the customer alleged, but rather the parties had the legal status of landlord and tenant. The trial court entered a nonsuit because there was no proof of a negligent act upon the part of the defendant or its employees. No evidence was offered that the damage resulted from leaking pipes, faulty refrigeration, or other instrumentalities under the control of the warehouse operator's control. The customer appealed.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court, in Bash v. Reading Cold Storage & Ice Co., 100 Pa. Super. 359, affirmed. The appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that the warehouse was a bailee and that the trial judge correctly determined that the relationship between the parties was that of landlord and tenant. The appellate court also agreed with the trial court’s determination that the plaintiff provided no evidence that the warehouse operator was negligent.
This is not only the first published opinion involving the rental of a specific room for storage purposes, but the dispute involved the shortest written rental agreement ever used. It is interesting that even in 1927 the parties were concerned about possible loss of or damage to stored property. The contract clearly states that the warehouse operator was not providing insurance covering the customer’s stored property. It was the customer’s responsibility to insure the company’s property. In the ninety years since this case was decided, self storage rental agreements have gotten much longer, but the disputes between operators and their customers remain the same.