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Avoiding Language-Related Liability in Your Self-Storage Operation

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By Murphy Klasing

“Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” It’s a common cliché, and yet many business owners fail to follow that time-tested rule. Every company that deals directly with consumers makes promises about its product or service—it’ll relieve heartburn, re-grow hair, help you sleep, improve your swing, improve “performance,” and so on. When a product fails to deliver on the promises made, lawyers like me start making money.

Self-storage facilities aren’t immune from this risk. Hopefully, after you read this article, you’ll have some ideas on how to avoid liability from the words you use in your facility advertising, promotions, signage and communication with tenants.

Security

If you’re a self-storage owner, your tenants should each have a signed lease. In nearly every state, the lease primarily—if not exclusively—controls the relationship. It sets out what you and the tenant will and won’t do. If your facility doesn’t provide security for tenants’ stored goods (guards, specialized locks, 24-hour surveillance), that should be explained in the lease agreement.

In my experience, most self-storage facilities don’t provide security. Sure, there may be keypad entry, but that’s to keep people out who don’t pay. There may be video cameras, but those are for the protection of your employees. Do you feel confident you won’t be liable if a thief breaks into a unit and steals items from a tenant?

Consider this: A prospective tenant asks the facility manager, “Is this a safe location? Will my stuff be protected here?” The manager, wanting to make the sale, says, “Absolutely. We never have break-ins, and we have keypad entry and cameras.” The prospect says, “Whew! Now I know this box of gold will be safe.”

A week later, that tenant’s unit is broken into and the gold is gone. The tenant sues. Your lawyer says, “Sorry tenant, your lease clearly states that we don’t provide security.” The tenant’s lawyer says, “That may be, but your property manager told my client this place was safe, never had break-ins, and there are security devices on the property.” Your contract begins to look like fax paper from the 1980s, faded and curled.

The law works like this: If you entice a customer into purchasing your service or produce with statements about its quality, you’d better deliver. If you don’t, you may be accused of “deceptive trade.” Your contract may sound great, but you can’t promise something orally and then flash a contract in the tenant’s face like a shield that says the opposite.

The lesson here is, if you don’t provide security, don’t say you do. Take down any signs that say “Cameras on property are recording to aid in law enforcement,” “24-hour security surveillance” and “Keypad entry for your protection.” When a tenant asks, tell him you don’t provide security, and that’s why you suggest he purchase a really good lock … and tenant insurance.

Advertising

Advertising is a style of persuasive argument. It’s meant to convince someone to use your self-storage facility, not the one down the road. National companies use phrases like, “The self-storage experts,” “Tomorrow starts here” and “Your self-storage solution.”

When you advertise, make sure everything in your flier, commercial, brochure, etc., is accurate. If it says your tenant-protection plan covers earthquake damage, make sure it does. Don’t tell customers your rent is the best in town if you intend to mark it up every six months to where it becomes more expensive than that of competitors.

Climate Control

The phrase I’ve seen result in the most self-storage litigation is “climate-controlled.” It’s a phrase many facility operators use, but is it accurate?

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