Do Victims of Parking-Lot Theft Have Any Recourse?
I’m setting up a business in Costa Rica and trying to help families with educational and medical needs through our nonprofit foundation in the United States. On my first visit to Costa Rica to meet with my attorney and a dozen or so doctors, I was a victim of theft at the Parqueo Público owned by Inversiones Tárcoles S.A, across the street from the Clínica Bíblica Hospital, my first meeting place in San José.
As I arrived Feb. 5 at 11 a.m., I was greeted by a large young man at the door of the parking garage who communicated with another slender young man, whom I later found out was the parking garage manager. They both helped me park my car in the spot they wanted me to park in. When I returned two hours later the same two young men were there at the garage. Now they pointed out that my rental car had been moved and I had a flat tire on the right rear tire.
After getting my car jack out of the back and replacing it, I locked my car, but because it was a rental and I had picked it up only three hours earlier, I was not too familiar with it. I did not realize that only the driver’s door locks the entire system. (I’m filing a complaint with the car rental company as well.)
Later, the parking-lot personnel told me that a child and another man had come into the garage; the child got into my car through the unlocked driver’s door and stole my briefcase. I lost all my paperwork for the appointments I had with doctors for the next three days and about $800 in personal property and $500 in travelers’ checks.
Without my appointment information, I was unable to make my appointments that I had set up during the previous two months. Professionally, that’s a disaster. I was looking to build or buy a medical-recovery retreat in Costa Rica and help families with educational skills and medical needs that they don’t have access to because of their economic conditions. Now, I’m reconsidering my options.
I’m really unhappy that this type of behavior is so prevalent in Costa Rica – particularly downtown. Everyone advised me that even the police wouldn’t come to investigate and Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) isn’t interested in what agents consider small crimes.
Someone needs to stand up and make a difference. Is there anyone in Costa Rica willing to take the right and proper action?
Midvale, Utah, USA
According to the Judicial Branch, any person whose belongings are stolen from a parking lot can sue the owner of the lot for the amount lost, or more – even if the parking lot is free.
That doesn’t mean the process is simple or easy, of course.
There’s certainly confusion surrounding situations like the one you describe. Representatives of the Public Security Ministry, which runs the National Police, told The Tico Times parking-lot owners were likely not responsible for theft, but that it’s really a municipal issue. Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) spokeswoman Margarita Morales said she’d need to consult the Robbery Division for an answer.
That answer? The country’s high court is on your side. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a car owner whose car was broken into in the parking lot of the San José Palacio hotel, west of the capital, and the hotel owner had to pay damages (TT, June 24, 2005). Justices stated that the owners of any parking lot, whether paid or free, are responsible for damages or theft involving vehicles left in the lot, Morales explained. Those owners can’t be held criminally responsible, but clients can file a civil suit against the owner for the amount lost.
The ruling applies even in free lots such as those offered at supermarkets and shopping centers, where signs often warn clients that the owners are not responsible for theft or damages.
In fact, the Supreme Court’s Civil and Administrative Law Branch (Sala I) recently upheld this principal when it ordered Hipermás supermarket, owned by Wal-Mart Costa Rica, to pay for a car stolen at the chain’s San Sebastián branch, south of San José, according to the daily La Nación.
If the client can prove additional losses – for example, if, as in Housley’s case, a computer is stolen that causes damage to the client’s business operations – the parking- lot owner may even be required to pay more than the value of the stolen or damaged goods,Morales added.
The bad news? Before filing a civil suit, a person whose property has been stolen or damaged in a parking lot should notify both the National Police and the OIJ to obtain the proper documentation that a crime took place, Morales said. Then the victim should find an attorney to help him or her file a civil suit. Should the victim need to leave the country before a ruling, that person can designate power of attorney to a representative.
Javier Pacheco, the administrator of Parqueo Pacheco – the lot owned by Inversiones Tarcoles, S.A. – told The Tico Times that his lot, like any other, does take responsibility for theft and has a National Insurance Institute (INS) policy to cover such occurrences. Like OIJ spokeswoman Morales, Pacheco said a client whose vehicle suffers damages in a lot should contact the police, who will then visit the lot to file a document called a “parte oficial.”
The police document is needed before the lot, or its insurers, can pay the affected client, he said.
Pacheco, who was not present at the time of the incident involving Housley, said that his employees informed him they recommended that Housley call the police, but the client said he did not have time.
Unfortunately, rental cars are a target of crime throughout Costa Rica – in lots or on the road. Rental car agents consulted by The Tico Times in the past have warned that thieves can easily identify rental cars by the make, model and standard features, and that people using rental cars should avoid leaving any valuables inside the car when they get out, no matter where it is parked (TT, June 24, 2005).
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