FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that an artist can sue UPS in state court over two paintings removed from their shipping tube while in transit and sold by the company UPS contracts to handle its lost-and-found operation.
The court ruled that artist Ivana Vidovic Mlinar’s lawsuit can go to trial, rejecting UPS’ argument that federal law applies.
Mlinar didn’t purchase insurance in 2005 when she shipped her paintings, “Advice” and “The Messenger,” from a South Florida package store that used UPS. The paintings, which she valued at $30,000, were headed to a New York City exhibit that she saw as a major opportunity to advance her career. When the shipping tube arrived at the gallery, however, it had been cut open and was empty.
Mlinar contacted UPS, which told her it couldn’t help her directly because the package store was its customer, not her — even though she had been given a UPS receipt and tracking number. The package store gave her a $100 coupon and she partly blamed herself for not buying insurance.
But the situation changed in 2007. Mara Hatfield, Mlinar’s attorney, said the artist was contacted by a Missouri man who had bought “Advice” from a company, Cargo Largo. UPS contracts with that Kansas City, Missouri,-based company to handle its lost-and-found operation. Any goods Cargo Largo can’t return, it gets to sell.
Hatfield said Cargo Largo sold “Advice” to the Missouri man for $1,000 — a fraction of its value. He also acquired “The Messenger” from another party. Realizing the paintings’ value, he listed them on Craigslist, offering to trade them for a used Mercedes-Benz. He also contacted Mlinar, who had placed an identification sticker on the back of her paintings.
This development led Mlinar to file suit in Florida court against UPS, Cargo Largo and the packing store, alleging they had profited from criminal activity — the theft of her paintings — and had violated her copyright. She also accused UPS of deceptive trade practices by having the packing store give her a UPS receipt and make it appear she was a UPS customer.
The buyer returned the paintings in exchange for being dropped from the copyright lawsuit.
UPS argued that under a century-old federal law governing interstate shipping, lawsuits involving lost goods must be tried in federal court. The company’s lawyers argued that since the two-year federal statute of limitations had expired, Mlinar couldn’t sue in federal court, either.
Florida’s lower courts agreed with UPS, but the state Supreme Court reinstated the lawsuit Thursday and ordered it heard. The seven members ruled Mlinar has a possible argument that her paintings weren’t simply lost, but that criminal activity took place. Under those circumstances, the lawsuit can be tried in state court.
UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg said Thursday that the company looks forward to trying the case and that Mlinar has not provided any evidence substantiating wrongdoing by the company.
Cargo Largo did not return a phone message seeking comment.