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What is the difference between a bailee and an agent?

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While there can be considerable overlap between the duties of a bailee and that of an agent, there is an important distinction between the two. Of the two, bailees and agents, the latter is the more consequential.

General definitions for bailees and agents are as follows:

Bailee: an individual or entity that assumes control or temporary possession of the property of another. In its most generic context, it is an individual (representing a business) who assumes responsibility for another individual’s required presence at a legal proceeding in exchange for holding that latter individual’s property. Bailees, however, are also involved in the execution of legal arrangements, such as when they are assigned or hired to act as middlemen, holding a good while other aspects of a process are carried out, such as deposit and clearing of a payment.

Agent: a designated official, usually an attorney, acting on behalf of another individual or entity. An agent represents another individual or entity’s interests in a legal proceeding, such as when a sports agent negotiates a contract on behalf of a professional athlete.

As can be seen by these respective definitions, agents are the more influential party involved in legal matters, acting as the party of interest. Bailees, in contrast, are less influential, serving mainly as a means of securing an item (including, in the criminal justice context, human beings) until the broader legal process has played out. The two can be interchangeable, but a bailee, absent a legal background and license to practice law in a given state, cannot act as an agent unless the ground rules are firmly established and a license is not required for the task at hand.

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A bailee, also called a custodian, is a person with whom some article is left, usually pursuant to a contract (contract of bailment). The bailee is responsible for the safe return of the article to the owner when the contract is fulfilled. A good example is a parking garage attendant.

An agent is a person who is authorized to act for another...the principal, through employment or contract. An agent can bind the principal by contract or create liability if the principal causes harm while in the scope of agency.

The main difference between the two is that a bailee is not authorized to act for the principal.

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