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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Finding Law in the News

From an AP Story:

A contractor who helped discover bundles of cash totaling $182,000 hidden behind bathroom walls says the homeowner should turn the money over to him — or at least share it.

Bob Kitts said his feud with the owner of the house, a former high school classmate, has deteriorated to the point where they speak to each other only through lawyers.

Kitts said his lawyer has drafted a lawsuit that he hopes will force Amanda Reece to turn over the money she has kept. Meanwhile, Reece accuses Kitts of shaking her down.

Most of the currency, issued in 1927 and 1929, is in good condition, and some of the bills are so rare that one currency appraiser valued the treasure at as much as $500,000, Kitts said.

The fight began in May 2006 when Kitts was gutting Reece's bathroom and found a box below the medicine cabinet that contained $25,200.

"I almost passed out," Kitts recalled. "It was the ultimate contractor fantasy."

He called Reece, who rushed home. Together they found another steel box tied to the end of a wire nailed to a stud. Inside was more than $100,000, Kitts said. Two more boxes were filled with a mix of money and religious memorabilia.

"It was insane," Kitts said. "She was in shock — she was a wreck."

The bundles had "P. Dunne" written on them, probably a reference to Peter Dunne, a businessman who owned the home during the Depression.

Kitts said he took some of the currency for an appraisal and learned that many of the $10 bills were rare 1929-series Cleveland Federal Reserve bank notes, worth about $85 each. There also were $500 bills and one $1,000 bill.

John Chambers, an attorney for Reece, said Kitts rejected his client's offer of a 10 percent finder's fee and demanded 40 percent of the small fortune.

Kitts asserts he found lost money, and court rulings in Ohio establish that a "finders keepers" law applies if there's no reason to believe any owner will reappear to claim it.

I don't know enough about Ohio law to comment on that last sentence.  The prior cases that Kitts referenced may not have presented facts like this one, where the finder was on the property as an agent of the property owner.  Finding cases are all over the place in their results, but this one reminds me of the case involving two workers who found gold on Jann Wenner's property; the judge awarded the gold to Wenner in part because the workers were on the property to act on Wenner's behalf.  These issues are discussed in notes 3 and 4 on p. 106 of the sixth edition of Dukeminier & Krier.

Ben Barros

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