Friday, January 29, 2010

Property from Space

Disputes over property owership are common, but it's not every day that property comes falling out of the sky.  The Washington Post reports that an Ownership battle brews over Virginia meteorite:

The doctors who were nearly bonked on the head by the thing when it came plummeting from the asteroid belt into Examining Room No. 2 in the Williamsburg Square Family Practice, gave it to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. In return, Smithsonian officials planned to give them $5,000 in appreciation. The doctors, Marc Gallini and Frank Ciampi, planned to donate the money to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. The Smithsonian planned to put the meteorite on prominent display and study it as a 4.5 billion-year-old postcard from the formation of the solar system.

* * *

But in an extraterrestrial soap opera still unfolding, the landlords of the Virginia building that houses the doctors' office now say they are the rightful owners of the meteorite. Museum officials said the landlords informed them, midday Thursday, that they were coming to take the stone out of the Smithsonian by sundown.

Apparently the falling meteorite put on quite a show as it landed in Lorton, near D.C., and there is a lot of local interest in the story.  But what is the landlords' theory for asserting superior rights to ownership?

[Deniz Mutulu's] brother and fellow landlord, Erol Mutlu, sent Gallini an e-mail earlier this week, politely demanding the rock be given to the family: "It's evident that ownership is tied to the landowner. The U.S. courts have ruled that a meteorite becomes part of the land where it arrives through 'natural cause' and hence the property of the landowner; the notion of 'finders keepers' has been rejected by the Supreme Court of Oregon."

I'm not familiar with the caselaw on ownership of items that plummet from the heavens.  But would it really be a case of "found property," on someone else's land; or would the doctors' claim lie more in their present occupancy of the land as lawful tenants in possession?

Either way, I'm grateful that this story has fallen out of the sky at the same time that I am teaching 1Ls the relevance of ancient cases resolving disputed ownership of foxes, whales, etc., to illustrate the concept of reducing a "wild" resource to property through first possession. 

Thanks to Matt Reres for the pointer.

UPDATE 2/4/10: This case has been the subject of much discussion on the AALS Property Profs listserve over the last two days, with the trend moving from discussing it as a finder's case to one of reducing an unowned resource to property through possession, with analogy to Pierson v. Post et al.  Let the record reflect that the Land Use Prof Blog got there first!

Matt Festa

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