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5 Classic Property Cases Made Easy for 1Ls

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

In property class, things are not always what they seem. American Indians don't own land, people can steal foxes willy-nilly (but not whales), and a fertile octogenarian will always pop up to spoil your day.

To help prepare you for the inevitable migraine you'll face from learning common law property rules -- only to be told they aren't followed anymore -- here are five "classic" property law cases made simple for 1Ls:

1. Pierson v. Post (New York, 1805).

Along with the hairy hands, Pennoyer, cannibalism, and Mrs. Palsgraf, Pierson v. Post stands as the most classic case in its field. Post was hunting foxes with his dogs. Post's dogs cornered the fox, but it was Pierson who caught and killed it. Post sued, claiming that pursuing the fox gave him the right to it. Not so, said the court: Looking to old legal philosophers for guidance, it determined that a person could claim ownership of a wild animal only by actually physically possessing it, or by a combination of mortally wounding it and clearly maintaining pursuit. The outcome would have been different if Pierson had interfered with Post's pursuit, but there was no indication that he did.

2. Ghen v. Rich (Massachusetts, 1881).

Ghen killed a whale, leaving his bomb-lance in the whale. The whale washed up 17 miles later, found by Ellis, who claimed it as his own and sold it. Ghen sued Rich (the person who bought the whale blubber). As a fisherman, Ellis knew or should have known that finding a whale carcass with a bomb-lance in it meant that someone else had killed it and that Ellis didn't have ownership of the carcass. Ghen doesn't change the rule that a person seeking ownership over a wild animal must have possession over it; rather, it says that an industry custom could be used to determine what qualified as "possession." Here, the bomb-lance custom was sufficient.

3. Duke of Norfolk's Case (House of Lords, 1682).

Your torture begins in 1682. The Duke of Norfolk tried to create a shifting executory interest that would go from son to son, on and on, for generations. After one of the sons sued to enforce the interest, the House of Lords nullified the whole thing on the ground that putative property interests shouldn't exist long after the original parties to the agreement were dead. Sure, that makes sense, but as originally written, the rule against perpetuities purported to cancel any conveyance that could even hypothetically violate the rule, necessitating the invention of ever-more-unlikely scenarios in which it could be violated. Thankfully, the rule has been tempered with some common sense in most American jurisdictions.

4. United States v. Causby (U.S. Supreme Court, 1946).

In Olde Timey Times, the doctrine of cujus est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos (whoever owns the soil, owns it all the way from the sky to the underworld) controlled property ownership. In this case, 150 of Causby's chickens were frightened to death by a government bomber that flew way too low; he argued that the government had deprived him of property under the Fifth Amendment -- but because Causby owned the land above his property, not because of the scared dead chickens. The Supreme Court held that Causby had no property interest in the air above his land: "To recognize such private claims to the airspace would clog these highways, seriously interfere with their control and development in the public interest, and transfer into private ownership that to which only the public has a just claim."

5. Johnson & Graham's Lessee v. M'Intosh (U.S. Supreme Court, 1823).

It's not a pretty case, but it's a classic. The plaintiff claimed a right to title to land because the title came directly from the American Indians who used to own the land. The defendant got his title from the US government. In this case, the Supreme Court famously sided with the defendant. Chief Justice John Marshall, who also brought us some other important decisions (see Marbury v. Madison and McColloch v. Maryland), said that discovery and conquest extinguished any title Native Americans had to the land; this title passed from James I of England -- who laid claim to the land -- to the United States. The Native Americans were left only with a right to occupy, granted to them by the English, and then American, government. Because the Native Americans didn't own the land, they couldn't transfer title to anyone else.

Did we miss any of your favorite "classic" property cases? If so, let us know via Twitter (@FindLawLP) or Facebook (FindLaw for Legal Professionals).

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