The Bright Coast

Progressive Thoughts from San Diego Alums on Law, Politics, and Culture

Meteorite Law: Are Tenants Lost in Space?

Posted by demkid on February 5, 2010

Came across this story yesterday about a nice little meteor that decided to crash through the roof of a Virginia medical office and became a meteorite.  It’s hard to imagine the odds of having such a close encounter with a space rock – the number is probably comparable with the age of the materials inside the object itself – perhaps 1 in 4.6 billion (years).  The two doctors, one of whom has run his family practice in the Virginia town for more than 30 years, decided to do the responsible thing and give the object to the Smithsonian Institution.  For a second, it seemed like everything was going to be taken care of almost as fast as the rock came through the ceiling of the doctors’ examination room…happy scientists would have something new to study, and the doctors would donate their $5,000 reward to Haiti relief.  However, as with anything that has the potential to bring in a large sum of money (perhaps $25,000 to $50,000 on the open market), the law became involved:

Gallini, [the doctor], said he notified his property owner, Erol Mutlu, of plans to hand the object over to the Smithsonian, which holds the world’s largest museum collection of meteorites. Gallini says he got Mutlu’s permission. Later in the week, though, Mutlu sent the doctors an e-mail warning that his brother and fellow landlord Deniz Mutlu was going to the Smithsonian to retrieve the rock, Gallini said.

He wouldn’t share the e-mail exchange with The Associated Press, but The Washington Post reported that Erol Mutlu wrote that “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 e-mail said.

Natural cause?  Sounds like a theory that would be examined in a 1st-year Property Law class, right after a discussion of Pierson v. Post!  Pierson, the famous case of a man killing and taking away a fox being pursued at the time by another, actually may have some relevance here.  A layperson might quickly agree with the landowner, that the meteorite should belong to the owner of the land upon which it fell.  In fact, this is normally the correct conclusion, not only in the United States, but around the world.  I was curious about this “natural cause” theory, and about the ownership of objects falling from the sky, so I did a quick search and happened upon a nice little articled entitled: “The Law of Ownership and Control of Meteorites”.  The author, Douglas G. Schmitt, examined meteorite ownership law in several countries and concluded that:

Each legal system is unique, but in general terms in most places the landowner of the place of find owns the meteorite.  In some jurisdictions ownership is shared, or entirely, with the meteorite finder.  Recent legislation in many countries has moved toward compulsory delivery to the state, with compensation paid to the finder.

In the United States, courts have held that a find is owned by the landowner.  Apparently, the natural cause theory comes from an Iowa Supreme Court case back in 1892, where the Court held that the meteorite became part of the land where it arrived through natural causes, and was the property of the landowner.  Another ancient case, decided by the Oregon Supreme Court, held that a meteorite was part of the soil on which it fell, and therefore belonged to the soils owner. 

However, the doctors, as tenants in possession who captured a previously unowned resource and arguably converted it into property (remember Pierson?), may in fact have a valid claim to the rock under Virginia law.  I don’t know much about the strength of this argument, but according to the Land Use Prof Blog, various Property professors have been discussing this concept at length since the story came out.  The other potential argument that the doctors could make is that the meteorite is “found” property, but this doesn’t seem to be holding much weight. 

Apparently, the landlords here aren’t making any formal demands, and seem to even be backing away from their initial claim to ownership.  I’m really hoping this will be fought out a bit, if only for the fact that it makes for an interesting Property Law case!  Perhaps a decent law review article will be forthcoming?  Come on, Mutlu Brothers…stake your claim!  I want to be sure I know the rightful owner, the next time something from far, far away comes crashing through my roof!

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5 Responses to “Meteorite Law: Are Tenants Lost in Space?”

  1. just me said

    Are you offering free legal services? If you are, contact us. If not…well,…..

  2. demkid said

    To determine who the rightful owner of the rock should be? I think perhaps a Virginia attorney would be better suited for that! 🙂

  3. Wow! As a San Diego bankruptcy lawyer, you don’t see many cases like this. Great post. Interesting stuff.

  4. Andrea Boyack said

    A fun and fascinating tidbit on original allocation of property rights. See my op-ed on this in the National Law Journal:
    http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202446510671&hbxlogin=1

  5. Interesting blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?
    A design like yours with a few simple tweeks would really make my blog jump out.
    Please let me know where you got your design.

    Appreciate it

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