Hannah v. Peel

King’s Bench, 1945.

1 K.B. 509.

Johnson, pp. 32-37


Facts: The defendant’s manor was requisitioned by the military for use in World War II.  A soldier staying there found a brooch.  He turned it in to the police.  When the owner couldn’t be found, the brooch was turned over to the owner of the manor instead of the solider.  The manor owner sold it.  The solider sued the manor owner for the value of the brooch, claiming “finders keepers”.  The manor owner’s defense is that he has superior title to the brooch because it was found on his property.


Issue: Who has superior title to the brooch?


Rule: NEW(ish) RULE!  A landowner owns everything attached to or under the land, but not necessarily stuff lying on the surface of the land even though the stuff isn’t possessed by someone else.


Analysis: The court pours over the authorities, doing a lot of analogizing and distinguishing.  The court first considers the rule of Armory v. Delamire, then the more controversial Bridges v. Hawkesworth.  The latter case says that the “finders keepers except to the true owner” rule applies no matter where the item is found.  But then there is a third case that seems to be in conflict.  In South Staffordshire Water Co. v. Sharman, some rings were found embedded in some mud at the bottom of a pool (c.f. Lord of the Rings), and it was ruled that the finder didn’t get them because they were a part of the real estate, as it were.


The court eventually comes to the rule above, and thus finds for the plaintiff.


Conclusion: The soldier gets the value of the brooch.


Notes and Questions


1.     Major Peel seems to have a couple of strikes against him: the plaintiff’s conduct was “meritorious” and Peel never lived in the manor.  It seems like if Peel actually had lived in the manor, he could claim (even if falsely) that he knew the brooch was there, and thus possessed it just as he would any other personal property stored in the house.  Matthew’s advice probably isn’t very useful legally.  If you find the treasure, you should take the treasure with you instead of buying the field.  If you plan to buy the field, but someone else digs up the treasure first, then you’ll lose out.  I’m sure that’s not what Matt meant, though.

2.     There are two different ways to read South Staffordshire and distinguish it from Bridges: (1) The finder in South Staffordshire was an employee of the landowners, and therefore the rings that were found become the property of the employer rather than the employee, or (2) the rings were not lying unattached on the land, but rather were “buried” under the mud, and thus were part of the landowner’s real estate interest.  I think the court makes a good argument for why the rulings are indeed reconcilable.  The court in Bridges said that the money was lost rather than mislaid, that is, it wasn’t left intentionally.  The law of bailments therefore said that possession went to the finder instead of the landowner.

3.     If we assume that the chimney sweep’s boy was employed by the tavern owner, then under one interpretation of South Staffordshire the jewel belongs to the tavern owner.  However, the chimney sweep’s boy could argue that South Staffordshire stands for the proposition that buried stuff belongs to the landowner, but loose stuff doesn’t, and thus the jewel belongs to him.  On the other hand, the tavern owner could attempt to distinguish Hannah by saying that he was in possession of the tavern, unlike Peel who never lived in his manor.  The tavern owner could argue that Peel would have prevailed in that case if he had possession of the manor, and thus that the tavern owner should win in this case.

If the tavern owner and chimney sweep’s boy both come to the jeweler, it seems like the proper thing to do would be to turn the jewel over to the police in anticipation of the matter being resolved in court.

4.     Here are the four categories:

a.      Lost – The true owner has been unintentionally dispossessed of the property.  The finder has better title to lost stuff than anyone except the true owner.

b.     Mislaid – The true owner intentionally left the stuff sitting around, intending to pick it up, but forgot.  In this case, the owner of the property where the stuff is found has better title to the stuff than anyone except the true owner.

c.     Abandoned – The previous owner intentionally gave up the property and left it lying around so that someone else could acquire it.  For example, if you leave furniture on the curb to be picked up by the garbage truck, it could be understood to be abandoned property.  The finder of such property has an unqualified right to it.

d.     Treasure trove – This one is like pirate booty!  If you find hidden treasure that has been hidden for so long that it would be impossible to find the true owner, then the treasure is awarded to the finder as long as they weren’t trespassing.

5.     Okay!


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