Monday, December 17, 2007

Who Is Entitled to Found Money?

This issue involves a situation in which the owner cannot be found, or has abandoned the property in the legal sense of "abandonment", and there are two other competing claimants arguing who is entitled to the money.

This musing is prompted by a recent AP story telling of a contractor who discovered bundles of cash totaling $182,000 hidden behind bathroom walls of a house he was renovating. He immediately called the owner of the house. The bills had apparently been stashed there by a former owner of the house, and of course were long since abandoned by that former owner.

The two parties soon fell to arguing about who was entitled to the find, and now talk to each other only through their lawyers. The contractor rejected the owner's offer of a 10% finders fee, and takes the position that in Ohio (where this happened) the rule of "finders keepers" applies. He has offered to settle for 40% of the total, and this is the impasse existing at this time.

This brings to mind the fight over the record-setting Barry Bonds baseball. Replays showed one man catching the ball. There was then a big pileup of bodies, and another man emerged from the scrum with the ball. The first guy says he was "mugged" by the second and the ball stolen from his hand, while the second says no, I saw it rolling on the ground and I dove for it and got it.

Well, the two went to court on this and after a 3-week trial the Judge ordered the ball sold at auction, with the proceeds to be split 50-50. But here is where the plot sickens. The ball went for $450,000, making each claimant's share $225,000. Thinking the ball would bring in the neighborhood of the $3,000,000 that the McGwire record-setting ball had brought, the first guy had hired his lawyer on an hourly basis. After the trial the lawyer filed a claim for his fees in the staggering amount of $473,530.32!"It was an aggressively litigated case, and we're very proud of what we did," said the lawyer. "Alex had nothing going into the trial. This was a very novel case, nothing had been done in the area of personal property since the 1800s."

Popov, who said he has obtained a new lawyer and is mulling a malpractice suit, bristled at Triano's comments. "It was a very simple case. He was the one that made it complex," he said. "I trusted the wrong man."

(My observation here is that lay people perhaps have trouble understanding that just because the *facts* of a case seem simple, that doesn't mean the *legal issues* are simple.)

The second guy had a happier result, as he had hired his lawyers on a contingency basis. Even then, he actually would have *lost* money after paying trial expenses, taxes and fees on his share, but his lawyers were willing to cut their fee enough to ensure cash in hand for the client.

This all brings to mind a recent case I was involved in, which is strongly analogous to the above two cases. It involved competing claims to pay-on-death benefits between an ex-wife and the decedent's children. As in the above cases, each side could have pursued a claim for the entire funds involved, and a long and bruising court fight would have ensued, as there were complex legal issues which would have had to be litigated. However, in my case both sides (and their respective attorneys) were reasonable enough to understand that compromise was in everybody's best interests, and they agreed on a 50-50 split, making litigation unnecessary. (Even at that, I ended up investing nearly 100 hours on the case!)

To sum up, remember that half a loaf is better than none, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, (insert your own cliche here), and remember that you will be a healthier and happier person getting a dispute behind you and proceeding ahead with your life, then miring yourself in endless litigation over what you mistakenly perceive as "principle".

1 comment:

MakeCulture said...

Tis true. Wow, property law is so unnecessarily complex. Lay people would be so surprised and how complex and ancient this area of the law is.