Monday, July 21, 2008

Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers?

You are walking along a busy street when suddenly the bright gleam of metal catches your eye, reflecting off a small coin wedged into a crack in the aging sidewalk. You reach down to retrieve the coin, which appears to be made of gold. You immediately run to the nearest jeweler, who confirms your hopes: the coin is made of solid gold. Great! A windfall! "Finders keepers, losers weepers" right?

Well, maybe.

The laws governing lost property are rather complicated. Any property that you find on the sidewalk falls into one of three categories: abandoned, lost, or mislaid. Title to "abandoned" property, in which the owner has voluntarily relinquished all ownership, vests in the finder - you can keep it. The catch is that you will have to show that the owner intended to give up all title and possession.

A finder of "lost" or "mislaid" property has a more limited right of ownership. Property is "lost" when the owner has accidentally parted with its possession and does not know where to find it. Property is "mislaid" when the owner intentionally places it somewhere, but thereafter forgets where it is. In the case of "lost" property, a finder of the property is entitled to possession except against the original, true owner. In the case of "mislaid" property the owner of land on which the property was found has a right to possession, not the finder of the property.

In both cases, "lost" and "mislaid," the finder has a legal duty to try to find the true owner, if he has reasonable means of doing so. And if the owner does return to recover his property, the finder may be liable for any damage to the property resulting from his negligence.

So, can you keep the coin? Well, maybe.

For more answers to your legal questions, visit Gross & Romanick's publication section on litigation. For legal counsel, contact Gross & Romanick today.