Here’s a bit of legal news that’s out of this world! Seriously, you’d have to be pretty spaced out to not find it interesting. You might say it’s a real space case.
I regret none of the above.
But moving on, here’s the situation: last month, a tennis-ball-sized meteorite crashed through the roof of a doctor’s office in Virginia. It then smashed into a chair in which the doctor would probably have been sitting if he was seeing a patient (as luck would have it, the patient he would have been seeing at that very moment had canceled his appointment). It’s amazing that this rock hit a populated area (it’s very rare), and even more amazing that nobody was hurt.
Initially, the Smithsonian Institution offered to buy the rock from the doctor for $5,000. However, the doctor’s landlord notified the Smithsonian that he is the legitimate owner of the rock, and will be retrieving it from them. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that he had just recently found out that meteorites are highly valued by collectors, and that this specimen could easily fetch $50,000 on the open market. While several tons of rocks and dust from space reach Earth’s surface every day, most of it is in pieces too small to be found, and often the larger pieces land in the ocean or uninhabited areas, also never to be found. An expert quoted in the Washington Post estimates that a meteorite large enough to be detected hits a man-made structure anywhere in the world around once per year. In short, they’re very rare, and this contributes to their value.
I guess it’s understandable that people are willing to pay so much for these things (novelty, their scientific value, etc.), but looking at that picture, they sure don’t look like much more than boring old rocks. I wouldn’t want to decorate my house with them.
Both the doctor and the landlord have hired lawyers, and it seems certain that a court is going to decide who owns the meteorite. This raises some pretty fundamental, but still complex, issues of property law.
Generally, when a person leases property, the owner delegates many core property rights to the renter, such as the right to physically occupy the property, the right to exclude others from the property, and, most relevant here, the right to any personal property which is abandoned on the land.
However, things which have come to the property through “natural” forces are generally considered part of the real estate, and the owner of the land retains ownership and control of them even when the property is being rented. Normally, this includes trees, standing water, wild animals, and the like. I doubt the common-law courts that developed these rules over time contemplated meteorites. Presently, the rock is being held by the Smithsonian until a court decides who owns it.
Assuming that this impact is treated as a natural occurrence, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be, the landlord probably has a decent case. On the other hand, the landlord would most definitely not have a claim of ownership over, say, money that was abandoned in the doctor’s office. Whatever the result, this case will definitely be interesting, and it will probably find its way into property casebooks.
As of the writing of this post, the meteorite remains indifferent.