On Jan. 18 at 5:45 p.m., a meteorite crashed through the ceiling of a medical office in Lorton, Va. It damaged the building and interior finishings but hurt no one. The meteorite’s fall from space is over, but the earthly battle over its ownership has just begun. This, in a circumstance of pure kismet, was a mere 90 minutes after I had wrapped up a lesson in my property law course discussing meteorite ownership disputes, among other things.
“It’s evident that ownership is tied to the landowner,” asserted one of the landlords. The tenant doctors, by publicizing their intent to donate the meteorite to the Smithsonian and any proceeds to Haitian earthquake relief, have likely won the public relations battle in the court of public opinion. But who should win title in a court of law?
Centuries-old common law allocates original ownership of unowned things based on first possession. First possession by a person, illustrated by the ubiquitous case of Pierson v. Post, 3 Cai. R. 175 (N.Y. 1805), holds that ownership to an unowned “wild thing” vests in the hunter at the moment of actual possession (capture), at least if such capture occurs on “unpossessed land.” The ownership analysis becomes more complicated when capture occurs on private property, because allocation of ownership then turns on whether actual possession vests the captor with ownership or whether the thing is ineligible for capture because its mere presence on the land has made it constructively possessed by the landowner.
Constructive-possession analysis is not required in cases involving trespass: The law clearly prohibits trespassers from claiming ownership through capture. The asserted rule that a meteorite is property of the landowner actually comes from Oregon Iron Co. v. Hughes, 81 P. 572 (Ore. 1905), a case in which the other title claimant was a trespassing meteorite-hunter. The rule in that case is unsurprising, but irrelevant here: The Lorton doctors lawfully possess the premises where they found the meteorite.
The law finds constructive possession by a landowner of previously unowned objects appearing on his land in three types of ways. First, we define real property to include all natural objects growing out of or under the land. Second, the doctrine of ratione soli (by reason of the soil) establishes a landowner’s first-in-time claim for some situate natural objects (e.g., beehives, beavers and nesting birds) which are deemed “possessed” by the land itself. Third, under the doctrine of fixtures, if a once-movable object becomes attached to realty to such an extent that it becomes physically a part of it, then such object ceases to be separately owned personalty and becomes a part of the real estate to which it is affixed. The doctrine of fixtures sometimes appears in landlord-tenant disputes because a tenant may not remove or transfer title to a fixture without the landlord’s consent.
Is a meteorite adequately attached to the real property so as to be part of the soil or a fixture? In one case, Goddard v. Winchell, 52 N.W. 1124 (Iowa 1892), the court said yes. In that case, an ownership dispute arose after a large meteorite fell onto prairie land in Forest City, Iowa, embedding itself three feet into the ground. The “grass rights” tenant sold the meteorite to a collector, and the landlord claimed title. The court held that, since the meteorite in question had been found below the surface of the ground, it had in effect become part of the realty. And since fixtures cannot be removed unilaterally by tenants, ownership of the meteorite was awarded to the landlord. The court reasoned, “It was not a movable thing ‘on the ground.’ It was in the earth, and in a very significant sense, immovable.” Although the Forest City meteorite was embedded in the soil, the Lorton meteorite was not affixed to the realty in any way.
Even if a court found that the “property owner” should always have constructive possession of meteorites on its land, this does not end the title inquiry here. The concept of “property owner” is more complicated than many people recognize because ownership interests in land can be split among multiple owners. Title to real property can be shared temporally (e.g., between a life tenant and the holder of the remainder interest) and concurrently (e.g., among multiple tenants in common). In addition, a lease grants the tenant a current possessory ownership estate in the leased property.
Since the “ownership” of real property during a lease term is actually shared by landlord and tenant, merely granting that something belongs to the “owner” of real property does not indicate whether it has vested in the tenant or the landlord. Since the tenant is in exclusive possession during the lease term, even with respect to the landlord, constructive possession (if it applies at all) should logically vest ownership in the tenant. The rights of the tenant to the leased real property, including any fixtures, ends at lease termination. But unlike the Forest City meteorite, the Lorton meteorite never became affixed to the realty, so that limitation does not apply.
There is another historic meteorite landing that led to a landlord-tenant property rights dispute. In 1954, a meteorite crashed through the roof of a rented home in Sylacauga, Ala., striking the tenant, Ann Hodges. She claimed ownership, as did her landlord. In this, the only documented case of a human being hit by a meteorite, the parties settled out of court. We thus have no judicial opinion resolving landlord versus tenant meteorite title, at least with respect to meteorites not embedded into the ground.
A meteorite lying on the floor of a doctor’s office is clearly not a fixture. Finding constructive possession due to ratione soli of a product that indubitably fell from outer space stretches credulity. The Lorton doctors were not trespassers; they were not acting as landlord’s agents; the property was not landlord’s private residence. The doctors’ mere act of taking actual possession of the meteorite in this case therefore likely gives them first finder’s rights to it. And even if by some strained reasoning a court would find that the “property owner” always has prior constructive possession of meteorites found on its property, the tenant, as holder of the possessory estate, is the current “property owner” here.
Both law and logic favor the tenants. The doctors were “first in time,” both through constructive possession, as holder of the possessory estate, and actual possession, through capture of the meteorite. Meteorite ownership therefore has vested in them, regardless of which possession principle applies.
This is not just the right answer from a moral or public opinion standpoint; it is the inescapable legal conclusion as well.
Andrea Boyack is visiting associate professor at Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.