The case of the saucy intruder

Note: This is the second of several blog posts devoted to Module 3 of my business law survey course (Tiger King edition).

In my previous post, I presented an overview of Module 3 of my survey course in business law. Here, I will delve into the details of Module 3, which is devoted to three important areas of the Common Law: Property, Contracts, and Torts. Because I am teaching a survey course, I have (once again) tried my best to reduce the amount of reading materials in Module 3, limiting this module to just three common law cases, Pierson v. Post for the property section, Leonard v. PepsiCo for the contract section, and a cattle trespass case out of Florida (Rockow v. Hendry) for the torts section. In addition to these law cases, this module also contains picture prompts and video clips about several incidents in “Tiger King” that raise important legal issues under the common law, like Joe Exotic’s $10,000 reward offer and the time when one of his employees (Saff) got his arm chewed off by a tiger.

With this basic background in mind, let’s now delve into the Law of Property and discuss the first of our classic common law cases, Pierson v. Post, which is considered by many students of the common law to be the most famous property case in North American legal history. (Also, check out some of the sundry Pierson v. Post merchandise pictured below!) One of the reasons this case is deservedly famous is because it poses a fundamental question: how can something of value be first owned by a human being?

In summary, the facts of Pierson v. Post are as follows: Post was out hunting with his dogs at an uninhabited beach near Southampton in New York State. They were giving chase to a wild fox, but just when Post was about to capture the creature, another man, Pierson, snatched it and carried it off for himself. The rest is legal history. Post was indignant at this breach of local custom and good sportsmanship, so he filed a lawsuit against Pierson claiming that because he and his dogs had already begun pursuing the fox, the property of the fox’s pelt and carcass were rightfully his, not Pierson’s, and the local justice of the peace ruled in favor of Post. Pierson, however, appealed the ruling to the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, who reversed the justice’s decision and ruled in favor of Pierson.

In deciding this case, the majority opinion refers to a wide variety of historical legal treatises, including the Institutes of Justinian from the 5th century A.D. and the writings of Henry de Bracton in the 13th century as well as of Samuel von Pufendorf in the 17th century, and concludes that the time and effort Post spent giving chase to the fox was not sufficient to create a property right. Something more is needed, and that “something more” is actual physical possession. The dissenting judge, by contrast, called Pierson out as a “saucy intruder”, a violator of norms. Simply put, if you were to ask local hunters in Southhampton, N.Y. how they would have decided this case, they would have “regarded hot pursuit as giving rights to take an unimpeded first possession.”

Putting aside the particulars of this property dispute for a moment, this case is important not only for its substantive ruling but also because it illustrates the two main ways judges decide cases. On the one hand, the majority chose to apply a simple bright-line rule to decide the case (the rule of physical possession), while the dissent would have applied a flexible standard (the rule of hot pursuit) based on local customs. Both of these rules have advantages and disadvantages. By way of example, how is the rule of hot pursuit to be applied? Although a bright-line rule is easier to apply than a general standard, it can produce unfair results in murky cases. Pierson v. Post is a case in point! General standards, on the other hand, are more flexible and fair, since they can be tailored to each individual case, but if a standard is too general and flexible, it can produce indeterminate results. How much time and effort, for example, must be expended to create a property right in a wild animal? Does it depend on the type of animal being hunted? Unlike a simple rule like first possession, the rule of hot pursuit can give way to endless disputes and thus invite greater amounts litigation …

So much for property rights and saucy intruders. We will proceed to the Law of Contracts in my next post …

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to The case of the saucy intruder

  1. Pingback: The Common Law (Module 3) | prior probability

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