"Finders keepers, losers weepers!" This age-old adage implies that when a person finds a lost object, he or she becomes the new, rightful owner of that piece of property. But is this really the law that applies in our modern-day world? In this article, we’ll examine the laws that apply when the objects of the "finder’s" affection are abandoned, lost, or misplaced. This article will show you that depending on the "status" of the property, the laws may give different people different rights.
First, we’ll discuss abandoned property.
Abandoned property is property that the rightful owner intended to discard, thus giving up possession of the property and relinquishing title. If another person (the "finder") comes across this abandoned property, acquires possession of the property, and intends to make this property his or her own, then that "finder" becomes the rightful owner of the object. Let’s use a hypothetical storyline to illustrate this concept.
Assume that Aaron takes his guitar to the dump. He is sick and tired of playing in the band, and he decides to get rid of his guitar for good, even though it is in perfect condition. Aaron throws this piece of property in the dump and walks away, never intending to come back for it. Bryan, as he walks by the dump on his way home, sees the gleaming guitar on top of the heap of waste, and walks over to it. Elated, he picks the guitar up, thinking how wonderful it would be to start a band, and takes it home with him, fully intending to make it his own. In this situation, the property in question (the guitar) was clearly abandoned because Aaron intended to give up possession of and title to the property. Additionally, the "finder" (Bryan) acquired possession and intended to acquire title to the property. In conclusion, in a war over who owns the property, Bryan prevails.
Next, we’ll discuss lost property.
Lost property is slightly different from abandoned property. Abandoned property involves the willful acts of the owner in terms of intending to give up possession and title. Lost property, on the other hand, is property that is accidentally and involuntarily lost by the owner. With regard to lost property, the rule is clear that the "finder" prevails against all other people in the world, except for the true owner. There are a few minor exceptions to this rule, and we’ll address these exceptions in the following paragraphs. First, let’s use a hypothetical to flesh this rule out more fully.
In this story, Aaron is walking down the street after throwing his guitar in the dump, and his wallet accidentally falls out of his jean-pocket. This was an involuntary act by Aaron, and he had no intent to give up his wallet and the contents therein. Bryan, happily walking along with his new guitar, stops in the middle of the sidewalk and sees the wallet lying on the cement blocks. He picks the wallet up, smiles, and puts it and its contents in his own pocket. In this scenario, our "finder" (Bryan) is the owner of this wallet as against everyone else in the world, except for Aaron. Aaron is the only person who has a claim to the wallet that is superior to Bryan’s. If Aaron never attempts to find his wallet, Bryan is the rightful owner because he found it in the middle of the sidewalk.
Although this seems like a pretty basic and straightforward concept, it wouldn’t be right if there weren’t a few exceptions (because everyone in the legal world knows that it is more likely than not that there will be oodles of exceptions to even the simplest laws on the books). First, if the finder is a trespasser, then the owner of the place where the lost property was found will be the rightful owner. For example, if Aaron had dropped his wallet on his neighbor’s lawn, and Bryan went on to that person’s lawn to retrieve the wallet for himself, Bryan would not prevail. The neighbor would prevail against everyone in the world, except for Aaron. Second, if the lost property is found in a place where access to the public is heavily restricted, then the owner of that place would prevail. Here, an example would be a construction site, where signs prohibiting public access are clearly posted throughout the premises. In this scenario, the owner of the site under construction would prevail. The third and final exception, and one that may be more applicable to our everyday lives, is the employer-employee exception. In this scenario, if an employee finds lost property while working for and on the premises of his employer, the majority rule is that the employer has superior rights to the employee. For example, if Bryan and Aaron worked in the same building, and Bryan found Aaron’s wallet at their workplace while he was working, the employer would have superior rights to everyone except Aaron (the true owner).
Next, we’ll discuss misplaced property.
Misplaced property differs from both abandoned property and lost property. Let us recall that abandoned property is property that is intended to be discarded by the true owner, and lost property is property that is lost involuntarily or accidentally by its rightful owner. Misplaced property, on the other hand, is property that is voluntarily and intentionally placed somewhere and is then forgotten about by the true owner. With regard to such property, the owner of the land on which the property is misplaced prevails. Let’s use an example to illustrate this rule.
Assume that Aaron takes his guitar to the shop to have the strings replaced. He takes his wallet out of his pocket and gets his credit card out to pay for the service provided by the music shop. As he swipes his credit cards (as so many feisty Americans do), he sets his wallet down on the counter. After paying for the service, he picks up his guitar and walks out of the shop, forgetting to pick his wallet up off of the counter. Bryan then walks in to look at guitars because he wants to start a band. He sees the wallet on the counter, and decides to take it. As he reaches for it, the owner of the music shop takes the wallet and puts it in his pocket. Here, the "finder" (Bryan) does not prevail. The person who prevails is the owner of the music shop. Of course, if Aaron walks back in and asks for his wallet, the owner must hand over the wallet to its rightful owner.
Finally, let's wrap up this article with a few key points to remember.
In conclusion, it is clear that the "finders" of property don’t always prevail. The laws with regard to "finding" abandoned, lost, and misplaced property differ depending on how you characterize the property and where it is found. Status is everything—the status of the property, the status of the land on which the property is found, and your status on such land (i.e. trespasser, owner, employee, etc.). Although the rules may differ from state to state, the explanations set forth in this article reflect the majority rules throughout the United States. So remember, in today’s world, the old adage of “finders keepers, losers weepers” doesn’t always hold up to the modern law.
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