Popov and Hayashi were sitting
in the stands during a baseball game. A player hit a homerun and Popov
caught the ball. Before he had full control of the ball, he was mobbed by
a crowd and the ball went flying. It eventually ended up in the possession
The ball was a famous home
run souvenir that turned out to be worth about $450k.
The entire incident was
recorded by television cameras.
The amount of control Popov
had over the ball was ambiguous.
Popov sued Hayashi for conversion, trespass to chattel, injunctive relief and constructive trust.
Conversion is the wrongful exercise of dominion over the
personal property of another. There must be actual interference with the
plaintiff's dominion (basically, Hayashi stole the ball).
Trespass to chattel exists where personal property has been
damaged or where the defendant has interfered with the plaintiff's use of
the property. Actual dispossession is not an element of the tort of
trespass to chattel.
Hayashi didn't damage the
ball, so there was no trespass to chattel.
Prior to the time the ball
was hit, it was possessed and owned by Major League Baseball. At the time
it was hit it became intentionally abandoned property. The first person who came in possession of
the ball became its new owner.
The Trial Court split the ball between the two of them.
The Trial Court considered a
number of meanings for the term "possession":
both physical control over the item and an intent to control it or
exclude others from it. But these generalizations function more as
guidelines than as direct determinants of possession issues. Possession
is a blurred question of law and fact."
"The orthodox view of
possession regards it as a union of the two elements of the physical
relation of the possessor to the thing, and of intent. This physical
relation is the actual power over the thing in question, the ability to
hold and make use of it. But a mere physical relation of the possessor
to the thing in question is not enough. There must also be manifested an
intent to control it."
"A person who catches
a baseball that enters the stands is its owner. A ball is caught if the
person has achieved complete control of the ball at the point in time
that the momentum of the ball and the momentum of the fan while
attempting to catch the ball ceases. A baseball, which is dislodged by
incidental contact with an inanimate object or another person, before
momentum has ceased, is not possessed. Incidental contact with another
person is contact that is not intended by the other person. The first
person to pick up a loose ball and secure it becomes its
This is known as Grey's
The Court found that Popov
might have retained control of the ball if he was not attacked. His
efforts to establish possession were interrupted by the collective
assault of a band of wrongdoers.
The Court found that, where
an actor undertakes significant but incomplete steps to achieve
possession of a piece of abandoned personal property and the effort is
interrupted by the unlawful acts of others, the actor has a legally
cognizable pre-possessory interest
in the property. That pre-possessory interest constitutes a qualified right to possession
that can support a cause of action for conversion.
However, the Court also
noted that giving the ball to Popov would be unfair to Hayashi, because
that would be assuming that Popov would have caught the ball. He might
have dropped it before he ever got possession.
The Court found that the
best way to solve this problem was equitable division.
In equitable division, the item is sold and the proceeds split
between the two parties.
In this decision, the Court
invented a new form of property right, the qualified pre-possessory
interest, and said that it was
awarding 100% of each party's property interest to him.
One problem Popov had was
that, as plaintiff, he had the burden of proof of showing he would have
caught the ball. If it were truly unknowable (like the judge said), then
there was no way he could win this case. This idea bothered the judge, so
he changed the law to be more fair (at least in his opinion).