Prosser v. Keeton
143 Unrep. Case 1113

  • Prosser owned a watch. It was stolen by some guy named Thurlow.
  • Thurlow sold the watch to Keeton.
    • Keeton had no idea the watch had been stolen.
    • Prosser found Keeton in possession of the watch and sued to get it back (replevin).
  • The Trial Court found that Keeton was the legal owner of the watch.
    • The Court used several lines of reasoning:
      • Neither Prosser nor Keeton was guilty of wrongdoing, but unfortunately one person must bear the loss.
      • In general, purchasers are in no position to determine the true ownership of an item, while watch owners are in a better position to guard against theft. So, in a way, Prosser is more responsible for the watch's theft than Keeton is for buying a stolen watch.
        • This reasoning partially blames the owner for having his watch stolen.
        • Also, this reasoning doesn't talk about the specifics of this case, it only says that watch owners are in a better position in general.
        • What if the thing Thurlow stole was a child? Would this reasoning still let Keeton keep the kid?
      • Social policy demands that the exchange of goods be fostered. If every purchaser needed to do research to make sure that an item is not stolen, it would increase the costs and difficulties in buying something, which hurts commerce, and hurts society in general.
        • Is it really good social policy to encourage people to buy stolen merchandise?
    • In a dissent, one judge made a formalistic argument that since Thurlow never had title to the watch, he could not sell it, and Keeton could never get the title from Thurlow. Therefore can't possibly be the owner of the watch.
      • This is a very formalistic, mechanistic argument, that doesn't consider larger aspects of justice or social policy.
      • This reasoning could theoretically help with deterrence, because it would persuade people not to purchase stolen goods.
  • Is it better to protect the interests of the owner of the watch, or the interests of the good faith purchaser of the watch? Better for society?
  • Perhaps it would be better to give the watch to Prosser, since if they ever find Thurlow, it would be easier for Keeton to win a case against him than Thurlow?
  • See UCC 2-403. That codified the idea that Keeton was a bona fide purchaser.