Prosser owned a watch. It was stolen by some guy named
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 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
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
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.