Tuesday, August 17, 2010

For All Who Remember Their First Law School Case

This is satire so good that I wish I were its author. It is from a blog called Laws for Attorneys, and it satirizes the very first case that most law students cut their teeth on, known as Pierson v. Post, 3 Caines 175 (N.Y. 1805), a classic which discusses the principles of ferae naturae, or property rights in wild animals. You can read more about the case in this article, where there is this comment about the litigants (note the roles played by the fathers!) and the money they spent on the lawsuit:
Jesse Pierson, son of Capt. David, coming from Amagansett, saw a fox run and hide down an unused well near Peters Pond and killed and took the fox. Lodowick Post and a company with him were in pursuit and chasing the fox and saw Jesse with it and claimed it as theirs, while Jesse persisted in his claim. Capt. Pierson said his son Jesse should have the fox and Capt. Post said the same of his son Lodowick and hence the law suit contested and appealed to the highest court in the State, which decided that Post had not got the possession of the fox when Pierson killed it and that he had no property in it as against Pierson until he had reduced it into his own possession. This became the leading case often cited because it established; and I think, for the first time, by the court of last resort in the State, that to give an individual right in wild animals, the claimant must capture them. To the public the decision was worth its cost. To the parties who each expended over a thousand pounds, the fox cost very dear.

-James T. Adams, Memorials of Old Bridgehampton 166 (1916, 1962)

And now, on to the piece itself:

In what can be billed as one of the most surprising decisions handed down in recent memory, the ruling in Pierson v. Post, one of the nation’s oldest property-law cases, was reversed this week by the Supreme Court of New York. The court’s reconsideration of the ruling was prompted by new evidence arising from an in-depth autopsy analysis that was performed last month on the remains of the fox at the heart of the famed case.

Hendrik Pierson - A distant relative of Jesse Pierson

The original dispute arose in 1805 when Lodowick Post, a fox hunter, sued Jesse Pierson after he allegedly killed and carried away a fox that Post had been pursuing. The original decision found in favor of Pierson, holding that he could keep the dead fox because Post did not have control over the beast.

However, earlier this summer at the request of Broderick Post, great-great-great-grandson of Lodowick Post, the remains of the fox were exhumed and analyzed, at a personal cost of about $1 million. The long-overdue autopsy found conclusive evidence that, by the time Pierson had discovered the fox, it had already died of exhaustion from Post’s pursuit. Post then petitioned the court to have the case reopened.

During the hearing, Kendall Pierson, great-great-great-granddaughter of Jesse Pierson, disputed the autopsy’s findings while stipulating to the data that had been gathered. In fact, based on that data, Pierson introduced a computerized reenactment of Post’s pursuit of the fox that came to the opposite conclusion as to the fox’s health when captured. With a legal defense fund quickly swelling from contributions throughout the Pierson extended family, respondents spent approximately $720,000 on the computer model, to which world-famous fox expert Graham Grewock gave four hours of extensive testimony at a fee of $82,000.

However, the appellate court sided with Post, holding that the death of the ferae naturae (the fox) was proximately caused by Post’s chase. “The fatal exhaustion was the mortal wound that killed the fox,” wrote Justice Oring for the majority.

When the opinion was announced, the Post family erupted in cheers, hugging each other and shedding tears of joy. “A gigantic weight has been lifted off of myself and my family,” said Broderick Post. “The Post family has suffered great humiliation for more than two hundred years, and we owned it all along. It’s our fox. Always was, always will be.”

The Pierson family, on contrast, downplayed the importance of case and expressed confusion as to why the case was particularly important at all. “This is such a stupid case. I’m not sure how I got wrapped into spending all this money on a dead fox,” said Kendall Pierson. “Who cares? This should have never been litigated in the first place. I mean, it’s a fox. You don’t even eat them or anything.”

Legal scholars expressed shock at the downfall of a long-revered case that lies at the bedrock of the country’s property-law jurisprudence. None, however, could think of one practical way the new ruling would realistically affect current law in any meaningful sense.


  1. So...do any of these church property suits smell like a dead fox to you?

  2. A perfect riposte, UP. Let us at least observe that the property suits exemplify the very opposite of the principles of ferae naturae, where possession is truly determinative of the outcome.

  3. The first case I remember from law school is Pennoyer v. Neff, which caused me no end of indigestion and headaches upon my first (second, third, fourth, etc.) reading of it. I was fresh from a theology degree with no background in law and no familiarity whatsoever with the legalese through which too many unfortunate attorneys must muddle. I think it took me weeks to understand the case.

    Pierson v. Post--that one I vaguely remember from Property class, but it wasn't the first case we were given...