There is a fascinating property dispute brewing in Virginia. Dr. Marc Gallini and Frank Ciampi almost became galactic fodder when a meteorite came crashing into Examining Room No. 2 at their Williamsburg Square Family Practice. They decided to give the meteorite to the Smithsonian for a $5000 payment of “appreciation.” Now, the landlord Deniz Mutlu and his family have reportedly notified the Smithsonian that the meteorite is theirs, His brother and fellow landlord, Erol Mutlu, wrote to the museum that they would come to retrieve it by the end of the day.
There is a meteorite market and this object could easily bring tens of thousands of dollars. The Smithsonian wants to study the 4.5. billion-year-old stone and display it at the National Museum of Natural History. The Mutlu family wants the rock which could easily bring $50,000 but the doctors are seeking a lawyer to contest that claim.
It is an interesting question of whether a rock from space belongs to the leaseholders or the landlord. After all, it came through the exterior of the building belonging to the landlord. On the other hand, it came to rest in an area leased by the doctors.
Disputes often arise over “found property” where a finder claims ownership over an object that the land owner was unaware of before the discovery. Recently an English court ruled that a town owned a medieval brooch found by a treasure hunter on public land, here.
One of the most famous cases was Hannah v. Peel, 1 K.B. 509 (1945), where a soldier staying at a manor during wartime found a brooch while hanging blackout curtains. The court ruled that the brooch belonged to the soldier because the owner only could claim all property attached to or under the land. The brooch was lying in a crevice on top of a window frame. The courts previously ruled in South Staffordshire Water Co. v. Sharman that rings found in the mud at the bottom of a pool belonged to the owner and not the finder because they were part of the real estate.
Of course, in this case, the doctor have a leasehold claim. The property in dispute passed through the landlord’s apartment structure and came to rest in leasehold area. It was embedded in the property, but the landlord gave the doctor’s rights to that property for the length of the lease. The landlord could not claim cash abandoned in the office by a patient. The question is whether property that passed through the superstructure is subject to such a claim.
One interesting twist is the doctors liability for damage to the building if the meteor is their property. Does this mean that they can keep the $5000 but must pay for the damage caused by their property?
The museum can clearly hold on to the rock while this ownership question is being resolved.
The entire Lorton meteorite weighs about a half-pound, but it is broken into three main pieces with four or five dime sized bits.
This particular property dispute took billions of years in the making. It likely started around 4.5 billion years ago at the formation of the universe and is likely composed of chondrite from the molten droplets that were floating around at the time. Eventually, these rocks came to be part of an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. After being bumped out of the belt, it probably took thousands of years to hit the doctors’ office in Lorton, Virginia.
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