Meteorite Sets Off Firestorm of Litigation in Lorton

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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37 thoughts on “Meteorite Sets Off Firestorm of Litigation in Lorton”

  1. Ms EM’

    Please quit a’hijackin’ this thread. This story is about a *meteor-ITE* not about your ever’day run-of-the-mill meteor.

    (Funny video, BTW)

  2. Well, for those calling for dividing up the meteorite in equal parts for the plaintiffs and defendants:

    Rock of Ages cleft (divide or cleave) for me

  3. Professor Turley–

    Should you ever find yourself flipping burgers at McDonald’s, remember never to give away free slices of cheese to your co-workers. Dire employment circumstances might ensue.

    **********
    Sounds like there may be an intense legal discussion about “meteorights.”

  4. The universe is something around 13 or 14 billion years old. The 4.5 billion year number you are thinking of is the age of the earth. Which itself raises an interesting question: is it a coincidence that the rock fellon a rock of the same age, or not?

  5. “Thanks, Rafflaw, but I intend to keep my eye on this Mespo character.”

    ***************

    “Character,” as many have said, has never been my strong suit!

    Now I am off to play in the snow with shovel in hand. I have Prof. Turley’s previous post in hand and will not do any cross-country skiing as I venture across the yard. I think I’ll call my adventure series, “Man versus Mild.”

  6. JT:

    Sorry Prof. but property and I never really got along. Prof. Berryhill can verify this. Now, if that meteorite had hit somebody on its travels through the heavens, I would know what to do. Absent that, I’d be on the Mc-line with you.

  7. I must agree with Mespo, god done it.

    And sky-god-man must remember this admonishing idiom:

    People who live in glass houses should not throw stones (nor *meteorites* across the universe).

  8. Some believe, even for the concept of rent, landlords have a dubious claim to charge for patches of earth that lay existing long before they were ever born; (Property is theft! – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon).

    Property owners have no right to remotely monitor and then maneuver to profit from activities, accidental or planned that carry on in the space above their patch of sod that constitute free activities by people who have no relationship to landlords except to provide them with “free money” month after month.

    The meteorite might not have been intentional, but deliberate decisions and activities in response regarding it were taken.

    It’s a stretch, but it may be analogous to say every painting Picasso made that contained some element of unintentional brushstroke is really the property of whoever owned the land upon which his studio was built upon.

    Property owners need to do what they do best. Stick their hand out for the free money and not try to get overly creative with additional ways to accumulate cash.

  9. rcampbell.

    I think a lot of this depends on the terms of the lease and who is responsible for what.

    There is that tax case where money was found in the wall. The government wanted it share. The question came down to who owned it etc…..

  10. “Does this mean that they can keep the $5000 but must pay for the damage caused by their property?”

    This seems a fair and just solution. I side with the finders’-keepers crowd as far as ownership of the meteorite. In recognition of the landlords’ situation, however, had the good doctor’s or the patient’s car slipped out of gear and crashed into the building he’d be responsible for the repair, would he not? Not so fast with that donation, gentlemen.

  11. Oh, enough of that arcane property law already. It never made sense in law school either with all that jargon about the bundle of sticks, and owner of the locus in quo, and blah, blah. Hannah V. Peel? Wasn’t she one of the “Avengers” with Patrick Macnee?

    I suggest a theological approach. It belongs to the Creator of the universe who obviously threw it away. My solution: finders-keepers!

    1. Hey, Mespo, that “arcane” stuff is my bread and butter. If I were to drop all of the “arcane stuff” I would be flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

  12. Here is the kickker:

    “In return, Smithsonian officials planned to give them $5,000 in appreciation. The doctors, Marc Gallini and Frank Ciampi, planned to donate the money to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti.”

    They were just donating it, the Museum offered the money. The whole contract theory thingy, I guess. But the were going to donate to a cause. wow….

  13. I would say the answer to this question is, is it a triple net net situation or fixed? Is the landlord responsible for the parameter repairs or the tenant? Are the repairs shared?

    I think the landlords are greedy or they would not be making the demand. But thats the way it is.

    FYI, do not let anyone in the bible belt know that things are over 6k years at the most. It will mess the head up. Then they won’t be able to count to 12 anymore just on their hands….

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