May 17, 2014

Ghen v. Rich | Case Brief Law School - 8 F. 159 (1881) - US District Court District of Massachusetts

Facts: The plaintiff harpooned a whale which was later found on a nearby beach by the defendant.  Instead of following the customary procedure of sending word to the person who killed the whale, the defendant sold the whale at auction.  The plaintiff later found out that the whale had been found and sold.  The defendant did not know that the whale was killed by the plaintiff but the defendant could have known it was killed by a bomb-lance.

Procedural History: Trial court reviewed the case and found for the plaintiff.

Issue: Is someone liable for selling another person's property if they do not know that the item sold belonged to that person?

Holding: Yes

Rationale: It was a traditional practice of the business industry and the community to report when a whale was found.  This practice can be interpreted as a form of common law used to create stability in a whaling market which did not allow whalers to bring their catches in with them.  Arbitrary decisions to not report the finding of a whale violate the general understanding of what to do when you find a whale near Provincetown.

Disposition: The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him damages equal to the market value of the whale oil.

Interesting Dicta: "A whale, being ferae naturae, does not become property until a firm possession has been established by the taker."