Pierson v. Post
3 Cai. R. 175, 2 Am. Dec. 264 (1805)

  • Post was out fox hunting. He chased a fox until it got tired, but before he could catch it, Pierson wandered by and caught the fox, killed it, and kept it.
    • Pierson admitted that Post was in pursuit of the fox.
    • Neither Pierson nor Post owned the land that the fox was found on.
      • Interestingly, it was Queens, NYC, which at that time was just wilderness.
  • Post sued for replevin.
    • Replevin is where you sue to get something somebody stole from you returned.
    • Post argued that he had expended time and labor in chasing the fox, and that effort gave him title to the property.
    • In addition, Post argued that it was his efforts in tiring out the fox that allowed Pierson to catch it.
    • Pierson argued that Post was never in possession of the fox, so it was still up for grabs.
  • The Trial Court found for Post. Pierson appealed.
  • The Appellate Court reversed and found for Pierson.
    • The Appellate Court looked back to Roman and English law which said that pursuit alone vests no property interest.
      • Occupancy, defined as actual physical possession of the animal is required to assert property rights.
        • This rule gives certainty. It’s an objective bright-line rule where you definitely know who owns the fox.
        • They also posited that if you mortally wounded the fox, it would be yours also, but in this case, Post did not wound the fox.
      • The majority opinion was that judges should only get laws from reading ancient texts. The common law was not well regarded and judges tried hard not to make new laws.
    • The Appellate Court felt that even though Pierson was a jerk, he caused no injury to Post for which a legal remedy can be applied.
  • In a dissent it was argued that Pierson obviously was in the wrong, so why should he get the spoils? The dissent suggested that once a pursuit begins, the object of the hunt is legally the possession of the pursuer.
    • But what happens if the pursuer fails to capture the prey? When do possessory rights terminate?
    • In addition, the dissent argued that custom of the time was to award the fox to the pursuer, so the Court should be submitted to the “arbitration of sportsmen.”
    • This way of looking at how to decide a case was very forward leaning, since it involved making common law based on precedent and justice.
  • It was also noted in a dissent that society as a whole would be better off by the “destruction of pernicious beasts” and the courts should make the decision that bests furthers public policy and results in more dead foxes.
  • If the land had been owned by a third party, the fox would have belonged to the landowner.
  • Btw, the Court costs for this case amounted to over $1k for each side, a considerable amount of money in 1805.