Popov v. Hayashi
WL 31833731(2002)

  • Popov and Hayashi were sitting in the stands during a baseball game. A player hit a homerun and Popov caught the ball. Before he had full control of the ball, he was mobbed by a crowd and the ball went flying. It eventually ended up in the possession of Hayashi.
    • The ball was a famous home run souvenir that turned out to be worth about $450k.
    • The entire incident was recorded by television cameras.
    • The amount of control Popov had over the ball was ambiguous.
  • Popov sued Hayashi for conversion, trespass to chattel, injunctive relief and constructive trust.
    • Conversion is the wrongful exercise of dominion over the personal property of another. There must be actual interference with the plaintiff’s dominion (basically, Hayashi stole the ball).
    • Trespass to chattel exists where personal property has been damaged or where the defendant has interfered with the plaintiff’s use of the property. Actual dispossession is not an element of the tort of trespass to chattel.
      • Hayashi didn’t damage the ball, so there was no trespass to chattel.
    • Prior to the time the ball was hit, it was possessed and owned by Major League Baseball. At the time it was hit it became intentionally abandoned property. The first person who came in possession of the ball became its new owner.
  • The Trial Court split the ball between the two of them.
    • The Trial Court considered a number of meanings for the term “possession”:
      • “Possession requires both physical control over the item and an intent to control it or exclude others from it. But these generalizations function more as guidelines than as direct determinants of possession issues. Possession is a blurred question of law and fact.”
      • “The orthodox view of possession regards it as a union of the two elements of the physical relation of the possessor to the thing, and of intent. This physical relation is the actual power over the thing in question, the ability to hold and make use of it. But a mere physical relation of the possessor to the thing in question is not enough. There must also be manifested an intent to control it.”
      • “A person who catches a baseball that enters the stands is its owner. A ball is caught if the person has achieved complete control of the ball at the point in time that the momentum of the ball and the momentum of the fan while attempting to catch the ball ceases. A baseball, which is dislodged by incidental contact with an inanimate object or another person, before momentum has ceased, is not possessed. Incidental contact with another person is contact that is not intended by the other person. The first person to pick up a loose ball and secure it becomes its possessor.”
        • This is known as Grey’s Rule.
    • The Court found that Popov might have retained control of the ball if he was not attacked. His efforts to establish possession were interrupted by the collective assault of a band of wrongdoers.
      • The Court found that, where an actor undertakes significant but incomplete steps to achieve possession of a piece of abandoned personal property and the effort is interrupted by the unlawful acts of others, the actor has a legally cognizable pre-possessory interest in the property. That pre-possessory interest constitutes a qualified right to possession that can support a cause of action for conversion.
    • However, the Court also noted that giving the ball to Popov would be unfair to Hayashi, because that would be assuming that Popov would have caught the ball. He might have dropped it before he ever got possession.
    • The Court found that the best way to solve this problem was equitable division.
      • In equitable division, the item is sold and the proceeds split between the two parties.
  • In this decision, the Court invented a new form of property right, the qualified pre-possessory interest, and said that it was awarding 100% of each party’s property interest to him.
  • One problem Popov had was that, as plaintiff, he had the burden of proof of showing he would have caught the ball. If it were truly unknowable (like the judge said), then there was no way he could win this case. This idea bothered the judge, so he changed the law to be more fair (at least in his opinion).