Popov v. Hayashi, No. 400545, 2002 WL 31833731 (Cal. Super. Ct. Dec. 18, 2002).
Imagine a popular and controversial baseball player hits his much-anticipated, record-breaking homerun into the stands causing seekers of fame and fortune to scramble wildly in the direction of the ball. The ball hits the edge of one man’s mitt and bounces back into the mob. While the mob is busy tackling the first man to the ground, another man picks up the ball. Who owns the ball?
The court was faced with a difficult question: what does it mean to possess a baseball? Did the first man possess the ball when he changed its trajectory and nearly held it, but for the mob tackling him? Or is the second man, the one who actually wound up with the ball, the true owner?
You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy the human drama of this one. Even better, the judges get in some good lines. Responding to defense counsel’s argument that his client was only trying to high five the plaintiff not grab the ball away, the court states drily, “This is an argument that only a true advocate could embrace.”
To answer the question, the court convened an official session of the court at The University of California, Hastings College of the Law to hear from four distinguished law professors. Those in attendance included a first year property law class which used the case to learn about possession. Way better than sitting in class discussing a 19th century case involving a harpooned whale, right?
Ultimately, in a decision King Solomon would love, the court held that both men had an equal and undivided interest in the ball. They ordered that the ball be sold and the proceeds divided equally.
Bonus: It’s a nice review of trespass to chattel and conversion. You can learn different scholarly theories about what constitutes possession. You’ll also get to read the court’s discussion of an 1896 case where a bunch of kids beat each other with an old sock only to find out that it was full of money. You can’t make this stuff up.