8.1 Personal Property
- Distinguish between personal property and real property.
- Understand classifications of property.
- Examine methods of acquisition of personal property.
- Understand the concept of bailment, and the legal duties associated with bailment.
Let’s begin with an understanding of the differences between types of property. This is important, because different laws apply to different types of property. While it might be perfectly legal to destroy a piece of personal property—like a chair—without obtaining permission from the government, destruction of real property is a different matter altogether. For example, the owner of an office building who wishes to demolish it would be subject to many local laws, such as requirements to obtain the necessary permits. Such an activity might also be subject to further legal scrutiny, if the building in question holds particular historic value, for example. Let’s compare this to the destruction of a chair, which is personal property. Even if the chair is the chair that Abraham Lincoln sat in while drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, as long as the chair is owned by the person who wishes to destroy it, the owner may simply load it into his or her truck and haul it to the dump. No special permission is required, because there are few legal restrictions to the destruction of private property.
As you can see, property can be classified as real or personal. Real property is land, and certain things that are attached to it or associated with it. Real property is raw land, such as a forest or a field, as well as buildings, like a house, a condominium, or an office building. Additionally, things that are associated with land, like mineral rights, are also real property. People often talk about real property by using the term real estate, which reflects both the concept of real property and the ownership interest concept of estate.
Many businesses, from grocery stores to coffee shops to hotels, rely on real property for customers or clients to visit to conduct business. Today, many businesses are also conducted virtually, and have only virtual shops. Virtual stores, such as those found on eBay, are not forms of real property. However, certain virtual real properties, such as those found on Second Life, are traded for real money. Check out the two links in Note 8.13 “Hyperlink: “Unreal” Property” to read about this “property” boom, where real business occurs over nonreal property.
Hyperlink: “Unreal” Property
Personal property is property that is not real property. Tangible property is something that can be touched. Moveable, tangible personal property is chattel. Many businesses exist to sell personal property. For example, the primary purpose of retailers such as Wal-Mart, Amazon.com, and Sears is to sell personal property. Some property can also be described as fungible property. Property that can easily be substituted with identical property is said to be fungible. For example, if you bought a pound of sugar from a container containing ten pounds of sugar, you wouldn’t care which specific grains of sugar made up your purchase, because all the sugar in the container is fungible. Other types of fungible goods include juices, oil, metals such as steel or aluminum, and physical monetary currency.
Some personal property is intangible. Intangible property does not physically exist, but it is still subject to ownership principles, including acquisition, transfer, and sale. For instance, the right to payment under a contract, the right to exclude others from a patented product, and the right to prohibit others from using copyrighted materials are all examples of intangible property.
Sounds simple, right? Your iPod, your flash drive, and your computer are all personal property. Your dorm room, apartment, or house is real property. So far, so good. But imagine that you found a Jacuzzi for sale that you loved. You plunked down $5,000 to buy it, and you have it delivered to your house. You pay for construction of a deck to surround it and plumbing to service it. Is the Jacuzzi personal property or is it real property? This is an example of personal property that becomes attached to the land as a fixture. A fixture is something that used to be personal property, but it has become attached to the land so that it is legally a part of the land. Fixtures are treated like real property. Accordingly, when real property is transferred, fixtures are transferred as a part of the real property. In our example, if you move, you will have to leave your beloved Jacuzzi behind, unless you make express provisions to remove it. What if you were just renting? Since removing a fixture would cause substantial harm to the property, that fixture remains with the land. The landlord might be very happy about that!
Some things that are attached to the land are not fixtures but are part of the real property itself. Imagine a farm with one thousand acres planted in corn. Is the corn crop personal property, or is it real property? Or imagine a forest. Maybe the owner has been thinking about timbering the forest for some extra money. Is the forest personal property, or is it real property? Both the corn crop and trees are examples of real property that can become personal property, if they are severed from the land. This means that when an ear of corn is picked from the stalk, the ear of corn becomes personal property, even though while it was growing and still attached the land, it was real property. Likewise, when a tree is felled, that tree is transformed from real property to personal property.
Besides property types, property can be classified by ownership, too. Personal property and real property can be private or public. Private property is owned by someone or something that is not the government. Individuals, corporations, and partnerships, for instance, can own private property. Private property can include real property like land or buildings, and personal property, such as automobiles, furniture, and computers. Property that is owned by the government is public property. Yellowstone National Park and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest are both examples of public property that is real property. Public property can also include personal property, such as automobiles, furniture, and computers owned by state or local governments.
Methods of Acquisition of Personal Property
Personal property may be acquired for ownership in several different ways. For example, if you produce something, then you may own it, unless you are producing it in the capacity of your work for someone else. If you buy four yards of wool fabric and sew a coat out of it, then you own that coat by virtue of having produced it with your own materials. This is ownership by production. However, if you sew a coat as part of your job while working for your employer, then the employer will own the coat.
If you are in the business of producing coats to sell, then you may be a merchant, and the rules of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) would govern transactions involving the sale of goods and the purchase of supplies from other merchants. Regardless of whether someone is a merchant or not, purchase is a means of acquiring ownership. Indeed, in today’s world, purchase may be the most common method of acquiring property.
Property may also be gifted. A gift is a voluntary transfer of property. Generally, the donor of the gift must intend to gift the property, the donor must deliver the gift, and the gift must be accepted by the intended recipient, known as the donee. A conditional gift is a gift that requires a condition to be met before the gift will transfer. For example, if your parents said, “You can have a new car, if you graduate from school,” then that would be an example of a conditional gift. If you do not graduate from school, then you cannot have the gift of the car.
What if you find something? Dating at least to the Institutes of Justinian in Roman law, the concept of “finders keepers” is one known to every preschooler: finders keepers, losers weepers. However, in law, things are not quite so simple. Property that someone finds can be classified in several ways. A finder of personal property may claim ownership of the property if it is abandoned. The owners of abandoned property must intend to relinquish ownership in it. For example, if you take your chair to the landfill, you have abandoned the chair. Someone may come along and take possession of it, which will place ownership of the chair in that person. If you change your mind later, that’s too bad. The chair now belongs to the new owner. However, if the property is simply lost or mislaid, then the finder must relinquish it once the rightful owner demands its return. If the finder refuses to return lost or mislaid property to its rightful owner, the owner can sue for conversion, which is a tort. Conversion is intentional, substantial interference with the chattel of another. Another classification of personal property applicable to found property is treasure trove. A treasure trove is money or precious metals, like gold, for which the concept of “finders keepers” sometimes is applicable.
Imagine finding the next-generation iPhone just lying on a bar stool. It has not been released yet, but there you are with an actual prototype in your hands! This is valuable property because it embodies the cutting-edge intellectual property of Apple, both in utility and design. Brian Hogan found himself in this position. Apparently, an Apple software engineer had accidentally left the prototype on a bar stool one evening. Hogan decided to sell the prototype to Gizmodo, a tech site, which was willing to pay for it so that it could write an early and exclusive review of this soon-to-be hot item on the market. Gizmodo subsequently discovered that Apple had lost an iPhone prototype and wanted it returned. Regardless of that fact, Gizmodo dismantled the prototype and published photos on its Web site. Subsequently, it returned the property to Apple.Edward C. Baig, “Gizmodo: Lost Next-Gen iPhone Returned to Apple,” USA Today, April 21, 2010, http://www.usatoday.com/tech/products/2010-04-20-iphone_N.htm (accessed September 27, 2010).
Was the prototype of the next-generation iPhone abandoned, lost, mislaid, or a treasure trove? If Apple filed a civil lawsuit against Gizmodo, what would the claim be and who should win? Since we know that Apple wanted the property back, we know that it had no intention of relinquishing ownership of it. Therefore, the property was not abandoned. Since a next-generation iPhone is not money or precious metals—even though it is very valuable and worth a lot of money to Apple—the concept of treasure trove does not apply. A phone is not actual coin or cash. In this case, the property was either lost or mislaid, because it was unintentionally relinquished or set down for later retrieval, but the owner had forgotten where it was placed. In either case, if the phone had not been returned, Apple could have brought a suit for conversion. A successful conversion claim would have awarded damages to Apple. Just like any successful conversion claim, damages would not include a requirement to return the property itself. Incidentally, California has captured the duty to return lost or mislaid property in its criminal statutes, and the facts of this case are being investigated for possible theft charges. Check out Note 8.32 “Hyperlink: Finders Keepers?” for this story and two additional cautionary tales about claiming found property.
Hyperlink: Finders Keepers?
Be careful what you wish for. These stories might seem like a miracle to the cash-strapped, but they are cautionary tales.
Gizmodo published the details of a found iPhone prototype here http://gizmodo.com/5520164/this-is-apples-next-iphone, but the prototype became the subject of law enforcement and an Apple complaint, as seen here: http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/04/30/wired.iphone.finder/index.html?iref=allsearch
Cold Cash, Hot Lead
This found “money” along an interstate might be abandoned, lost, or mislaid, but it is unlikely to be claimed by its rightful owner:
A Renovator’s Fantasy
This found money in the walls of a house might be an example of a treasure trove, but the treasure was quickly dissipated by legal troubles:
Sometimes it is necessary to intentionally leave personal property with someone else. For example, imagine that you own a cat. If your cat, which is considered to be chattel, needs to have surgery, you will need to leave her at the veterinary hospital. Clearly, taking your cat to a veterinary hospital does not constitute abandonment. Likewise, you have not lost or mislaid your cat. And, precious though she may be, your cat is not subject to the concept of treasure trove. Instead, in this situation you will be known as bailor, and you will be seeking a bailment with your veterinarian. A bailor is someone in the rightful possession of personal property who gives the property to someone else to hold. A bailment is the arrangement in which when the rightful possessor (such as the owner) of personal property gives the property to someone else to hold. The holding party, known as the bailee, agrees to accept the property and has the duty to return it. The bailee is someone who is in possession of someone else’s property. In our example, you rightfully have possession of your cat because she is your personal property. You give your cat to the veterinarian to hold, who has agreed to accept the cat. You also rightfully expect that the cat will be returned to you on demand. Indeed, the veterinarian has a duty, by virtue of the bailment, to return the cat to you. Consider Note 8.36 “Hyperlink: Lost Dog”, where Delta Airlines was the bailee of a dog, which it lost.
Hyperlink: Lost Dog
Check out this link. Do you think the remedy offered by Delta Airlines is adequate in this case? Why or why not?
The bailee has certain duties to the bailor. For example, a bailee has a duty to take reasonable care of the property while the property is in his or her possession. This means different things for different types of bailment. If the bailee is the only party who benefits from the bailment, then the bailee must take extraordinary care with the personal property. A common example of a bailee being the only party who benefits is where the owner of the property loans the property to someone for his or her use. For instance, if you loan your neighbor a snow shovel without asking for something in return, then your neighbor receives the sole benefit of the bailment. His or her duty of care is that he or she must take extraordinary care with the snow shovel. However, when both parties receive benefit from the bailment, such as when you rent a DVD from Blockbuster, only the duty of ordinary care is imposed on the bailee. The bailee receives the DVD and Blockbuster receives a rental fee. When the benefit of the bailment exists for the benefit of the bailor only, then only minimum care is required. Gross negligence will give rise to liability, but there is no great duty for the bailee to be as careful as he or she would be if he or she were receiving some benefit. If someone asks you to hold his or her books while he or she jumps into a swimming pool, you would have a minimum duty of care. If you lost the books, then you would not be liable. However, if you intentionally threw the books into the pool, then you would be grossly negligent and liable for damages.
An involuntary bailment is created when someone finds lost or mislaid property. The finder may not destroy the property, though the duties that he or she owes regarding the property may vary from state to state. A voluntary bailment is created when intention exists to create the bailment, as described in the previous paragraph.
As you can imagine, bailment is common in business. Examples of bailment in business include placing packages or goods with common carriers for delivery, warehousing goods with a third party prior to sale or delivery, or taking clients’ or customers’ automobiles in a valet service. Consider whether a business should be able to disclaim bailment (and the duties that go along with bailment). For example, if a hotel required its guests to sign a “no bailment created” clause on check-in, should that excuse the hotel from liability if the guests’ personal property is damaged while the property is left in the hotel?
Property is classified as real property or personal property, tangible or intangible, and private or public. Personal property can be transformed into real property when it is affixed to the land. Real property can be transformed into personal property when it is severed from the land. Personal property can be acquired for ownership through production, purchase, or gift or, in certain circumstances, by finding it. Bailments are legal arrangements in which the rightful possessor of personal property leaves the property with someone else who agrees to hold it and return it on demand.
- Classify the following as (1) personal property or real property, (2) tangible or intangible property, and (3) fungible property:
- A prosthetic device, for example, an artificial leg
- An expected inheritance of stock
- Draperies hanging in a dining room
- A bank account with a five-hundred-dollar balance
- A fictional story that you created
- A condominium on the thirty-second floor of a building in lower Manhattan
- The right to receive payment for your work (e.g., wages, salary)
- A wig that someone is wearing
- A silo filled with wheat
- The wheat in a silo
- Would you be willing to pay real money for nonreal property in a virtual world like Second Life? Why or why not? What are people buying when they buy virtual real property? How does this differ from buying actual real property, like land?
- If you found a prototype of the next-generation iPhone lying on a bar stool, what would you have done with it? What would be the consequences of your chosen action?
- Think of an example of when you have asked for a bailment. Did you feel confident that you would receive your personal property when you demanded it? Did you worry that it would be damaged in any way? If it had been misdelivered, what would your legal remedies be?
- Should bailees be permitted to disclaim liability for bailment agreements? Why or why not?
- At major league baseball games, who do you think owns the baseball when it is being played, and who owns it when the ball enters the stands where members of the public sit? Who owns the ball if a member of the public picks it up?