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Under the breadth of property ownership, does the principle of occupier’s rights supersede the entitlement of an authentic finder, or is the common law more complex than first appears?
While waiting to catch a flight, a qualified guest of an airport lounge discovered an abandoned men’s gold bracelet on the seating area floor. By virtue of his own honesty, the respondent handed the jewellery to a member of staff, on the proviso that should the original owner not be found, the airline was to forward the item to his home address as was provided.
After waiting almost a year, the appellants instead took it upon themselves to sell the bracelet, while directly profiting from the sale. Upon discovery, the respondent immediately sued for loss incurred from the deceit and conversion of assets. In the first hearing, the judge awarded in favour of the passenger, whereupon the airline appealed and the matter was given greater thought.
When assessing the imputation that occupiers of land are privy to greater powers of ownership to lost property, the distinctions were drawn in order to clarify where the exceptions to those assumptions lay. In common law, it has been largely agreed through the progression of case law, that in many familiar circumstances, the rights to ownership of property construed as abandoned or lost, would fall to the landowner. However, in this case the airline took no steps to draw notice to that right when considering the frequency and nature of transient visitors to their lounge. In contrast, the only provisions made for matters involving lost property entailed procedural guides for staff members and no more.
After careful evaluation of the two prevailing rights, and when comparing to the honest intentions of the passenger to an abject failure of the airline to express their position when handling lost property, the Appeal Court held that it would be unreasonable to deny the respondent his fundamental rights to ownership of property honestly acquired in the absence of the original owner.
“[I]f a finder is under a duty to take reasonable steps to reunite the true owner with his lost property, this will usually involve an obligation to inform the occupier of the land of the fact that the article has been found and where it is to be kept.”
“[A] finder of chattel, whilst not acquiring any absolute property or ownership in the chattel, acquires a right to keep it against all but the true owner or those in a position to claim it through the true owner or one who can assert a prior right to keep the chattel which was subsisting at the time when the finder took the chattel into his care and control.”
“The plaintiff was not a trespasser in the executive lounge and, in taking the bracelet into his care and control, he was acting with obvious honesty. Prima facie, therefore, he had a full finder’s rights and obligations.”
“Evidence was given of staff instructions which govern the action to be taken by employees of the defendants of the defendants if they found lost articles or lost chattels were handed to them. But these instructions were not published to users of the lounge.”
“[O]n the evidence available, there was no sufficient manifestation of any intention to exercise control over lost property before it was found such as would give the defendants a right superior to that of the plaintiff or indeed any right over the bracelet.”
“Against all but the true owner a person in possession has the right to possess. It should follow therefore that an innocent handler of property who intends to take it for the purpose of discovering the owner and returning it to him should not be in dangers of infringing any right in a third party.”