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Toledo, Ohio personal injury attorney Dale Emch addresses the issue of lost property and rightful ownership in his most recent “Legal Briefs” article found in Sunday’s issue of The Blade. Our Toledo, Ohio personal injury attorneys also handle cases involving wrongful death, truck accidents, motorcycle accidents and ATV accidents, workers compensation, social security disability, criminal charges, and DUI cases.

While knocking out plaster walls during a bathroom renovation project, a contractor discovers a box that had been squirreled away.

Opening it, the contractor finds $25,000 in old bills. He calls the homeowner and she rushes home. More plaster comes down, more money is discovered.

They agree to some sort of split of the money, but then, as is so often the case when money is at stake, the deal falls apart and lawyers get involved.

Sound farfetched? This rough scenario was pulled from a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer story that chronicled the legal tussle between a Cleveland-area contractor and a homeowner.

The crux of the struggle is, who gets the dough. The $182,000 that was found could be worth around $500,000 because some of the bills are rare. Apparently it was hidden sometime before World War II by a previous homeowner.

Most of the friends and family members I polled believe the money should go to the homeowner, the rationale being that she owns the home and everything in it. Makes sense, right? If only it were that simple. A legal concept called “treasure trove” that dates back to the English common law through which so much of our own law flows may put the money in the hands of the contractor.

An old case from England that was cited by an Ohio appellate court in the 1940s says that “the owner of the soil whereon treasure is found acquires no title or right thereto by virtue thereof, as against the finder or the true owner.” So, it’s sort of like finders-keepers.
A few other Ohio cases discuss the concept of treasure trove, but seem to improperly apply the term to situations where property was lost or abandoned. In other words, the found money hadn’t been hidden away for a long period in a wall, mattress, piano, or hole in the ground.

Lost property and misplaced property each has its own rules. If I lose my iPod because it falls out of my pocket, whoever picks it up has superior title rights to everyone but me, the true owner. It doesn’t matter who owned the property where the iPod was found unless the finder was a trespasser. There are other exceptions, such as whether the item was found in an office or a home, but that’s the rough gist.

If I misplace my iPod by setting it on the counter of a store and another customer finds it, the owner of the store would have superior rights to everyone except me.

So, where does that leave us with the feud between the contractor and the homeowner? Well, if the court that hears this applies the old English common law of treasure trove, it looks pretty good for the contractor, at least as the rule is applied to the money he found before the homeowner came home and started searching with him.

Then again, it doesn’t appear the Ohio Supreme Court has addressed the issue, so the reviewing court may apply holdings from other states, which could lead to a different result. The outcome could be different still if the money is determined to be misplaced or lost, though I’m not sure how that would be the case here. In short, it’s impossible to say how a court would rule on this, but it should be interesting to watch.

The real shame, though, is that a court has to be involved at all. Instead of coming up with a split that both could live with, a judge may decide that one party gets nothing. The excitement of finding this treasure has probably been swept away by the fighting.

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