For The Tribune-Democrat
When I was small, the kids used to say, “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”
I don’t know the origin of that statement, but it does not reflect any rule of law. It sounds like the kind of statement that might have been made by the biggest kid on the block.
The law always favors returning anything that is lost to its true owner. Identifying your own property may be a problem, but your right to it is clear.
The real problem arises when the true owner doesn’t show up to claim his or her property. Who holds it in the meantime, and how long do you have to keep something you’ve found?
To handle these situations, the law creates two categories of property.
Property is said to be lost when it is unintentionally separated from its owner. A girl loses her earring when it falls on the sidewalk and she is unaware that it has dropped. A boy loses his waterproof watch when it comes off in the ocean.
The second category of missing things involves items which are mislaid. We intentionally put things down, then can’t remember where we put them.
Such items aren’t “lost,” in the legal sense, they are mislaid. My favorites are car keys and glasses.
As to property that is mislaid, the law says it belongs to the owner of the premises until the real owner claims it.
Suppose a female shopper at the local department store puts her umbrella on a counter while looking at jewelry, then leaves the store without the umbrella. The umbrella is found by one of the clerks who wants to take it home until the shopper claims it.
The store manager insists that the temporary (and maybe permanent) possession of the umbrella belongs to the store, but that it should be placed in the store’s lost-and-found department.
The manager is right. The law favors the owner of the premises because the shopper will probably realize she has mislaid her umbrella and will return to the store, not to the clerk’s house.
Lost property presents a different problem. If you find the swimmer’s watch at the beach, when does it become yours? When can you sell it or give it to another as a gift?
To resolve the problem of lost property, many states have enacted estray statutes. Pennsylvania, however, has never enacted an estray statute.
Estray statutes designate a place, usually city hall or the county courthouse, where lost items can be turned in.
The government advertises all the articles once a year, and if the true owner doesn’t claim the item, it then legally belongs to the finder, even if the true owner later appears and claims the item.
Some estray statutes reward the finder financially as well, to encourage the use of the statute.
Thomas Young, a graduate of Pitt and Harvard Law School, has been a lawyer in Johnstown since 1958. He is a former professor of business law at Pitt-Johnstown. Readers may send questions to Young in care of The Tribune-Democrat. The opinions expressed in this column are general in nature and may not apply to your situation. Consult your attorney for advice on specific legal matters.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.