Finders Are Not Always Keepers
The story takes place in Stratford where Jean and Harry Weitzner lived together for 38 years prior to Harry’s tragic death in a fire in 1989. Harry left a will naming his wife as his sole heir.
For about 30 years, Harry operated a scrapyard on the site, using a portion of his home as a business office. The property was sold by Jean to Hermans in 1997 who then had the house demolished by Cornelius Goncalves.
During the demolition, a fire extinguisher rolled out of a crawl space under the business office in the home. An unspecified quantity of silver coins were found in the extinguisher, along with $130,000 in old $50 and $100 bills. The money was in 26 neat bundles of $5,000 each.
Neither Jean nor the Hermans knew about the hidden money when they signed the agreement of purchase and sale.
Shortly after the demolition, the Hermans visited Jean ostensibly to return some photographs they found in the house.
During the visit, Jean told the Hermans that she heard they found $12,000 on the property during the demolition. Mr. Herman admitted that he found that much “and a little more” and convinced Jean to take $4,000.00 and had her sign an agreement accepting the money in full payment “for any money found in or around the house.”
The document also said Jean didn’t know the money was in the house, and that the Hermans “may keep any amount they have found”.
No one bothered to tell Jean before she signed the agreement that the buyer had actually found $130,000. It’s not clear how Jean found out the truth, but there was an independent witness present when the old extinguisher rolled out of the crawlspace.
It wasn’t long before everybody was suing everybody else in Superior Court, all of them claiming to be entitled to the money.
Jean claimed she inherited the money from her husband even though she didn’t know about it, and the deed to the house was never meant to pass title to the cash.
Goncalves, the contractor, claimed salvage rights. The Hermans argued that Jean abandoned the contents along with the house, and transferred the money to them by delivering, on closing, a signed Bill of Sale for the moveable items in the house.
The Hermans argued “finders keepers”, an old rule applying to chattels, or items of personal property not attached to land or a building. The finders keepers rule, they said, goes back to an old English court case in 1722. The ancient principle of law that covers the situation is that the finder of a lost chattel acquires good title to it as against everyone but the true owner or someone enjoying a better claim, or a superior title. As with most legal rules, however, there are always exceptions. This case was one of the exceptions.
Justice McDermid ruled that Jean could recover the full $130,000 from the Hermans minus the $4,000 she got when she signed the agreement. He said it was absurd to believe that someone could by a property for $163,500 and retain $130,000.00 in cash inside it at the same time.