Popov v. Hayashi – Case Brief Summary

Summary of Popov v. Hayashi, 2002 WL 31833731 (Ca. Sup. Ct. 2002).

Facts

Popov (P) and Hayashi (D) brought baseball gloves hoping that they would catch Bonds’ record setting home run baseball. A cameraman captured the event on videotape. Just as Popov caught the ball he was overwhelmed by a mob engaged in violent and illegal behavior. Popov was buried face under several layers of people. He intended to establish and maintain possession of the ball but at some point it left his glove.

Hayashi was standing near Popov and was involuntarily forced to the ground. While on the ground Hayashi saw the loose ball and took it but committed no wrongful act. The plaintiff brought suit for conversion, trespass to chattel, injunctive relief and constructive trust.

Issue

  • If an actor undertakes significant but incomplete steps to achieve possession of abandoned personal property and the effort is interrupted by the unlawful acts of others, does the actor have a legal pre-possessory interest in the property?

Holding and Rule

Yes. Conversion is the wrongful exercise of dominion over the personal property of another. There must be actual interference with the plaintiff’s dominion. Wrongful withholding of property can constitute actual interference even where the defendant lawfully acquired the property.

If a person entitled to possession of personal property demands its return, the unjustified refusal to give the property back is conversion. The act constituting conversion must be intentionally done. There is no requirement however that the defendant know that the property belongs to another, and the defendant need not intend to dispossess the true owner of its use and enjoyment.

The injured party may elect to seek either specific performance to regain the property or monetary damages. Trespass to chattel, in contrast, exists where personal property has been damaged or where the defendant has interfered with the plaintiff’s use of the property. Actual dispossession is not an element of the tort of trespass to chattel.

Conversion does not exist unless the baseball rightfully belongs to Popov. Before it was hit it belonged to Major League Baseball. At the time it was hit it became intentionally abandoned property. The first person who came in possession of the ball became its new owner.

Where an actor undertakes significant but incomplete steps to achieve possession of a piece of abandoned personal property and the failure to continue the effort is interrupted by the unlawful acts of others, the actor has a pre-possessory interest in the property. This pre-possessory interest constitutes a qualified right to possession which can support a cause of action for conversion.

An award of the ball to the plaintiff would be unfair to Hayashi. It would be premised on the unsupported assumption that Popov would have caught the ball. An award of the ball to the defendant would unfairly penalize Popov. It would be based on the unsupported assumption that Popov would have dropped the ball. Each man has a claim of equal dignity as to the other and both plaintiff and defendant have an equal and undivided interest in the ball. Popov’s cause of action for conversion is sustained only as to his equal and undivided interest. In order to effectuate this ruling, the ball must be sold and the proceeds divided equally between the parties.

Disposition

Judgment reversed. The court ordered that the ball be sold and the profits divided equally.

See Moore v. Regents of the University of California for a property law case brief in which the California Supreme Court held that a patient did not have a cause of action for conversion against his doctor who had patented a cell line using Moore’s bodily tissues without his knowledge or consent.


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