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Ghen v. Rich

From lawbrain.com

Ghen v. Rich, 8 F. 159 (1881), is a property law case in which concepts of ownership and possession are examined.

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Summary of Case Facts

At the time this case took place, it was commonplace for whalers who killed finback whales to leave their lances, which contained identifying markings in the whale as a means of claim of ownership over the whale. Because dead finback whales often sank, they frequently took many days to wash up on shore. As was the custom, the person who found the whale washed up on shore would contact the owner (indicated by the lance) for the owner to retrieve the whale. The finder would then, as was the custom, receive a finder’s fee. In this case, Ghen killed a finback whale with his lance. When it washed up on shore it was discovered by a man named Ellis. Ellis auctioned the whale off to the defendant, Rich. While neither Ellis nor Rich knew whose whale it was, they could tell that it had been killed by a whale hunter. Ghen learned of what transpired and filed suit against Rich to recover the value of the whale.


May a court look to industry custom and usage to determine rightful ownership?

Holding and Law

Yes. A court may look to industry custom and usage to determine rightful ownership. The present custom of killing, claiming, and retrieving the whale is well-known and has been recognized for many years within the industry. The whale should belong to the one who has put in the work to kill the whale and not someone who finds it merely by chance, particularly where all customary procedures have taken place to secure ownership and possession of the whale. To rule otherwise would remove any incentive for whale hunters to operate.

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