Ownership of Homerun Balls
On August 7, 2007, San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run, giving him the record for the most home runs hit by a single player in his career. And while baseball fans debate whether Bonds truly owns this record in light of his alleged performance-enhancing drug use, legal scholars also debate the question of who legally owns the ball.
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“A person who catches a baseball that enters the stands is its owner. A ball is caught if the person has achieved complete control of the ball at the point in time that the momentum of the ball and the momentum of the fan while attempting to catch the ball ceases. A baseball, which is dislodged by incidental contact with an inanimate object or another person, before momentum has ceased, is not possessed. Incidental contact with another person is contact that is not intended by the other person. The first person to pick up a loose ball and secure it becomes its possessor.”
Applying the rule, the court determined that Hiyashi was the person who took legal possession of the ball. But the court recognized that Popov would have caught the ball and taken full possession if the crowd around him had not attacked; that is, the ball was not dislodged by incidental contact, but by brute force. The court also recognized that Hiyashi had not been one of the attackers; he did not cause Popov to lose the ball. Last, the court wanted to make sure it did not encourage fans to attack someone who is catching a ball. To accommodate these policies, the court created the following rule:
“Where an actor undertakes significant but incomplete steps to achieve possession of a piece of abandoned personal property and the effort is interrupted by the unlawful acts of others, the actor has a legally cognizable pre-possessory interest in the property. That pre-possessory interest constitutes a qualified right to possession which can support a cause of action for conversion.”
In the end, the ball was sold for about $450,000 at auction, and Popov and Hiyashi split the proceeds. This case has been both praised as a practical and fair solution, and criticized for mashing together too many legal theories in an unwieldy manner.
If a court were to follow this case, it would decide that 22-year-old Matt Murphy owns the ball because he was the fan that took full possession of the ball. There have been no reports that I could find that anyone else held the ball and had any kind of pre-possessory interest like Popov had. To answer Dave's question, yes, if someone had taken the ball from Murphy, he would have a valid claim against that person. This is because, once he took possession of the ball, the abandoned property, he took full ownership of the ball. If someone takes something that you own, you can sue to get it back.
But, no court is bound to follow this case because it comes from a trial court; trial court rulings are generally not binding on other trial courts. So, Major League Baseball, Barry Bonds, or another fan could theoretically sue for the ball. We shall see . . .
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