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Laws for Lost, Mislaid, and Abandoned Items

Lost, Mislaid & Abandoned Items 

These include situations in which an individual loses ownership rights to another person.

⁃    Lost Items – Things that are lost may also acquire a new owner through possession. Most states have a statutory procedure in place for establishing ownership rights in lost property. These statutes generally require that the lost property be advertised for a period of time in an effort to notify the original owner. If, however, the original owner fails to claim the lost item, ownership rights vest in the individual who found the item. The purpose of such statutes is to avoid the situation where no one owns or makes beneficial use of lost items. Without following this procedure, the finder of the lost property obtains limited ownership rights through possession, which may always be subject to challenge by the original owner.

⁃    Mislaid Items – These are items that are lost or left behind by an individual. It commonly arises when someone leaves clothing or accessories behind in a store or restaurant. The owner of the location where the item was left becomes the guardian of the property until retrieved. After a reasonable amount of time without the owner coming to claim the item, the guardian of the property may follow the statutory procedure to establish ownership rights. In the absence of following a procedure to establish ownership, the holder has limited ownership rights simply by possession.

⁃    Abandonment – Mislaid or lost property may be deemed “abandoned”. If a mislaid or lost item is abandoned, the finder may retain the item and claim ownership. The key attribute is that the original owner must demonstrate “an unequivocal intent to abandon the property”. Intent can be inferred from conduct, such as stopping looking for it, permanently leaving the geographic area, etc.

⁃    Discussion: Do you agree with this treatment of lost or mislaid items? Why or why not? What would be an alternative approach to dealing with ownership rights in lost or mislaid property?

⁃    Practice Question: Tamara finds a valuable diamond ring laying on the sidewalk. She takes it home and puts it in her jewelry box. Years later, she gives it to her daughter as a present. One day, her daughter is approached by a stranger who claims that she was the original owner of the ring when it was lost. If the stranger’s claims are true, who has ownership of the ring?

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