In what can be billed as one of the most surprising decisions handed down in recent memory, the ruling in Pierson v. Post, one of the nation’s oldest property-law cases, was reversed this week by the Supreme Court of New York. The court’s reconsideration of the ruling was prompted by new evidence arising from an in-depth autopsy analysis that was performed last month on the remains of the fox at the heart of the famed case.
The original dispute arose in 1805 when Lodowick Post, a fox hunter, sued Jesse Pierson after he allegedly killed and carried away a fox that Post had been pursuing. The original decision found in favor of Pierson, holding that he could keep the dead fox because Post did not have control over the beast.
However, earlier this summer at the request of Broderick Post, great-great-great-grandson of Lodowick Post, the remains of the fox were exhumed and analyzed, at a personal cost of about $1 million. The long-overdue autopsy found conclusive evidence that, by the time Pierson had discovered the fox, it had already died of exhaustion from Post’s pursuit. Post then petitioned the court to have the case reopened.
During the hearing, Kendall Pierson, great-great-great-granddaughter of Jesse Pierson, disputed the autopsy’s findings while stipulating to the data that had been gathered. In fact, based on that data, Pierson introduced a computerized reenactment of Post’s pursuit of the fox that came to the opposite conclusion as to the fox’s health when captured. With a legal defense fund quickly swelling from contributions throughout the Pierson extended family, respondents spent approximately $720,000 on the computer model, to which world-famous fox expert Graham Grewock gave four hours of extensive testimony at a fee of $82,000.
However, the appellate court sided with Post, holding that the death of the ferae naturae (the fox) was proximately caused by Post’s chase. “The fatal exhaustion was the mortal wound that killed the fox,” wrote Justice Oring for the majority.
When the opinion was announced, the Post family erupted in cheers, hugging each other and shedding tears of joy. “A gigantic weight has been lifted off of myself and my family,” said Broderick Post. “The Post family has suffered great humiliation for more than two hundred years, and we owned it all along. It’s our fox. Always was, always will be.”
The Pierson family, on contrast, downplayed the importance of case and expressed confusion as to why the case was particularly important at all. “This is such a stupid case. I’m not sure how I got wrapped into spending all this money on a dead fox,” said Kendall Pierson. “Who cares? This should have never been litigated in the first place. I mean, it’s a fox. You don’t even eat them or anything.”
Legal scholars expressed shock at the downfall of a long-revered case that lies at the bedrock of the country’s property-law jurisprudence. None, however, could think of one practical way the new ruling would realistically affect current law in any meaningful sense.