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Law School Case Brief

Charrier v. Bell - 496 So. 2d 601 (La. Ct. App. 1986)

Rule:

La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 3412 provides that occupancy is a mode of acquiring property by which a thing which belongs to nobody, becomes the property of the person who took possession of it, with the intention of acquiring a right of ownership upon it.

Facts:

Leonard Charrier was an archaeologist who concluded, after extensive research, that the Trudeau Plantation was the possible site of an ancient village of the Tunica Indians. He alleged that in 1967 he obtained the permission of Mr. Frank Hoshman, Sr., who he believed was the owner of Trudeau Plantation, to survey the property with a metal detector for possible burial locations. After locating and excavating approximately 30 to 40 burial plots, lying in a circular pattern, Charrier told Hoshman that he had located the Tunica village. According to Charrier, it was during this time that Hoshman first advised Charrier that he was the caretaker, not the owner, of the property. In search of a buyer for the collection, Charrier talked to Dr. Robert S. Neitzel of Louisiana State University, who, in turn, informed Dr. Jeffrey D. Brain of Harvard University. Dr. Brain, who was involved in a survey of archaeology along the lower Mississippi River, viewed the artifacts and began discussions of their sale to the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. The discussions resulted in the lease of the artifacts to the Museum, where they were inventoried, catalogued and displayed. Confronted with the inability to sell the collection because he could not prove ownership, Charrier filed suit against the six nonresident landowners of Trudeau Plantation, requesting declaratory relief confirming that he was the owner of the artifacts. Alternatively, Charrier requested that he be awarded compensation under the theory of unjust enrichment for his time and expenses. The trial court denied both of Charrier’s claims as owner of Indian artifacts and his request for compensation for his excavation work in uncovering those artifacts under the theory of unjust enrichment. 

Issue:

Did the trial court err in its decision to deny both of Charrier’s requests, i.e., to declare that he was the owner of the artifacts, and to grant him compensation for his excavation work?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The court held that it would not uphold the transfer of ownership to some unrelated third party who uncovers burial goods. The court agreed with the trial court's conclusion that La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 3421 was not intended to require that objects buried with the dead were abandoned or that objects could be acquired by obtaining possession over the objections of the descendants. The court further noted that the ultimate owners of the artifacts presented substantial evidence that the excavation caused substantial upset over the ruin of "ancestral burial grounds," rather than any enrichment.

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