In Katko vs. Briney, the defendant used a trap gun to shoot and maim an intruder looking to collect bottles and other trinkets from his abandoned property. One would think that the two would be bitter enemies, rivals for life. So it was not altogether surprising when we found out that Katko and Briney were involved in another lawsuit. What did surprise us was that the two were co-plaintiffs, suing others together. People Magazine saw fit to do a colorful write up of the entire affair in 1975, providing us with interesting tidbits about the original 1970 trial, the subsequent appeal, and the bizarre aftermath.
According to the People article, the original jury--which was comprised entirely of women--sympathized with the portrayal of Katko as a good kid who made a mistake and awarded him $30,000. After Briney lost the trial case, three of his neighbors bought his land for $10,001 and leased it back to him under the assumption that he would win the appeal and be able to buy back his property. However, Briney lost the appeal in 1971 and was forced to sell an additional 35 acres of land.
Now we get to the interesting part of the story. In 1974, the three neighbors who originally bought Briney’s land for $10,001 decided to sell it. First, they offered to sell it back to Briney, but he couldn’t afford the price. One of the neighbors, the amazingly-named Gysbert Groenenboom, bought the land from the other two neighbors for $16,001 and eventually sold it to his son for $16,500. It is unclear whether the neighbors first offered to sell Briney back his land for the original $10,001 or for the increased price of $16,001. Either way, given the amount of land he had sold to pay Katko’s damages, it is entirely possible that he wasn’t able to afford either price due to a lack of farming revenue. In a surprising twist of events, Katko and Briney jointly sued the three neighbors, claiming that they were owed the $6,500 profit that was made on Briney’s land. We don't know whether Katko and Briney ever became friends or even allies, but in this instance their interests aligned such that it benefited both of them to join forces in the lawsuit against Briney's neighbors.
We don’t know the outcome of the 1974 lawsuit, but it does highlight some interesting legal concepts. It seems that the basis of Katko and Briney’s claim is that the three neighbors unfairly profited from Briney’s land, which sounds an awful lot like the tort of unjust enrichment. Unjust enrichment occurs when one party unfairly profits from something at the expense of the other party. It isn’t hard to imagine the arguments for each side in this case. From the perspective of Katko and Briney, both suffered from the sale of the land to Groenenboom. Briney lost his property and Katko lost a portion of the damages still owed to him from the original verdict against Briney, which presumably had not been paid in full. From the three neighbors’ perspective, they had bought the land with the expectation that Briney would eventually be able to reclaim it. When Briney lost the appeal and the neighbors decided to sell the land, Briney was unable to afford the price and they were saddled with his land. To them, at some point it just made sense to sell the property and recoup their investment. As the saying goes, “all’s fair in love and war” (and yes, we’re counting legal battles as a form of war).
Although this is a torts blog, we might as well also mention that there was probably a question about implied contracts in this case. Briney sold his land to his neighbors in 1971 with the expectation that they would hold it for him until he could buy it back. We might assume that there was no written contract, but Briney probably argued that by selling the land to anyone other than Briney, the three neighbors breached a verbal contract. The neighbors may have understood that they owed Briney only the “right of first refusal,” meaning that they would only have to give Briney the first opportunity to buy the land. Briney, however, may have interpreted the agreement to mean that his neighbors would hold onto his property until he could afford to buy it back. Remember that Briney was also leasing the property from his neighbors, so from his perspective his neighbors had already greatly profited from the transaction. Unfortunately, without a written contract, it would be difficult for Briney to enforce his claims. Even if there was a verbal understanding or implied contract, these types of agreements carry far less weight in court.
Katko v. Briney is a great example of a case that had big implications for many lives beyond the confines of the courtroom. It just goes to show that there is always more to a case than is contained in a court opinion or a jury verdict. Only once you start pulling on loose ends do you discover the tiny details that bring a case to life.
-Acton & Ellis