The Richmond Register

September 22, 2013

You be the Judge: The case of the bad mattress

What’s the Law?

By Jack Strauss
Special to the Register

BEREA — Emma had about as much confidence in banks as she did in the contents of hot dogs. Consequently, every buck she could get her hands on over the years, she stuffed in her mattress.

When she passed on, her niece Edna Mae sold the mattress to Wilbur for $2 unaware of the fortune it contained.

As it turned out, Wilbur was a restless sleeper, particularly on a lumpy mattress. Deciding to investigate the source of his discomfort one night, he gleefully discovered the irksome cause added up to $50,000. His joy, however, lasted shorter than his sleepless nights. Upon hearing of Wilbur's find, Edna Mae raced to court demanding the $50,000 as her own.

“I don't know what the gal's talking about,” Wilbur said. “It's my mattress, it's my money.”

“He may be awake,” responded Edna Mae. “But he's dreaming if he thinks that lumpy fortune is his. I sold him a mattress, not my aunt's hidden fortune. As her only next of kin, the money belongs to me.”

If you were the judge, would you permit Wilbur to keep the lumpy fortune?

Here's how the judge ruled: No. The judge held that a treasure belongs to the finder only if no one else can prove it's their property. In this case, the money Wilbur found obviously belonged to Aunt Emma. While he bought the mattress, he did not buy its contents.

Based on a 1959 U.S. District Court of Appeals decision.

Jack Strauss, a retired New York City trial attorney who now resides in Berea, wrote a syndicated column for 36 years called, “What’s the Law?” It appeared in papers coast to coast, including the Pittsburgh Press, the Los Angeles Examiner, the Hartford Times, the Kansas City Star and the Philadelphia Daily News, among many others. It appears here with his permission.