Freedom Line

The case could have come from any law school property exam as a classic case of finders-versus-keepers.


Extra Innings for Baseball Litigation

By Christopher J. Armstrong

Alex Popov went to a ballgame, caught a ball, lost the ball, filed a lawsuit, lost the ball again, and at the end of the game may end up losing his shirt.

The dispute began in October 2001 when baseball star Barry Bonds hit his record-setting 73rd homerun. The feat marked a major league record for single-season homeruns, and is a moment which will be enshrined in baseball history.

Spectator Alex Popov originally caught the homerun ball, and then lost it in a melee of fans. Patrick Hayashi ended up with the prized souvenir and both men ended up in a lawsuit over rights to the baseball.

California Attorney Martin Triano represented Popov in the suit, arguing that the Popov was the true owner of the baseball and should be entitled to keep it. Hayashi argued alternatively that, as the first fan to be able to get the ball and hold on to it, the ball should be his. The case could have come from any law school property exam as a classic case of finders-versus-keepers.

In a decision that amounted to a jurisprudential shrugging of the shoulders, the judge sidestepped the question and ordered Popov and Hayashi to sell the baseball and split the proceeds equally. The souvenir baseball brought $450,000 at auction, half of which — $225,000 — went to each of the two men.

However, Popov’s adventures in the courtroom were far from over. His $225,000 windfall came up short last month when his attorney filed suit, claiming that Popov owed him $473,500 in legal fees and expenses.

Because of the new lawsuit, a California judge has ordered Popov’s $225,000 share of the sale to be put in escrow awaiting a July 17 hearing over Triano’s claims. Popov’s original contract with Triano required the men to use a private arbitrator to settle any disputes over legal fees, and the hearing will decide whether that provision will be enforced.

Attorney Triano was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying "Alex had nothing going into this case. We paved new legal ground and got him half the ball… Alex chose not to take it up on appeal."

Asked for his reaction to the case, Popov said "You’ll have to read the book when I write it."

The last chapter in this dispute is far from written, as Popov is reportedly preparing a suit against Triano. Popov said "I’ve talked to (new) legal counsel that says he (Triano) owes me the full value of the baseball because he lost it (through his representation at the trial)."

One can only hope that Mr. Popov has the good sense to negotiate legal fees for his new lawsuit in advance.

Christopher J. Armstrong is a law student at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law and is interning at the Center for Individual Freedom this summer.

[Posted July 10, 2003]

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