Page images

put to his action of trespass or trover, recover its improved value in damages. Thus far, it is conceded that the common law agrees with the civil.

They agree in another respect, to wit, that if the chattel wrongfully taken, afterwards come into the hands of an innocent holder who believing himself to be the owner, converts the chattel into a thing of different species so that its identity is destroyed, the original owner cannot reclaim it. Such a change is said to be wrought when wheat is made into bread, olives into oil, or grapes into wine. In a case of this kind the change in the species of the chattel is not an intentional wrong to the original owner. It is therefore regarded as a destruction or consumption of the original materials, and the true owner is not permitted to trace their identity into the manufactured article, for the purpose of appropriating to bis own use the labor and skill of the innocent occupant who wrought the change; but he is put to his action for damages as for a thing consumed, and may recover its value as it was when the conversion or consumption took place.

There is great confusion in the books upon the question what constitutes change of identity. In one case, (5 Hen. 7, fol. 15,) it is said that the owner may reclaim the goods so long as they may be known, or in other words, ascertained by inspection. But this in many cases is by no means the best evidence of identity; and the examples put by way of illustration serve rather to disprove than to establish the rule. The court say that if grain be made into malt, it can not be reclaimed by the owner because it can not be known. But if cloth be made into a coat, a tree into squared timber, or iron into a tool, it may. Now as to the cases of the coat and the timber they may or may not be capable of identification by the senses merely; and the rule is entirely uncertain in its application; and as to the iron tool, it certainly can not be identified as made of the original material, without other evidence. This illustration, therefore, contradicts the rule.

In another case, (Moore's Rep. 20,) trees were made into timber and it was adjudged that the owner of the trees might reclaim the timber, “because the greater part of the substance remained.” But if this were the true criterion it would embrace the cases of wheat made into bread, milk into cheese, grain into malt, and others which are put in the books as examples of a change of identity. Other writers say that when the thing is so changed that it can not be reduced from its new form, to its former state, its identity is gone. But this would include many cases in which it has been said by the courts that the identity is not gone ; as the case of leather made into a garment, logs into timber or boards, cloth into a coat, &c. There is therefore no definite settled rule on this question; and although the want of such a rule may create embarrassment in a case in which the owner seeks to reclaim his property from the hands of an honest possessor; it presents no difficulty where he seeks to obtain it from the wrongdoer; provided the common law agrees with the civil in the principle applicable to such a case.


The acknowledged principle of the civil law is that a wilful wrongdoer acquires no property in the goods of another, either by the wrongful taking or by any change wrought in them by his labor or skill, however great that change may be. The new product, in its improved state, belongs to the owner of the original materials, provided it be proved to have been made from them; the trespasser loses his labor, and that change which is regarded as a destruction of the goods, or an alteration of their identity in favor of an honest possessor, is not so regarded as between the original owner and a wilful violator of his right of property

These principles are to be found in the digest of Justinian. (Lib. 10, tit. 4, leg. 12, $ 3.) “ If any one shall make wine with my grapes, oil with my olives, or garments with my wool, knowing they are not his own, he shall be compelled by action to produce the said wine, oil or garments." So in Vinnius' Institutes, tit. 1, pl. 25. " He who knows the material is another's ought to be considered in the same light as if he had made the species in the name of the owner, to whom also he is to be understood to have given his labor."

The same principle is stated by Puffendorf in his Law of Nature and of Nations, (b. 4, ch. 7, $ 10) and in Wood's Institutes of the Civil Law, p. 92, which are cited at large in the opinion of Jewett J. delivered in this case in the Supreme Court. (4 Denio, 338,) and which it is unnecessary here to repeat. In Brown's Civil and Admiralty Law, p. 240, the writer states the civil law to be that the original owner of any thing improved by the act of another, retained his ownership in the thing so improved, unless it was changed into a different species; as if his grapes were made into wine, the wine belonged to the maker, who was only obliged to pay the owner for the value of his grapes. The species however must be incapable of being restored to its ancient form; and the materials must have been tuken in ignorance of their being the property of another..

But it was thought in the court below that this doctrine had never been adopted into the common law, either in England or bere; and the distinction between a wilful and an involuntary wrongdoer hereinbefore mentioned, was rejected not only on that ground but also because the rule was supposed to be too harsh and rigorous against the wrongdoer.

It is true that no case has been found in the English books in which that distinction has been expressly recognized; but it is equally true that in no case until the present has it been repudiated or denied. The common law on this subject was evidently borrowed from the Roman at an early day; and at a period when the common law furnished, no rule whatever in a case of this kind. Bracton, in his treatise compiled in the reign of Henry III., adopted a portion of Justinian's Institutes on this subject without noticing the distinction; and Blackstone, in his Commentaries, vol. 2, p. 404, in stating what the Roman law was, follows Bracton, but neither of these writers intimate that on the point in question there is any difference between the civil and the common law.

The authorities referred to by Blackstone in support of his text are three only. The first in Brooks' Abridgment, tit. Property 23, is the case from the Year Book, 5 H. 7, fol. 15, (translated in a note to 4 Denio, 335.) in which the owner of leather brought trespass for taking slippers and boots, and the defendant pleaded that he was the owner of the leather and bailed it to J. S. who gave it to the plaintiff, who manufactured it into slippers and boots, and the defendant took them as he lawfully might. The plea was held good and the title of the owner of the leather unchanged. The second reference is to a case in Sir Francis Moore's Reports, p. 20, in which the action was trespass for taking timber, and the defendant justified on the ground that A entered on his land and cut down trees and made timber thereof, and carried it to the place where the trespass was alledged to have been committed, and afterwards gave it to the plaintiff, and that the defendant therefore took the timber as he lawfully might. In these cases the chattels had passed from the hands of the original trespasser into the hands of a third person ; in both it was held that the title of the original owner was unchanged, and that he had a right to the property in its improved state against the third person in possession. They are in conformity with the rule of the civil law; and certainly fail to prove any difference between the civil and the common law on the point in question. The third case cited is from Popham's Reports, p. 38, and was a case of confusion of goods. The plaintiff voluntarily mixed his own hay with the hay of the defendant, who carried the whole away, for which he was sued in trespass; and it was adjudged that the whole should go to the defendant; and Blackstone refers to this case in support of bis text, that “our law to guard against fraud gives the entire property, without any account to him whose original dominion is invaded and endeavored to be rendered uncertain without his own consent.” The civil law in such a case would have required him who retained the whole of the mingled goods to account to the other for his share, (Just. Inst. lib. 2, tit. 1, § 28 ;) and the common law in this particular appears to be more rigorous than the civil ; and there is no good reason why it should be less so in a case like that now in hand, where the necessity of guarding against fraud is even greater than in the case of a mingling of goods, because the cases are likely to be of more frequent occurrence.

Even this liability to account to him whose conduct is fraudulent, seems by the civil law to be limited to cases in which the goods are of such a nature that they may be divided into shares or portions, according to the original right of the parties; for by that law if A obtain by fraud the parchment of B, and write upon it a poem, or wrongfully take his tablet and paint thereon a picture, B is entitled to the written parchment and to the painted tablet, without accounting for the value of the writing or of the picture. (Just. Inst. lib. 2, tit. 1, $$ 23, 24.) Neither Bracton nor Blackstone have pointed out any difference except in the case of confusion of goods between the common law and the Roman, from which on this subject our law has mainly derived its principles.

So long as property wrongfully taken retains its original form and substance, or may be reduced to its original materials, it belongs, according to the admitted principles of the common law, to the originai owner, without reference to the degree of improvement, or the additional value given to it by the labor of the wrongdoer. Nay more, this rule holds good against an innocent purchaser from the wrongdoer, although its value be increased an hundred fold by the labor of the purchaser. This is a necessary consequence of the continuance of the original ownership.

There is no satisfactory reason why the wrongful conversion of the original materials into an article of a different name or a different species should work a transfer of the title from the true owner to the trespasser, provided the real identity of the thing can be traced by evidence. The difficulty of proving the identity is not a good reason. It relates merely to the convenience of the remedy, and not at all to the right. There is no more difficulty or uncertainty in proving that the whisky in question was made of Wood's corn, than there would have been in proving that the plaintiff had made a cup of his gold, or a tool of bis iron ; and yet in those instances, according to the English cases, the proof would have been unobjectionable. In all cases where the new product can not be identified by mere inspection, the original material must be traced by the testimony of witnesses from hand to hand through the process of transformation.

Again. The court below seem to have rejected the rule of the civil law applicable to this case, and to have adopted a principle not heretofore known to the common law; and for the reason that the rule of the civil law was too rigorous upon the wrongdoer, in depriving him of the benefit of his labor bestowed upon the goods wrongfully taken. But we think the civil law in this respect is in conformity not only with plain principles of morality, but supported by cogent reasons of public policy ; while the rule adopted by the court below leads to the absurdity of treating the wilful trespasser with greater kindness and mercy than it shows to the innocent possessor of another man's goods. A single example may suffice to prove this to be so. A trespasser takes a quantity of iron ore belonging to another and converts it into iron, thus changing the species and identity of the article : the owner of the ore may recover its value, in trover or trespass; but not the value of the iron, because under the rule of the court below it would be unjust and rigorous to deprive the trespasser of the value of his labor in the transmutation. But if the same trespasser steals the iron and sells it to an innocent purchaser, who works it into cutlery, the owner of the iron may recover of the purchaser the value of the cutlery, because by this process the original material is not destroyed, but remains, and may be reduced to its former state; and according to the rule adopted by the court below as to the change of identity the original ownership remains. Thus the innocent purchaser is deprived of the value of his labor, while the guilty trespasser is not.

The rule adopted by the court below seems, therefore, to be objectionable, because it operates unequally and unjustly. It not only divests the true owner of his title, without his consent; but it obliterates the distinction maintained by the civil law, and as we think by the common law, between the guilty and the innocent; and abolishes a salutary check against violence and fraud upon the rights of propertyi

We think, moreover, that the law on this subject has been settled by judicial decisions in this country. In Betts v. Lee, 5 John. 349, it was decided that as against a trespasser the original owner of the property may seize it in its new shape, whatever alteration of form it may have undergone, if he can prove the identity of the original materials. That was a case in which the defendant had cut down the plaintiff's trees, and made them into shingles. The property could neither be identified by inspection, nor restored to its original form ; but the plaintiff recovered the value of the shingles. So in Curtis v. Groat, 6 John. 169, a tresspasser cut wood on another's land and converted it into charcoal. It was held that the charcoal still belonged to the owner of the wood. Here was a change of the wood into an article of different kind and species. No part of the substance of the wood remained in its original state ; its identity could not be ascertained by the senses, nor could it be restored to what it originally was. That case distinctly recognizes the principle that a wilful trespasser can not acquire a title to property merely by changing it from one species to another. And the late Chancellor Kent, in his Commentaries, (Vol. 2, p. 363,) declares that the English law will not allow one man to gain a title to the property of another upon the principle of accession, if he took the other's property wilfully as a trespasser: and that it was settled as early as the time of the Year Books, that whatever alteration of form any property had undergone, the owner might seize it in its new shape, if he could prove the identity of the original materials.

The same rule has been adopted in Pennsylvania. Snyder v. Vaux, 2 Rawle, 427. And in Maine and Massachusetts it has been applied to a wilful intermixture of goods. Ryder v. Hathaway, 21 Pick. 304, 5; Wingate v. Smith, 7 Shep. 287; Willard v. Rice, 11 Metc. 493.

We are therefore of opinion that if the plaintiffs below in converting the corn into whisky knew that it belonged to Wood, and that they were thus using it in violation of his right, they acquired no title to the manufactured

article, which although changed from the original material into another of different nature, yet being the actual product of the corn, still belonged to Wood. The evidence offered by the defendants and rejected by the circuit judge ought to have been admitted.

The right of Wood's creditors to seize the whisky by their execution is a necessary consequence of Wood's ownership. Their right is paramount to his, and of course to his election to sue in trover or trespass for the corn.

« PreviousContinue »