Haunting Legal Question Is Raised For Halloween
By Michael Ferry Legal Services Of Eastern Missouri
COPIED FROM: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ARCHIVES Originally published on Thursday, October 30, 1997.
Q: I recently inherited a house from my grandmother. The house has a ghost. It never hurts people, and not everyone sees it.
If I decide to sell the house, do I have to tell any would-be buyer about the ghost?
A: This haunting question materialized some time ago, but I decided to save it for the right season.
Most litigation between home buyers and sellers on undisclosed problems has to do with defects, such as plumbing that doesn't work or a roof that leaks. In such cases, the parties argue about whether the ancient principle of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) should apply, or whether the seller who knew about the defect had a duty to disclose it.
On rare occasions, arguments arise about less tangible defects. In 1983, a California appeals court held in favor of an outraged buyer who was not told that, 10 years before, a gruesome multiple homicide had been committed in the house. In other cases, buyers have objected to their not being told that previous occupants of houses had AIDS or other diseases, despite the lack of any showing that these buyers would suffer in any physical way and the possibility that such disclosures raise privacy or discrimination issues.
In response to cases such as these, several states, including Missouri, passed laws protecting sellers and real-estate brokers from having to disclose that real estate is "psychologically impacted" or is located near such property. Missouri's law (which I think of as the bad-vibes law) defines "psychologically impacted" real estate as that which was the site of a homicide or other felony or suicide, or was the home of a person infected with HIV or diagnosed with AIDS or any other disease that has been "determined by medical evidence to be highly unlikely to be transmitted through the occupancy of a dwelling place."
However, the law doesn't cover haunted houses, which leads me to this legal case:
In 1991, a homeowner in Nyack, N.Y., wrote about the ghost in her house for Reader's Digest and the local press. She also promoted the house on local walking tours as a "riverfront Victorian (with ghost)." This ghost was said to be a "cheerful little person" wearing clothes of the Revolutionary War era who pranced around and once even ate a ham sandwich.
Although the owner was apparently rather proud of the house's unusual ancestry, neither she nor her broker mentioned the ghost to a buyer who put down a $32,500 payment on what would have been a $650,000 purchase of the house.
After an architect refused to work on the house because it was haunted, the buyer sued both for damages and the return of his down payment. The trial court dismissed the case, but the appeals court partially reversed the dismissal. The judge who wrote the appellate decision, perhaps chuckling as he wrote, said:
"While I agree . . . that the real estate broker, as agent for the seller, is under no duty to disclose to a potential buyer the phantasmal reputation of the premises, and that, in his pursuit of a legal remedy . . . hasn't the ghost of a chance, I am nevertheless moved by the spirit of equity to allow the buyer to seek rescission of the contract of sale and recovery of his down payment."
The judge observed that the buyer could hardly have been expected to discover the defect in any pre-sale inspection, unless "a psychic or medium" had accompanied the inspectors.
Of course, this was a New York court. So what would happen to such a case in Missouri?
The bad-vibes law doesn't seem to apply, at least in the case of ghosts that are not the product of homicide or suicide. Even in those cases, one could argue that the law approves only the concealment of certain underlying facts, not the concealment of ectoplasmic manifestations resulting from those facts.
These grave matters raise other questions. How material is it whether a house has a ghost? Is it reasonable to believe in ghosts? Would you have to prove a ghost was real to win the case? How would you do that? And where would you find a lawyer?
I'm afraid I have no answer for your question. Perhaps some things are better left unknown. Happy Halloween!
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