Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff Willcox found 444 documents, from the administration of governors of South Carolina, involved in the civil war concerning the war and wishes to sell them. Defendant Stroup wishes to prevent this sale claiming the documents are owned by the state of South Carolina.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. There is a rebuttable presumption that those in possession of property are the rightful owners of that property. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Issue. Whether mere possession of documents without clear chain of title or evidence of ownership is sufficient to grant rightful title.
Held. Yes. The common law property truism that possession of nine-tenths of the law is still good law today. The purpose for this standard is to help the court with undeniable limitations that occur with lack of evidence, and for good public policy to promote stability. It would create havoc if a State where able to claim ownership of all historical documents if the person in possession did not have actual proof of that ownership. This rule is not unfair because this presumption is rebuttable. Parties are allowed to submit chain of title records, eye witness testimony or any evidence to show that ownership is not in the possessor. The standard of review is preponderance of the evidence. The party not in possession is allowed to establish superior title by satisfactory evidence, which did not occur here. Also because these documents are already on microfilm at the University for all to study there is no injustice to the public.
Discussion. The common law rule that possession shows ownership helps court from insolvable historical problems. The court will not always be able to solve the riddle of who owned the documents. This rule will not always reach a fair result but it is the best resolution for the court to use.