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  The reasoning found in judicial opinions is either deductive or inductive—not unlike the forms of reasoning in other modes of expression. Analysis of any one opinion involves separating it into its parts and extracting its reasoning, but this task is complicated by the use of citation to cases and other authorities as it proceeds, by the judge’s doing two or more things at once, and by the opinion’s haphazard or blurry organization, as in the following opinion written for illustrative purposes by one of the authors. (The facts in this opinion have been taken from the opening chapter of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Pioneers, published in 1826.)

Alex Hunter, Plaintiff v. Mo Montour, Defendant

in the Supreme Court of the State of Grace

Learned, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.

  The plaintiff, Alex Hunter, was deer hunting in unposted woods in the unincorporated portions of Green County. After spying a large buck, Hunter’s son, accompanying him, accidentally tripped and discharged his rifle, grazing the buck’s flank and startling it. Hunter aimed at the startled animal, fired and hit it, not where Hunter aimed, but as the buck started and jumped, putting a bullet in its lungs. As a result of being thus fatally hit, the deer ran onto the land of Owen Owner, who held it and reached for a hunting knife. Just as Owen was about to plunge the knife into the buck, it leaped up a final time and was just about to run into the roadway abutting Owen’s land when the passing defendant, Mo Montour, seeing the commotion of all this pursuit, brought his automobile to a halt and sprang from it. The defendant Montour then fired a pistol into the buck’s head and seized it, carrying it off from the side of the road.

  The plaintiff Hunter brought a complaint sounding in trespass [1] against the defendant Montour in order to recover the buck or its value. The defendant Montour moved to dismiss the case, but this motion was denied and it was tried before Judge George Judd, sitting in the Circuit Court of Green County. The Circuit Court jury rendered a verdict for the plaintiff and Judge Judd gave judgment accordingly. The defendant appealed to this court. We now reverse.

  Trespass is an action brought for the taking of personal property. It involves carrying off the goods of another. Its first element is a showing that the “goods” in question are in the plaintiff’s possession. Spying the buck by the plaintiff’s son, for example, did not amount to possession because the son’s spying the animal shows neither an intent to possess it nor an act of possession. Both are essential to sustain the plaintiff’s complaint. That the buck was unintentionally and slightly wounded adds nothing to the plaintiff’s case. However, the plaintiff’s fatally wounding it is a different matter. If accomplished intentionally, it shows that the plaintiff did intend to kill the buck and, if pursuit ensues, the pursuit itself might be the functional equivalent of taking actual possession of the buck. Here, however, the wound was accidental, and so the ensuing pursuit proved nothing.

[1]    The phrase “sounding in trespass” may itself seem strange. It is lawyer talk, and means that the theory on which Hunter brought his lawsuit was trespass. Every course in law school is full of such talk, and getting comfortable with it will permit you to do what lawyers do with much of their time—talk about law.

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