After a month or so of consideration (although the holidays intervened, so probably more like a day), a Texas judge has ruled that Robert Oswald has the right to get his brother’s coffin back. See “Who Owns Lee Harvey Oswald’s Coffin?” Lowering the Bar (Dec. 12, 2014). Oswald had sued the Baumgardner Funeral Home and its owner after learning the funeral home had sold it at auction to someone or something that, not surprisingly, wanted to remain anonymous.
The judge found the defendants had engaged in “wrongful and wanton and malicious conduct” by first concealing the coffin’s existence and then, years later, putting it up for auction. Robert Oswald thought it had been destroyed after Lee Harvey was exhumed and reburied in 1981, but turns out Baumgardner kept it in storage. The judge not only awarded the coffin to Oswald but also ordered the defendants to pay about $100K in damages.
The defendants argued that when Robert Oswald bought the coffin in 1963, he was basically giving it to his brother’s estate. He thought “he would never see the casket again, and it would remain in the ground forever and ever,” their attorney argued. “Under Texas law, your honor, that’s a gift.” Because it was part of the estate and Lee Harvey didn’t have a will, the argument went, it became the property of his widow, not his brother. But she wasn’t suing to get it back. And therefore ….
Therefore what? Although I haven’t seen a written order, I would guess that this was the main problem for the defendants. If it did belong to Marina Oswald, and she didn’t want it, why does that make it yours? They seem to have been arguing that they acquired it via “adverse possession,” because it had been in storage for about 30 years (typically it takes 21 for adverse possession to kick in) and no one had claimed it. “At what point do you believe that you acquired possession?” Oswald’s lawyer asked at trial. “When nobody claimed it,” the defendant answered. Adverse possession is a thing, but only if your possession is “open and obvious” so that with the passage of enough time, it’s fair to assume the original owner has really abandoned it. Just keeping something in the back room for 30 years isn’t good enough.
The defendant also testified that it never really occurred to him to contact the family and ask, which the judge probably also found a little fishy.
Robert Oswald says he plans to destroy the coffin. This means, of course, that somewhere a reclusive billionaire is angrily crumpling a newspaper, having realized he has to start the search for a rec-room coffee table all over again.