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Monday, July 13, 2009

Rex v. Djinn

A couple years ago in this space, I wrote about the now-defunct historical practice of haling non-human animals into court for offenses as varied as destroying crops, attacking humans, and even (ew) adultery. This practice raised lots of interesting questions about legal status, but was mostly a historical footnote, and I figured that the practice of suing non-humans (aside from rights-bearing legal fictions like corporations) was more or less defunct. Turns out, not so much. Today, I ran across this news item about a pending case in Saudi Arabia in which a family filed suit against a genie that has allegedly been harassing them for a couple years (making creepy noises, leaving threatening voicemails, throwing rocks, etc.).

The mind boggles at the legal difficulties raised by the case. How will the family serve process on the genie? If the genie fails to show up in court, and the family gets a default judgment, how will they collect? (Presumably the genie can use his magical powers to conjure up plenty of cash to satisfy the judgment.) Or does the suit seek injunctive relief? This case represents good news for legal academics, too. The field of genie law is significantly under-written (no articles on Westlaw based on a very cursory search), so the lawsuit should provide lots of fodder for novel scholarship.

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on July 13, 2009 at 01:08 PM in Odd World | Permalink


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Tracked on Jul 17, 2009 9:00:07 AM


if you want to see humans who still practice the archaic ritual of punishing inanimate objects for the crimes of the person who wielded the object, play a round of golf.

Posted by: poiu | Jul 13, 2009 9:54:01 PM

Tamara, that's fantastic. I hadn't thought of civil forfeiture, but certainly that's another example of bringing suit against a non-human, non-rights-bearing entity. Of course, the owner has opportunity in such cases to challenge the forfeiture, so the "US v. Inanimate Object" is really just a legal fiction, but I agree that it's a bizarre one.

ohwilleke, does the CO law overrule Stambovsky w/r/t the duty to disclose issue or something else? My impression is that most states have imposed increasingly strict duties to disclose on sellers, but obviously this varies widely among jurisdictions.

Posted by: Dave | Jul 13, 2009 6:11:16 PM

FWIW, Stambovsky v Ackley has been specifically disavowed by statute (without reference to the case itself) in Colorado.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jul 13, 2009 5:48:55 PM

I should have been a little clearer in my earlier comment that when I wrote "this" I didn't mean (obviously) "genie law" but rather that the practice of suing non-humans, apart from rights bearing legal fictions like corporations, was very, very far from defunct. It is alive and well in civil forfeiture law, a law so seemingly irrational and unjust that when I first encountered it as a clerk at a law firm between my first and second years of law school, I couldn't believe that it could be constitutional. When I learned that it was, I couldn't believe that we hadn't learned about it in law school. I rather made that something of a practice are after writing about it. I thought the Supreme Court was poised to make some of the worst parts of it unconstitutional but it ultimately did not. So now a woman's husband can use the family car to engage in behavior with a prostitute that causes the car to be forfeited under nuisance law and the absence of an innocent owner provision to that nuisance law that would allow her to claim her interest in the vehicle as exempt from forfeiture, does not offend due process. (see Bennis case). Not so far away from believing in genies to be prosecuting and forfeiting "guilty cars"

Posted by: Tamara Piety | Jul 13, 2009 3:49:20 PM

I wrote about this in law school. In rem forfeiture law has got to be one of the weirdest legal devices around. The notion that an inanimate object can commit an offense and then that the offending object can be "cleansed" through forfeiture to the government and then resold back to the public (a popular fund raising device for sherriffs' departments around the country) has always struck me as akin to a theory of demonic possession and exorcism. I know why it survives despite its archaic form. It is because it is an incredibly easy way to generate revenue, to "punish" crime without any of those pesky annoyances like observation of defendant's constitutional rights or challenging burdens of proof in criminal cases. But to mind mind it is a real blot on the criminal justice system and an illegitimate exercise of governmental authority (not to mention that it is as Holmes said "revolting to have no better reason for a rule than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV." Particularly so when "the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since...." I wrote a whole article on those vanished grounds. But these case, United States v. One Single Family Home..." cases have bizarre premises. (BTW - Offers an interesting example for the new book as an example about the way in which the criminal justice system takes account, or not, of the family in these circumstances. Innocent owners (spouses, parents, children) sometimes may have a more difficult time asserting the innocent owner defense.)

Posted by: Tamara Piety | Jul 13, 2009 3:38:20 PM

The US case involving paranormal activity that will be familiar to any property profs is Stambovsky v Ackley, where a buyer sought to rescind a real estate contract upon discovering that the house he sought to purchase was widely considered to be full of ghosts. The NY state court ordered rescission of the contract (largely because the seller had failed to notify the buyer of the condition), and famously observed that "as a matter of law, the house is haunted". It's probably the most amusing case I assign in 1L property, not least because of the hackneyed and dated Ghostbusters references.

Posted by: DF | Jul 13, 2009 2:46:43 PM

I should have said, "for example, assuming animal form...."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 13, 2009 2:28:51 PM

More appropriate, perhaps, would be to look up cases of litigation involving ghosts, spirits, haunted houses and the like, in which case Saudi jinn (s., jinni) would seem less exotic or strange (I would do the search myself but lack access to legal search resources).

Incidentally, jinn can take different shapes, assuming animal form, such as cats, dogs, or goats. Moreover, poets and seers were often thought to be "possessed" by jinn so presumably both a non-human animal and a human animal might indeed be sued (as jinn).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 13, 2009 2:24:10 PM

True enough. I don't doubt that there is real harassment afoot in this case that should be taken seriously, though I doubt that a genie is actually responsible. The quote from the Saudi legal officer makes it sound like they're going to investigate, so it does seem like this is more about figuring out who's harassing the family than it does taking seriously the idea of genies.

Still kind of amusing, though.

Posted by: Dave | Jul 13, 2009 1:46:26 PM

I can see why it might make sense to do so in Saudi Arabia. For one thing, "A local charity has moved the family to a temporary residence while a court investigates[.]"

It also isn't clear how distinct the process of making a police report and filing suit are in Saudi Arabia. It is possible this suit is serving the purpose of a John Doe suit, bringing court controlled investigative resources, such as subpeona power, into play to identify a perpetrator, or a family behavior control issue (poltergeist type activity is often associated with secret activities of adolescent girls who might have an incentive to restrain themselves if an official investigation is underway).

Fortunately for the family, Iqbal has apparently not entered the annals of Saudi Arabian civil procedure.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jul 13, 2009 1:40:55 PM

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