On October 7, 2001, it was widely anticipated that Barry Bonds would set the MLB single-season home run record. It was the last game of the season, and he had broken Mark McGwire’s record earlier that week. Could he hit a 73rd homer? If he did, the record would probably last for years, and the ball that set the record could be worth millions.
Fans didn’t have to wait long. In the first inning, a cameraman captured the event as Bonds whacked the ball over right field, toward spectator Alex Popov’s outstretched glove. Just as the ball made contact with his glove, the rowdy crowd tackled him to the ground as people grabbed for the ball. The video clearly shows an out-of-control mob engaged in violent, illegal behavior.
Meanwhile, Patrick Hayashi, who had been standing near Popov, was also knocked to the ground. He was not involved in the violence, but was pinned down near Popov and saw the ball after it was dislodged from Popov’s glove. Hayashi grabbed it and held on.
Once security arrived and cleared the mob, Popov was horrified to discover that the ball wasn’t in his glove. As he frantically searched, Hayashi stood in front of the cameraman and triumphantly displayed his prize. Popov tried to take the ball back, but security stopped him and escorted Hayashi to a secure area.
Popov filed a cause of action for conversion and wrongful possession of the baseball.
At trial, Popov claimed that video evidence shows he caught the ball and therefore had possession and would have kept the ball in his glove but for the illegal, violent attack. Hayashi argued that Popov was still in the act of catching it when he was pushed down. Because he did not complete the catch, he never had control of the ball and therefore could not claim possession of it.
How Would You Rule?
The court determined that Hayashi had possession of the ball and proved it when he showed it to the camera. Popov could not establish that he would have otherwise retained control of the ball; consequently, he did not achieve full possession.
The court explained, “A ball is caught if the person has achieved complete control of the ball. … A baseball which is dislodged by incidental contact with an object or another person before momentum has ceased, is not possessed. The first person to pick up the loose ball and secure it becomes its possessor.”
However, the court thought that a decision in favor of Hayashi would be unfair to Popov, noting Popov’s “efforts to establish possession were interrupted by the collective assault of a band of wrongdoers.”
In the final decision, the court ruled both parties had equal and undivided interest in the ball and ordered them to sell it and split the proceeds. It sold for $450,000.
—Popov v. Hayashi, 2002
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