Law Review: Local fossil (Porter) opines on fossil found in Montana
November 17, 2018
"Once upon a time, in a place now known as Montana, dinosaurs roamed the land. On a fateful day, some 66 million years ago, two such creatures, a 22-foot-long theropod and a 28-foot-long ceratopsian, engaged in mortal combat. While history has not recorded the circumstances surrounding this encounter, the remnants of these Creteceous species, interlocked in combat, became entombed under a pile of sandstone. That was then … this is now."
That was the lead paragraph in this Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case.
In 2006, an amateur paleontologist, nicknamed the "Dinosaur Cowboy," uncovered the well-preserved fossils of the "Dueling Dinosaurs" on a Montana ranch in an area known as Hell Creek. A year earlier the Seversons, the ranch owners, had sold their ranch and one-third of the mineral rights under the ranch to the Murrays, reserving for themselves two-thirds of any "minerals" found in, on and under the ranch.
VALUE OF FOSSILS
As a certified fossil, I like to think we have value. If nothing else, fossils have been around for a long time.
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More to the point, soon after the discovery of the Dueling Dinosaurs, there were other fossils discovered on the ranch, including a nearly intact Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, one of only twelve ever found. T-Rex was sold to a Dutch museum in 2014 for several million dollars.
A Triceratops foot was found and sold for $20,000 and a Triceratops skull is on the market for $250,000.
The Dueling Dinosaurs have been appraised at between $7-$9 million. Who needs oil when you have dinosaurs?
WHO OWNS THE 'MINERALS'
With the discovery of these dinosaurs, arguably "minerals," the value of the recently-sold ranch increased dramatically. When that occurs, you know what happens next. The Murrays as new owners of the ranch claimed they owned the fossils.
The Seversons, who had reserved two-thirds of the mineral rights, claimed they owned two-thirds of the dinosaur fossils – to be decided in federal court.
The legal issue was whether the fossils are "minerals."
The federal trial court ruled the Murrays owned the dinosaur fossils. The Seversons as owners of two-thirds of the reserved mineral rights, appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals found the definitions of "mineral" found in Montana statutes contradictory and inconclusive, yet in the end, the panel held the dinosaur fossils were rare and exceptional "minerals" belonging to the owners of the mineral estate: one-third Murray, two-thirds Severson.
A dissenting Judge argued that the dinosaur fossils did not fall within the ordinary and natural meaning of the term "minerals," which everyone knows to be oil and gas deposits.
PORTER'S LAST WORD
This case might not be that interesting to most of you, but as a time-honored fossil, I just couldn't help writing that headline.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim's practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA's, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com