Whale of a Lawsuit: HOA Wins Verdict Against Museum Over Removal of Fossil

This is picture of a shark fossil at the Calvert Marine Museum. It is from the same era as the whale caca pictured below.

A museum in Southern Maryland excavated a 10 million-year-old whale skeleton from the side a cliff and caused quite a commotion.

The dispute started when John Nance, one of the residents of Chesapeake Ranch Estates, in Lusby, Maryland and a collections manager at the Calvert Marine Museum discovered some giant fossilized whale bones.

A bone was protruding from eroding sand about halfway up the 80-foot cliff face, says Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the museum. Climbing a ladder, Nance and Godfrey were able to confirm the bone was likely part of a whale’s skull.

Using coordinates from a GPS device and county land records, they identified the owner of the property at the top of the cliff, above the bones. And soon they had Shmuel Rotenstreich’s permission to proceed.  [source]

For those that are not aware, Calvert Cliffs is also home to a dispute between residents and beetles.  It is where homeowners wanted to stabilize the cliff face so as to stop erosion and to save their homes, but they were prevented from doing so because the Puritan tiger beetle, an endangered and federally protected beetle, lives on the cliff face.  Siouxsie blogged about that controversy here.

Despite the issue of erosion, it appears that Calvert Cliffs is also a popular place to dig for fossils — Calvert Cliffs is the largest fossil-bearing deposit of Miocene marine sediments exposed on the East Coast of North America.  [source]  Wow.

And so the Calvert Museum just couldn’t help themselves —

Working from ladders, Godfrey’s team slowly dug out the bones, creating a notch in the cliff face 20 feet wide and 5 feet deep.

The dig had been under way for about a month before the community association became aware of it.  Its representatives warned the workers they were trespassing and endangering themselves by digging into the cliffs.  [source]

The residents protested that the excavation was dangerous, and that it damaged the already fragile cliffs.  But the curators continued their dig, and the Homeowners Association (HOA) sued for unlawful trespass.

The trial in the case concluded last week.  The Baltimore Sun reports

A judge has ordered the Calvert Marine Museum to pay a homeowners association $10,001 for improperly removing a 10 million-year-old fossil whale skeleton from communally owned cliffs.

After more than eight hours of testimony over two days, Calvert Circuit Judge Warren Krug ordered the museum in Solomons to pay the community $1 for trespassing, and $10,000 for the value of the fossil.

But the Homeowner’s Association calls it a hollow victory —

The group failed in its bid to recover as much as $457,000 it sought to help shore up the eroding cliffs where the fossil was excavated. And it will have to pay its legal expenses, which Eney has estimated at $140,000.

A mysterious piece of shark-bitten whale coprolite (fossilized dung). Why would a shark bite into whale poop? Photograph is from Godfrey and Smith, 2010.

Siouxsie will be the first to say it — the result is fossilized whale shit.  The damages make no sense.  Damages for trespass to real property are  injury to the land itself (or the repairs).   Restatement (Second) of Torts § 929.   But here, the court used the estimated value of the fossil to determine damages.  It would be interesting to know why the court did this.  Siouxsie thinks it is so the museum didn’t get slammed.  But who knows?

All that aside, Calvert Cliffs (and its museum) sounds like an amazing place to visit and hunt for fossils.  You should visit; just be sure not to step in any coprolite.

Bonus:  Gawker’s guide to animal shit

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/macfanmd/

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~ by siouxsielaw on April 9, 2010.

One Response to “Whale of a Lawsuit: HOA Wins Verdict Against Museum Over Removal of Fossil”

  1. Though the Marine Museum believed they had permission to dig from the homeowner, and at the time the Homeowners Assoc. did not realize they had title to the cliff face until six months after the digging started, it was later shown in court that the Museum did, unknowingly trespass. Hence the fine of $1.00 for trespass. Since the land is the Homeowners Assoc. property, then the whale belonged to them. The $10,000 was the “value” of the whale skeleton which they did not want. There were no fines for property damage.

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