November 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio November 1998 Current Issue
November 1998 Jonathan HowePLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner


Lost and Found

Who's the rightful owner when something is left behind?

While breathlessly following this summer's fabulous race to crown a new home-run king, you might think I would have been able to stop pondering the fine points of the law for a few hours, but, in fact, several interesting issues came to mind. Like who owns Mark McGwire's 62nd and 70th home-run balls? The team at bat, the one in the field, the batter, the pitcher or the catcher whose glove came up empty? This conundrum may seem very distant from meeting planning, but such ownership questions do come up when attendees leave items behind.

The impetus for this article came as debate arose over who was entitled to the baseball Sammy Sosa sent over the back side of Wrigley Field onto Waveland Avenue for his 62nd home run of the year. One guy allegedly caught it and was immediately "mugged," and the next person to get his hands on the ball ran to get police protection so he, too, wouldn't be deprived of the prize. After so much scrambling, how can you determine ownership? They might not be in as much popular demand, but when papers, a briefcase or a computer are left behind on a conference table, the planner's concern is who owns the item and who has what responsibility or rights to it. If an attendee leaves behind a laptop, does the person who finds it have a right to claim it (invoking the "finders keepers, losers weepers" rule)? Has the item been abandoned? Is it lost? Well, the law, as usual, doesn't provide a whole lot of help except to say it depends on the intent of the person who left it.

Property is lost when its owner can't find it and would like to get it back. The person who finds it has "possession" but not ownership. The old adage that possession is nine-tenths of ownership is true, but that one-tenth still can be in control. The finder legally is required to surrender the item to the loser, but the finder has possession rights superior to everyone else except the owner. So, if no one claims that $5,000 laptop you picked up off a seat in meeting room A, it's yours.

In many states, the finder gains ownership if no claim is made within a specific period of time, with that period varying from state to state. So if you or one of your attendees lost the laptop, make sure everyone - the hotel, the A/V company, the caterer, the production company, the magician - knows you want it back. If you don't spread the word, there is generally no obligation on the part of the finder to seek you out.

There is a legal difference between an item that is lost and one that is abandoned. An item that has been abandoned was left behind voluntarily by someone who had no intention of taking it with them. When papers are left on the meeting table, generally one can assume the owner didn't want them anymore, no matter if the materials are legitimate trash, confidential or personal. Just discard them.

The word to the wise is to remind meeting-goers at the end of each session to please take with them anything they don't want thrown away. Also, planners should have an agreement with the venue that before anything of apparent value is taken away, the meeting professional has to evaluate it.

As a person who, personally, lost a leather notebook when I left it on a table, I am most sensitive to this issue. Who knows who got my notebook - not to mention the notes inside? It was my mistake, but had there been a lost-items policy in place, I might have gotten my notebook back.

At confidential corporate meetings, attendees who don't take the materials with them should be requested to turn them in for proper disposal. To improve document security, some planners number copies of highly sensitive materials and identify who got which copy. At the end of the meeting the papers are picked up and destroyed under the supervision of the planner; he or she can tell by the numbers who walked away with their sets.

By the way, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., now owns both McGwire's and Sosa's 62nd home-run balls, but as of October 1st had not heard from the fan who caught McGwire's 70th on the last day of the season.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law.

E-mail your concern to and look for expert advice in a future edition of this M&C column. We regret all questions cannot be answered.

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