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Dem Bones: Murray v. BEJ Minerals

In 2006, on a hot day in Hell Creek, Montana, the Dinosaur Cowboy stumbled upon the remains of a theropod (maybe a T. Rex) and a ceratopsian (maybe a triceratops) engaged in mortal combat.  While it cannot be known for certain which may have had the upper hand, both lost as they are now dead and preserved in mortal combat for time immemorial. 

            Aside from being one of the largest scientific discoveries in modern times, the Dueling Dinosaurs also raised an interesting legal question:  Who owns them? According to the Ninth Circuit, whoever owns the mineral rights to the land.  Murray v. BEJ Minerals, LLC, 908 F.3d 437 (9th Cir. 2018). 

FOSSILS FOUND ON PRIVATE LAND

The answer to the Dueling Dinosaur’s ownership should be simple because fossils found on private land typically belong to the landowner.  When the Dueling Dinosaurs were discovered, Hell Creek was owned by Lige and Mary Ann Murray.  Id. at 439.

The issue regarding the Dueling Dinosaurs arose because the Murrays had purchased Hell Creek one year earlier from Jerry and Robert Severson.  The Seversons sold the Murrays Hell Creek (a ranch), and one-third of the mineral rights in Hell Creek, but reserved the remaining two-thirds mineral rights in themselves.  Id.

Mineral rights and land rights work like this:  If you own the land, you can do whatever you want with it (within the bounds of the law).  If you find gold on your land, you presumably own that too unless someone else owns the “mineral” rights, i.e., the right to extract and sell gold from your land. 

So, the question of who owns the Dueling Dinosaurs boiled down to one simple question:  Are dinosaur fossils “minerals?”

ACCORDING TO THE NINTH CIRCUIT, DINOSAUR FOSSILS ARE MINERALS

The district court found that dinosaur fossils are not “minerals” because dinosaurs were once living, breathing animals and their fossils are not mined or subject to traditional methods of extraction as most other traditional minerals.  Id. at 441.  However, the Seversons argued, and the Ninth Circuit agreed, that all minerals are the product of decomposed plant matter.  Id. at 443.  Furthermore, most fossils are sold for economic gain, the same as traditional minerals like gold, silver and oil.  Id. at 443-44.  The Ninth Circuit also found that prior editions of Black’s Law Dictionary defined “minerals” to include fossils.  Id. at 444.

Reasoning that reliance on dictionary definitions, alone, of the phrase “mineral” would be insufficient since everything on the earth could plausibly fall within those definitions, the Ninth Circuit looked to Montana precedent on how Montana defines a mineral.  Id. It found that Montana determines whether something qualifies a “mineral” under Montana law by asking whether it is “rare and exceptional in character or possesses a peculiar property giving it special value.”  Id.  

The Ninth Circuit found that the Dueling Dinosaurs are unquestionably “minerals” under this definition because they were worth millions, and are among one of the largest scientific fossil finds in recent history.  We all know dinosaurs must have fought, but these are the first fossils to preserve a fight in the fossil record.  Id. at 445-47.

Therefore, according to the Ninth Circuit, the Seversons own 2/3 of the Dueling Dinosaurs and the Murrays own 1/3.   

Now, if we could just find fossil evidence of dinosaur’s skin, because I have not completely ruled out the possibility that they might have been covered in blue hair.