The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Lakewood Church in Houston is a huge megachurch. Joel Osteen's ministry is housed in the former arena for the Houston Rockets.
In 2014, thieves stole nearly $600,000 from the church. To date, that crime has remained unsolved.
Now, a plumber discovered nearly $600,000 that was buried in a bathroom wall at the church!
A plumber says he found money in a wall while he was doing work at the church on Nov. 10, 2021. The news came to light during the radio morning show at 100.3 The Bull.
"It was just unbelievable!" Morning Show Host for the Morning Bullpen George Lindsey said. "The things he was telling us that they found in the walls."
Lindsey was shocked when he listened to viewers Thursday morning, but says this one caller really took the segment over the edge.
"There was a loose toilet in the wall, and we removed the tile," the caller said. "We went to go remove the toilet, and I moved some insulation away and about 500 envelopes fell out of the wall, and I was like 'Oh wow!'"
The caller said the envelopes were full of cash and checks.
"I went ahead and contacted the maintenance supervisor that was there, and I turned it all in," he added.
This plumber was a good person, and handed the money to the church. But could the plumber have kept the money, citing the doctrine of finders keepers? I think the answer is no.
Here, a relevant precedent is South Staffordshire Water Co. v. Sharman (1896). The Water Company hired Sharman to clean out a muddy pool of water. Sharman found two rings buried in the mud at the bottom of the pool. The company sued Sharman to recover the rings. Lord Russell wrote the opinion for the Queen's Bench. The Water Company was "the freeholder of the locus in quo." That is, South Staffordshire owned the pool. Therefore, Lord Russell reasoned, the Water Company had "the right to forbid anybody coming on their land or in any way interfering with it." Lord Russell held that the Water Company had "control" of "whatever might be in the pool." Specifically, "the possession of land carries with it . . . possession of everything which is attached to or under that land." In this case, the "rings embedded in the mud of the pool" were "attached to or under that land." Thus, the rings belonged to the owner of the land, the Water Company. It made no difference that the Water Company was unaware of the rings.
I think the church was the owner of the "locus in quo." The plumber was a licensee, who could only enter the property for a specific purpose, approved by the church. Taking any actions beyond the scope of that permission would have been a trespass. And the envelopes of cash were quite literally buried inside of a wall. Not exactly the same as a ring buried in the mud, but close enough for the common law.
Update: The New York Times reports that the money found was in fact the pilfered donations from 2014. The money was full insured, so I suspect the church may now have to reimburse the insurance company. The plumber admitted that he never considered taking the money:
During the call, the plumber noted that there was a $25,000 reward offered, saying with a laugh, "I need some compensation." He said he never thought about pocketing any of the envelopes.
"I'm an honest man," he said.