Another interesting case came before the High Court in January 2010. It took up four days. It bears similarities to the case of the destroyed art, but there are also marked differences.
There were two claimants and two defendants.
The first claimant was a company called Robot Arenas Limited. It considered itself the owner of the arena (TV set) that was used in the TV series “Robot Wars”. The series started airing in 1998 and stopped in 2003. In the beginning of 2004, the production company that owned the area at the time sold it for £11,000 (inclusive of VAT). The sales contract was signed by the second claimant, Mr Hoppitt, who either did so on behalf of the first claimant or held the arena in trust, both claimants felt.
The first claimant was acting as an asset holding associate of another company, namely Phantom Events Limited. Phantom Events planned to hold a world championship event in August 2004 at the same location as where some of the Robot Wars episodes had taken place, namely Hangar 2 of the former RAF base Newton in Nottinghamshire. To that end, Phantom Events entered into an agreement dated 28 July 2004 with the Secretary of State for Defence.
This agreement was for use of Hangar 2 from 20 to 30 August 2004 and use of Building 29 between 7 June and 31 August 2004. When not in use in Hangar 2, the set would be (dissembled and) stored in Building 29. (There is no evidence that any payments for the use of these two buildings were ever made.)
The world championship never took place. It is not clear how much equipment eventually remained behind in Building 29. All parties agreed, though, that equipment did remain behind after the agreement expired (which was at the end of August 2004) that was signed for the world championship.
The second defendant is the company that became owner of the Newton base in January 2005. The first defendant is one of that company’s Directors, Mr Waterman. He controls the company.
Very shortly after completion of the sale, this Director (the first defendant) got in touch with the agents that had acted for the Secretary of State for Defence about what had been left behind in Building 29. By 4 March 2005, these materials still had not been removed. Mr Waterman, acting for his company, then ordered the materials removed and scrapped.
The legal background
- The claimants filed a lawsuit for the wrongful destruction of the set, said to be worth £344,650 as it was unique and couldn’t be purchased (no “market value”).
- It was the claimants’ opinion that the defendants had become involuntary bailees of the materials in Building 29 and as a result were now liable in conversion. (In a nutshell, conversion is the civil counterpart of theft.)
- The defendants counter-sued for 42 days of use of Building 29, namely for the time from when they became the owners to the day they removed and scrapped the set (at a scarp value of £250) and said that the original owners were fully or partly to blame for the destruction of the Robot Wars set (contributory negligence).
- The defendants felt that the materials, which had been in their possession, had been abandoned by the original owners.
- The defendants also felt, however, that even if no abandonment had occurred, they had been entitled to do what they did, namely remove and scrap the materials.
- In addition, the defendants suggested that most of the materials had apparently already been removed in August 2004.
If goods have been abandoned by a party, the party that is in physical possession of those goods acquires the right to treat them as its own. Abandonment is a legal concept. It means that a party relinquishes its rights, particularly rights of ownership. Abandonment has to be clear in the eyes of the law. Unlike what the general public tends to believe, “losers weepers finders keepers” is not the general rule. Losing a possession does not automatically indicate abandonment. Even objects in a bin waiting for the rubbish collector have not been legally abandoned.
The judge ruled that the claimants had not abandoned their possessions. I agree that the claimants’ actions did indicate this. The judge also ruled, however, that the new owner of the location – the defendants – had acted reasonably and that their conclusion that the goods had been abandoned was not unreasonable. The judge dismissed the claim. Various factors played a role that did not benefit the claimants’ case.
Contributory negligence is not a valid defence in the case of conversion. The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 does define “negligence so far at it results in damage to goods or to an interest in goods” (1(c)) as a form of wrongful interference with goods but that refers to negligence on the part of defendants. The Act the states the following (11(1)):
Contributory negligence is no defence in proceedings founded on conversion, or on intentional trespass to goods.
The counsel for the defendants was of the opinion that the case had been pleaded in negligence as well as in conversion and that the true basis for the claim, if at all, was negligence. Negligence (in wrongful interference with goods) does allow the defence of contributory negligence. (An example of negligence on the part of the defendants could be that the new owners of the base had left the base and the building unlocked and that another party had stolen the equipment from Building 29. The claim did not allege anything like that but focused on the new owners having intentionally destroyed and removed the goods.)
The “negligence” mentioned by the defendants in this case seemed to be about whether or not the defendants had established whether or not the goods had been abandoned. The judge used the word “artificial” for this approach, a word I quite like within this context, and rejected the view that pleading had been in negligence.
Value of the claim
How should this be determined in this particular case? The judge said that although there was no need to establish the value as the claim was dismissed, it appeared that the real value of the set in the end was no more than its scrap value (£250, which might have needed to be offset against the costs of cutting it up and removing it). You will need to read the judgment to see how the judge arrived at this conclusion.
There was also considerable doubt about whether all materials had still been present in Building 29 (or whether most had been removed in August 2004) and how much the material there was (whether needing five articulated trucks to contain or just ten square meters/one skip).
As the Defendants admitted that they would not have charged for the storage of the items, had they been removed and the judge dismissed the claimants’ claim, the judge also dismissed the counter-claim.
You can read the full judgment: here.