Thursday, September 15, 2011

Featured Case: Stambovsky v. Ackley - A Ghostly Silence Undermines Contract

Helen Ackley's beautiful victorian house in Nyack, NY was for sale. From the opinion of the Appelate Division of  NY Supreme Courts:

Plaintiff, to his horror, discovered that the house he had recently contracted to purchase was widely reputed to be possessed by poltergeists, reportedly seen by defendant seller and members of her family on numerous occasions over the last nine years. Plaintiff promptly commenced this action seeking rescission of the contract of sale.

Stambovsky, a resident of NY City, was not familiar with the local folklore surrounding the house at 1 LaVeta Place when he paid a $32,500 deposit on a $650,000 purchase contract. But, Ackley had made no secret of the paranormal activity in her house, writing an article for Reader's Digest entitled, "My Haunted House on the Hudson" and listing her residence on local haunted house tours.

Normally, a seller has no obligation to disclose "defects" in the house. Caveat Emptor has been the legal rule of the day.  But, as Judge Rubin points out in his decision:

From the perspective of a person in the position of plaintiff herein, a very practical problem arises with respect to the discovery of a paranormal phenomenon: "Who you gonna' call?" as a title song to the movie "Ghostbusters" asks. Applying the strict rule of caveat emptor to a contract involving a house possessed by poltergeists conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineer and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale.

This very practical decision rests also on other solid grounds:
In the case at bar, defendant seller deliberately fostered the public belief that her home was possessed. Having undertaken to inform the public- at large, to whom she has no legal relationship, about the supernatural occurrences on her property, she may be said to owe no less a duty to her contract vendee.

Stambovsky was allowed to rescind the contract.  I imagine that Ackley's subsequent advertisements  read: "Haunted House For Sale!"

See UPDATE on this case here.

The Stambovsky House: photo credit: 

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