It's the perfect story for Halloween. In 1989 Jeffrey Stambovsky bought an old Victorian house on the banks of the Hudson River at the bottom of a dead end street in the Village of Nyack, NY. At first he thought he got a good deal. But he didn't know what the seller knew.
It was haunted.
You can find the court case in a reported decision - 169 A.D.2d 254, 572 N.Y.S.2d 672 is the citation where you can find the case in a lonely law book hidden away on a dusty shelf in the dark damp corners of an empty law library that echoes your footsteps down the hallway as you search among the stacks of musty leather bound volumes no one reads anymore, tucked away in rooms no one dares to enter.
As the court of appeals laced its decision with ghostly references to literature and lore, the court also did something that no other court seems to have ever done - it held that the home was haunted as a matter of law. No if, and or but about it. The poltergeist, it seems, was legally declared to be real. Or was it?
Quipped the judge, "I am moved by the spirit" as he proceeded to declare that "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?' " Of course, we all know the answer to that one.
The buyer had signed an "as is" clause so the seller, Helen Ackley, argued to the court that there was nothing the buyer could do. He certainly couldn't sue her, she said, and the trial court agreed. Apparently the buyer had never asked if the house was haunted so, technically, the seller never really lied or hid it from him. He just didn't discovery it until he moved in. Haunted by the seller's treacherous deceit, the plaintiff appealed.
Like the 3 ghostly apparitions residing in the home, the appellate papers worked their way through the twists and turns of the legal system until they ended up on the desk of Justice Rubin of New York's Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department. Then, on an undoubtedly stormy summer night in 1991, no doubt with a headless horseman effigy hanging from a tree out front in the dark, Justice Smith sided up with Justice Rubin and together they crafted their wiley words that would undo the heartless seller's dirty deed.
No doubt with a straight face, the appellate judges noted the difficulties a buyer would face if the ghostly-burdened seller was allowed to avoid liability by her silence. "The notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest." And so they proceeded.
With citations to the ghost of Hamlet from Shakespeare, joined by Prosser on Torts, and muddied with actual case law to support the fearful logic of it all, Justice Rubin noted the difficulties faced by all home buyers if the seller's "as is" clause allowed her to sweep under the rug the loud proclaiming she had made (both nationally and locally) about her home's regular (and irregular) hauntings, made in the years before this unsuspecting buyer came along.
"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," announced the court of appeals. A normal "subject to inspection" clause might never be the same.
In a written decision that resulted in 17 published points of law [which lawyers call "headnotes", not to be confused with the headless notes of less worthy court decisions, no doubt], the court ruled that since the house was haunted with poltergeists, then the seller did not deliver the premises "vacant" as required by the sales contract. Ahah, with the contract breached, a remedy had to be found.
To that end, the court declared the contract rescinded by the Law of Equity - and with that the seller's ownership of the home arose like a zombie from the grave to haunt her again. And the buyer's purchase was cancelled as the court ghoulisly called the sale "a most unnatural bargain."
So, if this Halloween season you are lured into buying a house without knowing it's haunted, you might want to call the fabled lawyer who got this seller back his money. He went on the become the town attorney for a nearby New York community - presumably where there are no poltergeists.
As for the seller, Helen Ackley, she finally sold the house and moved to Florida in the early 1990's. And just by a curious coincidence, perhaps, just across the river from the haunted house is Tarreytown. Sound familiar? It should. All little children have heard the story. That's where the famed Sleepy Hollow is - the one described by Washington Irving's Halloween tale of the headless horseman, "The Legend of Sleepy Hallow."
Burdge Law Office
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Special thanks goes out to Nadine, a great friend and source of the case citation above.
The photo above is copyright by Warner Bros. from their 1940's movie "I Walked With a Zombie"