Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hauntings and jurisprudence

It's interesting to see what happens when people's beliefs in the paranormal bump into the legal system.

Last month, we had the story of a man in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin who told the sheriff that the injuries his wife had sustained had come from her being punched by a ghost.  (It didn't work, and the man was arrested for domestic assault.)  In Romania last year, legislators were officially cursed by a group of self-styled witches after they passed a law requiring the witches to pay taxes on money they collect from people for casting spells.  (You can read my post about this story here.)  In Britain, we have the Fraudulent Mediums Act, passed in 1951 and revised in 2008, which requires so-called mediums to state up front that their psychic readings, contacting of the dead, and so on were "for entertainment purposes only."

Now, we have a story out of Norway, courtesy of the wonderful blog Doubtful News, about some folks who had agreed to buy a house, and then tried to back out of the deal because the house was haunted.

According to the Gudbrandsdølen Dagningen, "The house owner accepted the buyer's bid and considered the house sold when the date for the takeover was set to happen... but in the meantime the buyer heard stories about unexplained phenomena and has refused to go through with the transaction.  Now the controversy around the house purchase in a village in Gudbrandsdalen has been going on for so long that the house owner has decided to sue the buyer."

How could courts settle such a case, when in order to establish that the seller was trying to cheat the buyer, the prosecutor would have to establish the existence of something that doesn't, technically, exist?

Interestingly, here in the US we have laws covering just such occurrences, and they're usually phrased in such a way that the court is not required to take a stand on the existence, or nonexistence, of ghosts.  In the case of Stambovsky vs. Ackley, which reached the New York State Supreme Court in 1991, a woman named Helen Ackley in Nyack, New York owned a house that she had repeatedly reported was haunted by poltergeists.  (She had even written a piece in Reader's Digest about it.)  When, in 1989, Ackley decided to sell the house, she didn't tell the prospective buyer, one Jeffrey Stambovsky, about the alleged haunting.  Stambovsky put a down payment on the house, signed the contract -- and only afterwards found out about the poltergeists.  When he tried to get the contract torn up, Ackley refused -- and Stambovsky sued.

Ultimately, the court ruled that since ghost activity would not show up in a typical home inspection, but that the reputation of a house's being haunted could reduce its property value, the buyer had the right to back out of the contract:
Where, as here, the seller not only takes unfair advantage of the buyer's ignorance but has created and perpetuated a condition about which he is unlikely to even inquire, enforcement of the contract (in whole or in part) is offensive to the court's sense of equity. Application of the remedy of rescission, within the bounds of the narrow exception to the doctrine of caveat emptor set forth herein, is entirely appropriate to relieve the unwitting purchaser from the consequences of a most unnatural bargain.
Note that the court didn't address the issue of whether the ghosts actually have to exist; it's merely the reputation of being haunted that is relevant.

One has to wonder if the courts in Norway will achieve such a delicately balanced solution.  But I also have to question how the legal system, with its ostensible emphasis on finding out the truth, can be entirely unconcerned as to whether the claims at the heart of a case are true or false.  I'm no lawyer, and I'd expect that the argument would be that the relevant issue was the potential loss of property value by the seller because of the claims, not whether or not the claims were themselves valid.  However, how can it not be relevant whether the ghosts in question actually existed?  At what point is it within the framework of the law to say, "Sorry, dude, ghosts aren't real?"  The sheriff in Wisconsin certainly had no problem with saying that to the guy who said that a ghost punched his wife. 

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