Today’s post was inspired by this question from Sara, who writes:
In the Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical The Phantom of the Opera, it is made clear that the new owners of the Opera Company and building were unaware of a chandelier-dropping, money-demanding, havoc-wreaking, stage hand-killing “opera ghost” they were to encounter squatting in their basement when they purchased the building and the company.
Would this end up being a case of “buyer beware”, where they now have to deal with this murderous costumed freak on their own, or would there be a chance of them getting their money back, since no contract they signed would have mentioned a ghost?
I would have liked to save this question for Halloween, but it’s too good a question to wait six months. I know next to nothing about French law, so I’m going to approach it from a US perspective. Good thing, too, because it turn out that there’s a famous New York case almost exactly on point: Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 A.D.2d 254 (1991). The full text of the case is worth reading if only because it is full of terrible ghost puns.
In Stambovsky a resident of New York City bought a house in the village of Nyack, a small suburb of New York. Unfortunately for the buyer the house had a long and storied history in the community of being haunted, which the out-of-town buyer did not discover until after the purchase. Whether the buyer was superstitious or merely concerned with the diminished resale value of a haunted house, he sought to rescind the contract on the theory that the seller should have disclosed the house’s haunted status.
Ordinarily a court might balk at having to determine whether a house is haunted, but in this case the seller had previously made a point of claiming in both the national and local press that the house was indeed haunted. As a result the court held that the seller was legally prevented (“estopped”) from claiming otherwise and thus “as a matter of law, the house is haunted.”
Having thus established that the house was haunted, the court held that the case called for an exception to the general rule of caveat emptor (“buyer beware”):
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.
In light of all this, what do we make of the case of the Opera Populaire? The buyers were evidently ignorant of the haunting, whereas the sellers were aware, and we may assume that even in the 1880s one would be unlikely to inquire as to the haunted status of a property. So far, so good.
(NB: Since at least some members of the opera company know that the Phantom is a flesh-and-blood squatter rather than a ghost, it may be that the question is whether a seller has a duty to disclose knowledge of a dangerous squatter on the premises. Inasmuch as this is a rare thing (especially for an otherwise legitimately occupied and used building) that would be very difficult for a prospective buyer to ascertain on their own (not even the seller knew where the Phantom’s lair was) it seems that a seller would have the same duty to disclose a real Phantom as a spectral one.)
However, a key difference from Stambovsky is that the sellers did not create the condition. It’s not as though the former owners invited the Phantom to take up residence or popularized the story of the building being haunted (as far as I know). It could be argued that they perpetuated it by not taking adequate steps to rid the building of the Phantom, but on balance I’m not sure that’s enough. In Stambovsky the seller “deliberately fostered the public belief that her home was possessed,” whereas at least originally the story of the Phantom was mostly a matter of whispered rumors. The Stambovsky court repeatedly emphasized the seller’s prior actions, which are mostly lacking in this case.
Thus, the outcome in this case would probably turn on the extent to which the seller had traded on the opera house’s haunted state, but there would at least be an argument for the buyers undoing the sale. The exception to caveat emptor created in Stambovsky might not reach quite that far, however.