Welcome back to Ask a Lawyer, wherein I, a lawyer, respond to your questions. Got a vexing legal issue? Send it over, or drop it in the comments below.
The apartment I live in was renovated just before my wife and I moved in. The construction crew left behind some of their equipment, including some extra flooring and cheap lighting fixtures and a large table saw. The flooring and fixtures may come in handy at some point I suppose, but I have no need for a table saw and it’s taking up half of my storage room. I’ve asked my rental company repeatedly to have the contractor come pick it up, but it’s been almost four months and it hasn’t happened. I’m not sure who did the work, so I can’t contact them directly. At this point, I’m pretty sure they’re not coming back for it. Am I safe to sell or give away the saw to clear out space in my storage room?
Let’s acknowledge at the outset that your landlord is total crap. If your rental company people can’t be bothered to remove the massive landlord liability of a table saw—pretty much a portable spinning wheel of death and dismemberment poking through the top like a demon shark fin from Home Depot—I imagine you’ll see even less enthusiasm from them to fix a broken fridge.
But let’s leave the landlord complication for now and address the underlying issue. You moved in and found a table saw that isn’t yours. Welcome to the needlessly complicated world of abandoned and lost property law. As usual, and in song form this time, 🎶 every state does this a little different from all the other states 🎶, particularly because property law is kind of like Bernie Sanders—ancient, quirky, and vague.
At common law—which is law based on court precedent, not statutes—if you find personal property just kind of sitting around with no owner to claim it, it can be “abandoned” or “lost.”*
Abandoned property is something that the owner clearly has no intention of coming back for, something forsaken. I once saw a man at a Manhattan lunch spot in the early 2000’s have someone break up with over the phone. He then repeatedly stomped the phone with his shoe, shouting, “Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it!” His Florsheim heel was no match for the invincible Nokia brick underfoot. He stopped, breathed deeply through his nose a few times, and then muttered, “And forget this fucking phone.” He calmly walked out and didn’t come back. Was that phone abandoned? Under those circumstances, you fucking bet it was.
However, it can be hard to gauge intention when you don’t know who the owner is, and if you weren’t there when it was left behind. But we can try to figure it out by looking at numerous things: the context in which the item was left, the condition the item is in, what kind of thing is it, how much time has passed, and so on. In your case, we don’t know whether the landlord and the contractor had a total blowout, or if there was a forgetful table saw operator guy onsite the day they packed up and left.
Is the table saw in your apartment abandoned? Seems like an odd thing to just leave behind and decide to never return for. It’s only been four months. I’m assuming it’s in good condition. So, it’s more likely just something we can consider lost, especially if we can’t confidently determine that it’s been officially abandoned.
On the other hand, when something is just “lost,” it’s not a forceful act like abandonment. It’s been parted with casually, involuntarily, left behind, forgotten. Generally, under common law, a finder doesn’t have to exert too much effort to look for the owner before the finder can claim ownership under the ancient doctrine of Finders Keepers.
Now let’s look at the statutory overlay of the issue of lost property (abandoned property is still treated pretty much the same as under common law). Under many state statutes, a finder usually has to make some kind of overt effort to find the owner of lost property before claiming it. California and Illinois, for example, require you to turn over property worth at least $100 to the police and then file an affidavit—if it’s unclaimed after a certain period of time, it’s yours. New York has a threshold of $20 for reporting to the police. If the police in any given state are as good about returning civil forfeiture assets as they are about this topic, you’re sure to have that list item back in your hands in no time at all. Good work, citizen.
You’ve also got that landlord complication to deal with. This was your landlord’s contractor, meaning that your landlord could have some responsibility here. Problem is, they’re just not responding. Could you make the argument that this is your landlord’s problem to deal with and that you need a rent reduction based on the space that the table saw is taking up? Sure. Will this make your crappy landlord even crappier to deal with? Probably.
So, what’s the legal solution? If you want to follow the letter of the law, you could either figure out what your options are under your jurisdiction’s landlord/tenant law and/or the legal steps to dispose of lost property where you live. But sometimes you have to consider whether all of that is worth the effort—we’re talking about a job site table saw, not a valuable solid gold actual size replica of Paul Giamatti’s head.
My personal approach for this relatively low-value item would be to send a certified letter to the landlord stating that I was going to be disposing of the table saw in 30 days, and then to sell or give away the saw on craigslist after that. I’d also make sure that my bill of sale for the saw clearly states (i) that I was not the original owner of the saw, (ii) have never used the saw, and (iii) that the buyer clearly understands that the saw is being sold as is, with no warranties, and with a complete limitation on liability.
I’d also not just leave the table saw out on the sidewalk for someone to take—I live on a busy street and a randomly placed table saw doesn’t ooze the cuddly harmlessness of an IKEA lamp or whatever candle-scented furniture Pier 1 sells.
So, yes, this is not legally a simple yes/no question. But you need to weigh the value of your time and efforts, the value of the table saw, and your desire to comply with the law as written and make your own assessment. All that said, good call on keeping the flooring. You never know when you’ll need more flooring.
*Before any recent law school grads comment, yes, there is a third category called “mislaid” property—where an owner means to put something somewhere and then forgets where he put it—but it’s often difficult to distinguish between “mislaid” and “lost” property, so in modern times, the concept of “mislaid” can be bundled with “lost” in statutes. Yes, there are some relatively recent cases dealing with mislaid property (hello, Arizona and Texas), but they are not very common. Also, you should be studying for the bar exam in a couple weeks instead of reading this. Good luck.
Ask a Lawyer is a practicing lawyer with over 15 years of broad legal experience. He is part of the team at Unwonk Podcast and can be found on Twitter. I really like people I quote here, but that doesn’t mean I endorse them, because ... I’m a lawyer. Keep in mind that this is general information, and not formal legal advice or legal representation; if you need any of that, you should get it from a lawyer in real life, not an internet column. A legal problem is serious and fact-specific, and you should treat it accordingly. But you have common sense and already knew that.