The dissent was led by Justice Smith, who in a terse judgment concluded: “If the doctrine of caveat emptor is to be discarded, it should be for a reason more substantive than a poltergeist.”
Why is this your favourite case?
One of the frustrations of teaching law is that court judgments are frequently written in technical language that is not particularly accessible to a lay person. This is one of those rare cases whose memorable facts and colourfully written judgment combine to ensure that it is rarely forgotten by students.
Particularly noteworthy is the judgment of Justice Rubin, who squeezes as many ghostly puns as is humanly possible into his short judgment.
We are told that although, “the plaintiff hasn’t a ghost of a chance, I am nevertheless moved by the spirit of equity”, and reassured that the idea that a buyer should inspect the property for ghosts is “a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest”.
In support of his decision, Rubin quotes everyone from the ghost of Hamlet’s father (“Pity me not but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold”) to Hollywood movies, since when it comes to investigating paranormal activities the judge felt compelled to inquire, “Who you gonna call?” as the title song to the movie Ghostbusters asks.
Luckily for Stambovsky, the judge chose not to instead rely upon the other great catchphrase of that movie “I ain’t ’fraid of no ghosts.”
Is the case still relevant today?
It remains one of the leading cases on the boundaries of the “caveat emptor” principle.
It is also unique in that it is possibly the only decision ever in which a court concluded that, as a matter of law, a house was haunted. Perhaps best of all, it is one of those rare cases where things worked out well for both parties.
Even though Ackley lost the case, the publicity generated by it was so great that she was subsequently inundated with offers to buy her property – but, ironically, only if she could prove that the property was haunted.
But what of the poltergeists whose existence was established as a matter of law? Perhaps they were the only real losers in all of this litigation. Years later, paranormal explorers claimed to have successfully contacted the ghosts, who told them that it was not as much fun haunting the house without Ackley.