The Great Onyx Cave Cases - A Micro-History
46 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2012 Last revised: 6 Apr 2012
Date Written: February 2, 2012
Controversies surrounding property rights to the Great Onyx Cave in Kentucky have given rise to two legendary decisions with enduring legal importance. The first of these, Edwards v. Sims (1929), is a leading authority on the extent of ownership rights below the surface of land. The second, Edwards v. Lee's Administrator (1936), concerns the appropriate measure of damages for trespass. Stripped to essentials, the facts that led to these two important rulings are quite straightforward: E discovered a cave beneath his surface, which he developed into a thriving tourist attraction. However, it turns out that approximately one-third of the cave passes below, well below, the surface of land owned by L, who had no ready means of access to the cave. Should title to the cave as a whole belong to the party who owns the mouth and who has taken possession? If not, how might one assess damages for trespass where E has benefited financially by the acts of trespass, but L has no practical use for his portion of the cave?
Of course, life is rarely as simple as that suggested by these sparse facts, and if one delves into the background of these famous cases -- a story that has been neglected over the years -- additional insights emerge. As it turns out, this dispute is one episode in a tempestuous time, the so-called 'cave wars' period, in which confrontations and lawsuits over cave rights and tourism in the region were commonplace. Moreover, the fight over Great Onyx Cave arose amid a campaign to acquire the caves in the region for a national park. As the clouds of the Depression formed, the park project must have held out hope for the local landowners. In addition, one member of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, Marvel Mills Logan, played a significant and somewhat unconventional role in the Great Onyx Cave litigation and the events surrounding it. His place in the story is examined in detail.
Keywords: cave rights, legal history
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