The legal system is practically infested with cases about people who buy houses full of termites and find out too late. These are run-of-the-mill lawsuits that can turn on the wording of the contract and the jurisdiction the house was sold in.
Stambovsky v. Ackley is basically the same, except ghosts.
In 1990, Helen and George Ackley sold their house in Nyack, New York, to Jeffrey Stambovsky, a city slicker who had apparently never heard of their locally-infamous haunted house.
The Ackleys claimed that they woke up every morning to a shaking bed. Creepy, but not exactly the stuff of horror movies. They did say they had seen a ghost at least once, while they were painting the living room. As Mental Floss put it, Helen Ackley "always got the feeling that the ghost liked the renovation they had done on the house." Talk about anticlimactic ghosts.
This was all kind of spooky, but it wasn't spooky enough that they felt the need to move right away. They bought the waterfront Victorian house in the 1960s and managed to stay put for decades. In the meantime, the house ended up in Reader's Digest and even a city walking tour. It was downright infamous in Nyack.
When the Ackerleys finally decided to sell the house and move, they conveniently neglected to mention any of this to their buyer. In the words of the New York state appellate court, "Plaintiff, to his horror, discovered that the house he had recently contracted to purchase was widely reputed to be possessed by poltergeists."
When Stambovsky found out, he sued. The state Supreme Court (which, confusingly, is actually the lower court) ruled in the Ackleys' favor. New York is a jurisdiction that applies the doctrine of caveat emptor, or "buyer beware." As with termites, or a leaky basement, Stambovsky should have seen the "as-is" clause in his contract and made an inquiry into whether the house was prone to floods, or wood-devouring pests, or ghosts. When he appealed the decision, the Appellate Division took pity on him. They also had way too much fun writing the decision.
While I agree with Supreme Court that the real estate broker, as agent for the seller, is under no duty to disclose to a potential buyer the phantasmal reputation of the premises and that, in his pursuit of a legal remedy for fraudulent misrepresentation against the seller, plaintiff hasn't a ghost of a chance, I am nevertheless moved by the spirit of equity to allow the buyer to seek rescission of the contract of sale and recovery of his down payment.
Come on you guys, quit teasing! This poor man really doesn't want to buy a haunted house! What if the ghost doesn't like how he wants to paint the living room?
The basic conclusion in this case is that the house is haunted "as a matter of law"—meaning that from there on out, the defendants weren't even allowed to question whether ghosts are even real. At this point, they had gabbed too much to the newspapers and magazines about their haunted house to get away with backpedaling on the existence of ghosts. SO SPAKE THE COURT.
The decision is worth a read, but the TL;DR is something like: "Let's just assume ghosts are real; this dude gets his deposit back, k?"
The decision even quotes the goddamned Ghostbusters theme song.
From the perspective of a person in the position of plaintiff herein, a very practical problem arises with respect to the discovery of a paranormal phenomenon: "Who you gonna' call?" as a title song to the movie "Ghostbusters" asks. Applying the strict rule of caveat emptor to a contract involving a house possessed by poltergeists conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineer and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale. It portends that the prudent attorney will establish an escrow account lest the subject of the transaction come back to haunt him and his client — or pray that his malpractice insurance coverage extends to supernatural disasters.
"Lest the subject of the transaction come back to haunt him"—aahhhhhhh, these puns are too much!
They go on to say,
In the interest of avoiding such untenable consequences, the notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest.
A "HOBGOBLIN WHICH SHOULD BE EXORCISED." PLEASE STOP.
The decision also takes a shot at the contract. Even though it says the house is to be sold "as-is," it also promises to deliver the house "vacant," which, the court points out, isn't true if there are poltergeists.
The dissent was much less amused, but couldn't resist references to the supernatural either. "Finally, if the doctrine of caveat emptor is to be discarded, it should be for a reason more substantive than a poltergeist," wrote the sole dissenting judge. "The existence of a poltergeist is no more binding upon the defendants than it is upon this court."
MORE. SUBSTANTIVE. THAN. A. POLTERGEIST. I can't even.
But to be fair, we're talking about poltergeists, Judge Smith. Poltergeists, plural. Legally speaking, that house is extremely haunted.
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.