A T-Rex Named Sue


As Dan S. correctly pointed out here, there are three law review articles that have “Tyrannosaurus” in the title, and all three deal with various aspects of the legal battle for a particular dinosaur named “Sue.” Sue has also been the subject of a Nova documentary and at least two full-length books (one entitled Rex Appeal).

Here is the brief version of Sue’s story. In August 1990, commercial fossil hunters from the Black Hills Institute discovered Sue on a parcel of land within a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. The land was ostensibly owned by a rancher named Maurice Williams. The fossil hunters provided Williams with a check for $5,000, but Sue’s fair market value was later established at over $8,000,000. The fossil hunters, the landowner, the tribe, and the federal government went to court claiming ownership.

The Eighth Circuit eventually ruled that because the land had been held in Native American trust, and because the dinosaur was part of the “land,” Sue could not be sold without government permission, and that the federal government held Sue in trust for Williams. The fossil was eventually put up for auction, with a combination of corporate and non-profit interests joining together in their purchase. Sue now holds court at the Chicago field museum.

With that set of facts, you can take numerous angles on the case. In my article, I chose to describe how I use this case in class to teach contract defenses. In short, the Tyrannosaurus Sue article occupies the intersection of my interest in contract law, teaching theory, and terrible puns:

1) Contract law. Although the Court based its decision on principles of property law and statutory interpretation, it would have been fascinating if the court had examined the case from a contract perspective. Think of all the great contract defenses that could be raised to challenge the transaction, i.e. unconscionability, mistake, misrepresentation, duty to disclose. If you change the facts around slightly in a hypo, you can get into the discussion of defenses even more.

2) Teaching theory. I show my class the Nova Special on the discovery of the dinosaur, and spend a class exploring various theories of the case and talking about the defenses. It’s multimedia, it’s problem-based, it promotes active learning. You know, all the good stuff.

3) Terrible puns. Where to start digging on this one? The article contains numerous puns, the quality of which, er, kept degenerating. As a condition to my contract to publish the article, I insisted that footnote 23 remain:

An arm’s-length transaction with a T-Rex would be an interesting arrangement, given their tiny forelimbs.

So there you have it. Dinosaur law.

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5 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    Reminds me of one of my favorite Far Side cartoons: “I’m trying to pass the potatoes, Martha, but you know my forearms are just as useless as yours!”

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    Hey Miriam!

    I always liked the Far Side where the dinosaurs are smoking cigarettes and the caption explains that this is REALLY why they went extinct!

    best, Ann

    p.s. some bad puns I avoided working into this comment up until now at least:

    fossil analysis

    tyrannosaurus wrecks

    Rule against Sue-pertuities

    dig it!

  3. Eh Nonymous says:

    bone-tired puns.

    Was smoking a reason for them to di?no!

    The puns – they are as painful to readers as taking a beating. Saur-us.

    Dolls and videogames are okay Christmas presents, but Tricera-tops.

    Plus I’m sure there’s an obscure pun available based on the capital of Albania and the Pteranadon.

  4. Miriam Cherry says:

    Haha! These are some good ones, I mean bad ones!

    Perhaps I can write a hornbook on the law of the triceratops…

    (p.s. hi back at you, Ann!)

  5. syafiqah says:

    hey….i hav a question here….pls ans me back…i need the answer by tommorow,25 jun 2006..how many years old did t-rex named sue alived?pls ans