• Patrick L. Fortune

12-Gauge vs. Quadcopter: Property Rights, UAVs and the "Drone Slayer"

At this point, most people have had some contact with aerial drones, they are regularly making it into the news and their proliferation is only just beginning. These UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are flying all around the US and legislatures everywhere are finally starting to address their regulation. Even if you haven't come in contact with one yet, you very likely will as the FAA suspects that the number of commercially registered UAVs may reach as high as 30,000 by 2020.

These drones bring to light a very interesting legal topic that has been mostly dormant since 1946. The question is regarding the property rights of landowners for the airspace above their land. Put another way, what rights does a landowner have to use or protect the space above the ground of their property?

The common law answer to this question is found in a fabulous latin phrase. Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos, roughly translates to "whoever's is the soil, it is theirs all the way to Heaven and all the way to hell". This has been the common law approach to the question, meaning that when you own a piece of land, you have rights to the area on the surface of the earth as well as rights to everything above and below that surface area.

In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court made some precedence on this issue by ruling that a chicken farmer could be compensated for the emotional/physical disturbance done to his 'inventory' that was caused by low flying planes that just barely soared above the trees (United States v. Causby). No universal standard was created by the case but it at least recognized that property rights of landowners do extend, at least somewhat, above the highest reach of their physical property.

A recent altercation in Kentucky is now setting the stage to further expand and clarify United States v. Causby. William Merideth is a self-described "Drone Slayer" and he did just that when he used his shotgun to blast one out of the sky. The owner of the drone, John Boggs, has now sued Merideth in federal court for using lethal force against his favorite toy. Merideth claims the drone was spying on his minor daughter and flying below the trees. Boggs claims the drone was flying at about 200 feet above the ground when it was shot down, this is based on the an image showing the last thing the drone saw before it died.

Depending on how this case progesses, and how much money there is for the appeals process, this case could establish some very relevant precedent for our society. It is far to early to make any confident speculations but there is a chance that Boggs v. Merideth may make it into legal textbooks one day in the future. If so, this author would find it incredibly interesting how a suit claiming damages of a whooping $1,500 could drastically affect an industry that is on track to top $90 billion in just a few years.


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