UPDATES & ANALYSIS

8.01

Eighth Circuit to District Court: Don’t Be Cruel

by Ryan Koopmans | August 1, 2012

By Ryan Koopmans

In a dispute over the ownership of a vast collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia, the Eighth Circuit this week reversed a summary judgment order granted by the District Court for the Southern District of Iowa on a claim for conversion by a bailee.

The plaintiffs are the estates of Gary Pepper and his mother, Nell. Gary, who suffered from Cerebral Palsy until his death in 1980, was for a number of years the president of “The Tankers,” an Elvis fan club whose worldwide membership once topped 5,000. During that time, Gary developed a close relationship with the King of Rock and Roll and acquired a vast collection of Elvis memorabilia, including “a large quantity of Elvis’ hair that was cut for his Army tour of duty.” After Elvis’ death, Gary’s condition deteriorated and he was moved from his home in Memphis to a nursing home in Cedar Rapids, the hometown of Gary’s caretaker. After the move, the collection couldn’t fit in Gary’s room, so he gave most of it to the caretaker to keep in her home. Shortly thereafter, Gary moved to California to live with his cousin, John Tate, leaving the vast majority of the memorabilia with his caretaker in Iowa. Neither Gary nor his relatives gave any further thought to the collection.

Years passed, Gary and Nell died, the caretaker eventually moved, and without room in her new home for the collection, she gave it to her sister. More years passed, and in 2009 – almost 30 years after Gary’s death – the sister contracted with a Chicago auction house to sell the collection. Gary’s relatives, including Mr. Tate, caught wind of the auction when it was advertised as a “Gary Pepper Collection of Elvis Memorabilia.” They sued, claiming Gary gave the property to his caretaker in a bailment relationship, which was violated when the caretaker gave the property to her sister.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that the estates’ claim was barred by the statute of limitations, which ran five years after the bailment relationship was violated in the early 1980’s. The district court also ruled that the discovery rule did not apply.

The Eighth Circuit reversed, concluding that factual disputes precluded summary judgment on the discovery-rule issue. See the full opinion here for the court’s discussion of when the statute of limitations begins and the application of the discovery rule, all applying Iowa law.

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