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Court Rules that Fossils are Minerals

In 2005, the Murrays bought a ranch in Montana. One year later they discovered dinosaur fossils. These were not ordinary fossils. They were exceptionally valuable. The find included the fossils of two dinosaurs that died locked in battle, which was “a one-of-a-kind thing.” It also included “one of the best if not the best Triceratops skull[s] ever found,” and an intact T. Rex skeleton—one of only a dozen ever found. In all, the fossils were worth millions of dollars.

When the Murrays bought their ranch in 2005, the sellers retained two-thirds of the mineral rights. After the sellers heard about the Murrays’ discovery, they claimed the fossils were minerals and that they were entitled to two-thirds of their value. The Murrays did not agree, and asked a federal court in Montana to decide that the fossils were not minerals. The trial court, applying Montana law, agreed with the Murrays. The judge decided that the fossils were not minerals because people do not ordinarily mean to include fossils when they use the word “minerals.”

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. According to the Ninth Circuit, in Murray v. BEJ Minerals, LLC, No. 1:14-cv-00106-SPW, substances are minerals under Montana law if they (1) are “composed of mineral substances as a technical matter” and (2) “are rare and exceptional and have special value.” The Murrays and the sellers both agreed that the fossils were minerals in a scientific sense because they were composed of either hydroxylapatite or a combination of hydroxylapatite and francolite. They also agreed that, while many fossils are not valuable, these particular fossils were. Therefore, according to the court of appeals, the fossils were minerals and the sellers were entitled to two-thirds of their value.

Under the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of Montana law, a wide variety of things could be considered minerals.

No Colorado court has addressed whether dinosaur fossils should be considered minerals. If you find any valuable objects on your property and have any questions about whether they could be considered minerals, give us a call.

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