In 2005, the Murrays bought a Montana ranch from the Seversons.  But the Murrays didn’t transfer everything over.  Instead, the Seversons reserved ownership over two-thirds of the minerals found in, on, or under the land.  A year later, an amateur paleontologist uncovered the fossils of two dinosaurs locked in battle (the “Dueling Dinosaurs”) on the property.  The discovery of other valuable dinosaurs, said to be worth in the millions of dollars, followed. 

When the Seversons found out about the dinosaurs, they asserted an ownership interest in them under their “mineral rights.”  Wanting to keep the valuable dinosaurs (and the money earned by selling them) to themselves, the Murrays sued for an order declaring the dinosaur fossils theirs alone; the Seversons counterclaimed.

In cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court held that the dinosaur fossils were not “minerals” under Montana law.   The Ninth Circuit disagreed, recognizing that the word “mineral” has many definitions, at least one of which encompasses fossils.  It therefore remanded the case to the district court to sort out whether the Seversons had mineral rights to the dinosaurs and thus had an ownership interest in them.

The case is Murray v. BEJ Minerals, LLC, ----- (9th Cir. November 6, 2018).

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