Hallowe’en special: the Stambovsky v Ackley “Haunted House on the Hudson” is for sale!

1 Laveta Place, Nyack, NY 10960, via Google Streetview (element)Pictured left is 1 Laveta Place, Nyack, New York, NY 10960, a charming riverfront home at the end of a pretty tree-lined cul de sac in an historic village north of New York city. It has recently been put up for sale (realtor; more information). Even accounting for the almost $2m price tag, this would be an unexceptionable sale of a circa-1890 Queen Anne Victorian with panoramic views over the Hudson River, were it not for the property’s central role in Stambovsky v Ackley 572 NYS 2d 672 (NY App Div 1991) (pdf) (blogged here). It has five bedrooms, four bathrooms … and three poltergeists – but when its owner, Helen Ackley, put it up for sale in 1989, she failed to tell buyer Jeffrey Stambovsky about that last detail. The story of the house is extensively told here and here; the defendant, Helen Ackley, is pictured here; and, in an article entitled “Our Haunted House on the Hudson” in the Reader’s Digest for May 1977 (extracted here), she described her family’s experiences of hauntings in the house. Given that she had sought this notoriety, when she later came to sell the house to Stambovsky, she was precluded from denying that it was haunted; and, in the words of Rubin J for the majority in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York (in a ghost-pun-laden decision), it followed that “as a matter of law, the house is haunted” (there is legal analysis here and here). The New York Daily News reported the outcome under the headline “Court Believes in Ghosts”; and one critic of the decision was particularly trenchant (with added links):

With this verdict, the New York Supreme Court created a dangerous precedent. The house on the Hudson is haunted. That is a legal fact. In her book “The Law Is a White Dog” [Princeton University Press, 2011], scholar of American legal history Colin Dayan commented that Rubin’s conclusion “was more terrifying for some than if he had declared ghosts real. Instead, Rubin posited a reality independent of any conception of what is real” [pdf, p4] In effect, he had transmuted the presence of an ostensibly fictitious ghost story into a legal reality and proven that, at least in a legal context, the language we use to describe the truth is more important than the truth itself.

So, this Halloween, be careful what you say. The language you use may come back to haunt you.

It is the favourite case of UCD law lecturer James McDermott; but, as Elizabeth Birdthistle wrote in the Irish Times a little while ago, there is no decision equivalent to Stambovsky v Ackley in Ireland. However, she added that “IPAV president Brian Dempsey of DNG says, ‘If you are asked the question and know the answer you must give it,’…”. And he later told Deirdre Falvey, of the same paper, that “there is no onus on an agent to tell a buyer about what’s happened in a house. We would be expected to answer honestly if asked of course, but there is no obligation to volunteer the information”. Exactly so (see Paula Murray “AIDS, Ghosts, Murder: Must Real Estate Brokers and Sellers Disclose” 27 Wake Forest Law Review 689 (1992) (via HeinOnline); Eileen Webb “Houses with a history — Disclosure obligations and ‘psychologically stigmatised’ property” (2006) 13 Australian Property Law Journal 67 (pdf)). In general, silence will not be held to constitute a misrepresentation sufficient to rescind a contract. Hence, a person about to enter into a contract is not, in general, under a duty to disclose facts that are known to him or her but not to the other party. However, failing to answer a question honestly would amount to a misrepresentation, as would a failure to speak where silence would negate or distort a positive representation that has been made, or where material facts come to the notice of the party which falsify a representation previously made. But in the absence of such additional facts, mere silence cannot amount to an actionable misrepresentation. Many US states now have laws requiring vendors and their estate agents to disclose past events that might devalue a property, but that is not the case in Ireland.

According to Eric Goldman, pointing to an article in the New York Times (sub req’d), after the initial lower court ruling, many people (perhaps more than 50) called up real estate agents in the area desperate to buy the house … but only if it was, in fact, haunted! Indeed, in an article in the Irish Independent earlier this week (which prompted this post), Mark Keenan reported that it has had a string of celebrity owners, many of whom love its ghostly reputation (the full list of sales and prices is at the bottom of this page). Indeed, there seems to be quite a market for haunted objects. However, despite speculation that the late Helen Ackley now also haunts her former home, subsequent owners have reported no spectral sightings, but that has had no effect on its notoriety, and it may stand as an exception to the general proposition that, “however sceptical you might be about skeletons in the closet, things that go bump in the night and ghosts, they can add up to a major headache when it comes to selling a property”.

If all else fails, call Ghostbusters. Meanwhile, happy Hallowe’en!