Murray v. BEJ Minerals, LLC, No. 16-35506 (9th Cir. 2018)Annotate this Case
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment for plaintiffs, the owners of a Montana ranch, in a dispute over the ownership of dinosaur fossils. Prior to the discovery of the fossils, the previous owners of the ranch sold their surface and one-third of the mineral estate to plaintiffs, expressly reserving the remaining two-thirds of the mineral estate.
The panel held that definitions of "mineral" in Montana statutes were contradictory and thus inconclusive. The panel explained that the Montana Supreme Court has generally adopted the test in Heinatz v. Allen, 217 S.W.2d 994 (Tex. 1940), for determining whether a particular substance was a mineral in the context of deeds and agreements regarding mineral rights to land. Applying the Heinatz test, the panel held that the dinosaur fossils were "minerals" under the terms of the deed and belonged to the owners of the mineral estate. In this case, the fossils were rare and exceptional, and have special value.