In Practice

When the Spirit of the Law Turns to the Supernatural

, Daily Report

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Photo of Alan Levine
Alan Levine's practice includes trust and estate litigation, guardianships and conservatorships. Prior to joining Lyle & Levine, he prosecuted in Cobb County for six years.

Surely there is no creepier guest at a Halloween party than the one costumed as an attorney.

Lawyers are thoroughly trained to assist their clients with life's unpleasantries, even when dealing with matters merely perfunctory, so the occasion to hire a lawyer is usually not cause for celebration. Some lawyers—i.e., estate planning attorneys—even make their "living" writing prose for the dead—or if not dead, those who at least suspect their present existential condition may be passing.

Seldom do attorneys of any variety encounter cases dealing substantively with the spirit world. Yet when it happens, it need not be a probate matter. Be they rooted in the apparently paranormal or the patently psychological—whether involving ghosts or more unsavory denizens of the Otherworld—the variety of case types involving supernatural weirdness runs the gamut, including real property, copyright, personal injury and criminal matters.

Ex ghost facto trumps caveat specter

Across the Hudson River west of Tarrytown, N.Y.—where once a headless Hessian trooper pursued a hapless schoolteacher through the lonely glen of Sleepy Hollow—lies the village of Nyack. There, in the 1960s, the 5,000-square-foot Victorian home at 1 La Veta Place, vacant and in a state of disrepair, was purchased by George and Helen Ackley. The neighborhood kids informed the Ackleys they'd just purchased a haunted house. The Ackleys came to believe the kids. Helen published a story about the hauntings in Reader's Digest. And she promoted it as one of five homes on Nyack's walking tour of haunted houses.

Among the astonishing things reported by the family: a presence, perceived as female, would come into the bedroom of their daughter, Cynthia, every morning to shake her bed, waking her for school. When spring break arrived, Cynthia announced before retiring for the night that she wanted to sleep in the next day as there was no school. The considerate ghost did not shake her bed the next morning.

The ghosts were not merely useful but generous to the Ackleys. Coins, silver sugar tongs and baby rings for newly born grandchildren spontaneously appeared. Helen saw one of the ghosts looking on approvingly as she painted the living room. After Cynthia grew up and married, her husband, Mark, reported hearing conversations in otherwise empty rooms.

One night, while lying in bed with Cynthia, his back to the outside edge of the mattress, Mark heard the door creak and floorboards squeak. Next, he felt someone sit on the edge of the bed and lean against him. Nearly frozen, Mark was able to turn his head just enough to see a woman looking at him.

In 1989, with property taxes increasing, Helen decided to sell and move to warmer climes. Jeffrey and Patrice Stambovsky of New York City put down $32,500 of the $650,000 purchase price. But Helen's passion for promoting her preternatural premises had passed. She never disclosed to potential buyers the presence of her home's other inhabitants.

Only after a local architect commented, "Oh, you're buying the haunted house!" did the Stambovskys learn of their new residence's reputation. Jeffrey was fine in accepting this prior existing condition. Not so Patrice. Forsaking exorcists, lawyers were hired.

In overruling a lower court's denial of the Stambovskys' rescission action, Justice Israel Rubin of the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court found while Helen had in the past done much to market her haunted house, the Stambovskys could not have been expected to divine the presence of poltergeists with an ordinary and reasonable home inspection, let alone "unearth the property's ghoulish reputation in the community."

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