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Caveat Specter

Tim Madigan

Skeptical Briefs Volume 5.2, June 1995

If you’re planning to sell a home in New York State, there are a few things you should notify the prospective buyer about. Is the furnace in working order? Does the toilet flush okay? Is there any asbestos in the ceiling? And is the house haunted?

Helen Ackley forgot to address the last question when, in 1990, she attempted to sell her 18-room mansion in Nyack, and she had to return the $32,500 deposit she received on her $650,000 asking price because of it. It seems that Jeffrey and Patrice Stambovsky fell in love with the stately old home (which bears a resemblance to the abode on Thirteen Thirteen Mockingbird Lane where the Munsters once resided), and were all set to move in, when a local architect made a passing remark that “Oh, you’re buying the haunted house.” Haunted? The Stambovskys did some research, and found out that Mrs. Ackley had been claiming for years that the home was the habitat for an army of poltergeists, one of whom was “a cheerful, apple-cheeked man” who looked like Santa Claus. A 1977 article in Reader’s Digest-one of the world’s most read publications-contained that quote, while a 1989 article about real estate in suburban Nyack described the mansion as "riverfront Victorian - with ghost.” A 1982 article in the local Nyack paper quoted Ackley as describing the ghosts as “dressed in Revolutionary period clothing, perhaps frozen in a time warp, waiting for someone or some reason to move on.”

It was her buyers, though, who decided to move on. Mr. Stambovsky, a 38-year old bond trader, was a good skeptic, but his wife, who was pregnant at the time, reacted much like she'd, well, seen a ghost. She refused to move into the home. Stambovsky promptly demanded that the deal be terminated, and asked for his deposit back. “We were the victims of ectoplasmic fraud,” he told the press. He and his wife were irate that Ackley never said boo to them about the ghosts residing within. They had expected to move into premises that were vacant.

Ackley, who had moved to Orlando, Florida, refused to allow them to renege on the deal, standing pat on the tried-and-true seller defense: caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. In this case, beware of spooks.

While their friends warned them they didn’t have a ghost of chance to get out of the deal, the Stambovskys sued. A lower court ruled against them, saying that it was the buyers’ responsibility to search for problems in the house. But the plucky couple appealed, and in a 3-2 decision of July 18, 1991 the Appellate Division of State Supreme

Court ruled in their favor. Writing for the majority, Justice Israel Rubin stated that he was “moved by the spirit of equity” to allow the couple to break the contract. Since Ackley “had deliberately fostered the belief that her home was possessed by ghosts,” she should have mentioned this to the Stambovskys. Because they were from out of town, they could not be expected “to have any familiarity with the folklore of the Village of Nyack. Not being a ‘local,’ plaintiff could not readily learn that the home he had contracted to purchase is haunted. Whether the source of the spectral apparitions seen by defendant seller are parapsychic or psychogenic, having reported their presence in both a national publication (Reader’s Digest) and the local press, defendant is estopped to deny their existence, and, as a matter of law, the house is haunted.”

While skeptics should be critical of the assertion that “as a matter of law” the house is haunted, there is no doubt that the Stambovskys got a raw deal. Unbeknownst to them, the place had been included in a five-home “haunted house” walking tour of Nyack, and, the ruling continued, “the impact of the reputation thus created goes to the very essence of the bargain between the parties, greatly impairing both the value of the property and its potential for resale.”

Justice Rubin couldn’t resist adding that, “a very practical problem arises with respect to the discovery of a paranormal phenomenon: ‘Who you gonna call?’ as a title song to the movie Ghostbusters asks. Applying the strict rule of caveat emptor to a contract involving a house possessed by poltergeists conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineers and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale. In the interest of avoiding such untenable consequences, the notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest.”

This is without a doubt one of the funniest court rulings to come down the pike in years, although the implications might not be so laughable if others decide to rely upon legal precedent to break their contracts. I think I might try to get back the damage deposit from my last apartment by claiming that the holes in the walls weren't a result of the drunken parties I’d thrown, but rather came from crockery-tossing poltergeists my landlord never warned me about. Likewise, when your neighbors complain about loud noises, tell them that the ghosts of Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin have infested your abode, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

As for Mrs. Ackley, she was finally able to resell the mansion for slightly less than the $650,000 asking price. Stambovsky took a rather pragmatic attitude toward the event. “My feeling is that Mrs. Ackley is a very neat old lady who likes to spin tales,” he said. “But if my wife is influenced enough by that stuff to feel uncomfortable, that’s a good enough reason not to sink our life savings into the place.” Now that’s the spirit.

(Thanks to Dave Henehan for sending me the hilarious Appellate Court Decision.)

Tim Madigan

Tim Madigan is president of the Western New York Skeptics, and a legend in his own mind.