In 2006, Kevin asked the Science Center in St. Louis to return items that his father had loaned to the Science Center in 1974. The Science Center returned those items that it could find. But it could not locate some of the items listed by the Museum in a 1974 inventory.
Kevin sued the Science Center in 2008, seeking return of the missing items (which is a legal action called “replevin”), breach of contract, and actual and punitive damages. As a defense, the Science Center raised a special statute of limitations enacted by the Missouri legislature as a part of the Museum Property Act.
This statute of limitations protects a museum from liability when two years has elapsed after the museum has given notice of loss or injury to the lender of an item or five years after the date of injury or loss. If notice has been given, the two-year limitation applies. The trial court ruled that this special statute of limitations superseded the general statutes of limitations for contracts and replevin, which don’t have the notice provision.
But when were the items lost?
Any measurement requires a starting point. Kevin argued that his demand in 2006 started the clock running. The Science Center argued that Kevin’s father had notice of the loss in 1974 when the Science Center sent him a receipt that did not list the items Kevin claims that the Science Center lost.
The Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri dodged the issue this way:
It is not a necessity for us to determine with absolute certainty the date of the loss as it is obvious that the items in dispute in this case were “lost” more than five years before 29 May 2008, the date Appellant originally filed this case.
The opinion, Airis v. Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District, doesn’t explain what may have been the Missouri legislature’s policy in adopting the special statute of limitations.
If persons, and their descendants or creditors, could sue museums for items donated decades earlier, museums could bear a tremendous burden of defending and possibly paying claims for lost items. While museums are generally meticulous about cataloging and providing security for valuable items, not every item that comes their way is valuable. They need to have a little time to take an inventory of a loan (which could include hundreds or thousands of items in a collection) and to provide documentation to the lender, but then to have a way of becoming free of claims that some items listed on the inventory, or not, were lost.
Most museums are primarily supported by taxes and by donations. While nobody wants to create an incentive for museum to be careless, our lawmakers gave them a little protection. Otherwise museums would receive plenty of loans of valuables, but not so much in the way of donations of money for acquiring items and for operations, because some of that money would be diverted to defending more suits for lost valuables.
Kevin was understandably disturbed by the loss of the items. But the court thought that his father should have raised the issue years earlier, with Kevin having to bear the loss for the greater good.