Wilson v. Rucker

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Wilson v. Rucker, Wythe 296 (1794),[1] discussed whether someone who unknowingly bought a certificate from a person who did not really own it could be required to compensate the certificate's true owner. In the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, this case also brought about a discussion as to whether the High Court of Chancery could properly enter a judgment based on the verdict from a jury in a court of law.


Angus Rucker, the defendant, lost a military certificate belonging to him. Virginia gave military certificates to people who had served in the Continental Line, the State Line, or the State Navy for at least three years. These certificates entitled their owner to a parcel of land.[3] The usual custom in the United States was to transfer ownership merely by transferring physical possession of the certificates, although some certificates had also been transferred using a written contract. The Public Auditor of Virginia's usual custom was to give interest earned on certificates such as these to whomever had physical possession of the certificate.

On August 4, 1785, James Dickenson sold the military certificate that Rucker had lost to the plaintiff, William Wilson, for £75.[4] Wilson supposedly did not know at the time that the certificate he had bought was actually Rucker's.

On November 21, 1785, Rucker got a duplicate of his certificate from the Public Auditor of Virginia.

When Rucker found out that the original military certificate had re-surfaced, he returned the duplicate[5] and filed an action in trover, an action to get monetary damages for loss of personal property, against Wilson in Dumfries District Court. The jury returned a verdict for Rucker and the judge entered a judgment following the jury's verdict. Wilson filed a bill with the High Court of Chancery asking it to enjoin the verdict and judgment, citing several problems with the jury. In the Chancery Court, Rucker and Wilson agreed to a new jury trial in the District Court to determine the facts of the case, with the jury's verdict going to the High Court of Chancery for final judgment on the legal issues.[6]

In the second trial in Dumfries District Court in May 1794, the jury returned a verdict confirming the facts about Rucker's ownership and loss of the certificate, Dickenson's sale of the certificate to Wilson, the customs on how ownership of those certificates was usually transferred and recognized, and the duplicate certificate Rucker got and returned. The jury said that if the court were to find for Rucker, they would recommend damages of £224, which was £52 more than the damages the jury awarded in the first trial.

In October 1794, despite the agreement that the Chancery Court would make the judgment based on the jury's verdict, the District Court judge entered a judgment for Rucker.

The Chancery Court's Decision

In September 1794, Wythe issued a decree giving Wilson two options: (1) turn over the certificate to Rucker along with all the interest Wilson received on it, or (2) pay Rucker the certificate's monetary value plus interest. If Wilson chose to pay monetary damages instead of returning the certificate to Rucker, Wythe ordered Wilson to pay Rucker an extra £52.[7] Wythe also ordered Wilson to pay Rucker's court costs.

Wythe said that while the presumption is that the physical holder of the certificate is its legal owner, there was enough evidence to prove that Dickenson did not get Rucker's certificate legally. The jury's verdict confirmed that the certificate was Rucker's property. Wilson never alleged that Rucker transferred the certificate to Dickenson, which Wilson surely would have done if he thought there was the slightest chance that it had happened. In addition, Rucker applied for a duplicate certificate, which he would not have done if he had willingly transferred the original to Dickenson.

Wythe said this situation was not the same as where someone accepts unmarked money from a person who stole it from another; in that situation, the innocent recipient has no way to know where the money came from or whether it was legitimately obtained. Nor was this like a situation in which someone accepts an endorsed check as payment; in that case, there is clear evidence that the original holder meant to give the check away.

Wythe said there would be no problem awarding Rucker monetary damages, even though Rucker did not file a cross-bill asking for them.[8] Wythe believed that it would be effectively the same as ruling against a plaintiff who had filed a bill asking to collect on an account.

In the Supreme Court of Appeals

Wilson appealed both the Chancery Court's decree and the second District Court's judgment to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.[9]

Appeal from the Chancery Court's judgment

The Supreme Court held that Wythe should not have given Wilson the option of delivering the certificate plus interest earned to Rucker as a way of satisfying the judgment, and it ordered Rucker to pay Wilson court costs because Wilson won on this issue. The Supreme Court also ordered Wilson to pay Rucker £172 in current money plus interest and court costs from the Chancery Court and District Court.

Judge Carrington believed that giving Wilson the option of satisfying the judgment by either returning the certificate or paying monetary damages gave Wilson an unfair advantage because Wilson could choose how he compensated Rucker. Rucker, on the other hand, was stuck with whatever payment Wilson chose.

Judge Roane believed that Wythe erred in awarding an extra £52 to Rucker if Wilson chose to pay monetary damages instead of returning the certificate. Roane assumed that the number came from the difference between the damages awarded by the first and second juries, and the second jury did not explain the basis for their number. Rucker did not object to the amount of the first jury's award, and it would be proper to avoid awarding excess damages in a situation such as this involving an innocent purchaser.

Judge Fleming agreed with Wythe except for giving Wilson the alternative of returning the certificate and for giving Rucker extra damages of £52 if Wilson did not return the certificate. Fleming did not explain his reasons for his decision.

President Edmund Pendleton stated that the Chancery Court, a court of equity, had no business entering a judgment on the jury's verdict. Wythe's only proper inquiry was whether the trial in the District Court was fair. Once Wythe determined that the second trial was fair, he should have left it to the District Court to enter judgment based on the jury's verdict. If Wythe thought there was a question of law that needed to be resolved, he should have referred it to the General Court. In this case, however, Pendleton was outvoted by the other Supreme Court judges, who believed that Wythe had the power to enter a judgment based on the District Court jury's verdict.

Appeal from the District Court's judgment

The Supreme Court held that the District Court should not have entered a judgment on the jury's verdict, because it was supposed to refer that verdict to the Chancery Court. The Supreme Court reversed the District Court's judgment based on the second verdict, and awarded Wilson court costs involved with appealing this judgment.


  1. George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery with Remarks upon Decrees by the Court of Appeals, Reversing Some of Those Decisions, 2nd ed., ed. B.B. Minor (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1852), 296.
  2. Some of the background information was obtained from the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals's decision, Wilson v. Rucker, 5 Va. (1 Call) 500 (1799).
  3. Library of Virginia, "Virginia Revolutionary War Records", Research Notes No. 8, available at http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/rn8_varev.pdf.
  4. Neither Wythe nor the Supreme Court say how Dickenson got the certificate in the first place.
  5. The original copy of the military certificate always had legal priority; once the original reappeared, the duplicate became worthless.
  6. Here Wythe cites to other cases the Chancery Court heard in which a person had asked for a new trial or for relief from a lower court verdict due to alleged trial irregularities. Wythe referred readers to Hoomes v. Kuhn, Cochran v. Street, and Cobs v. Mosby.
  7. Oddly, this last requirement only seems to appear in the Supreme Court's discussion of Wythe's decision. Wilson v. Rucker, 5 Va. (1 Call) at 509. Wythe does not appear to expressly mention this requirement anywhere in his report of the decision.
  8. Presumably, the usual procedure was that defendants could not get monetary damages unless they filed a separate motion with the court asking for them.
  9. Wilson v. Rucker, 5 Va. (1 Call) 500 (1799). The editor of the second edition of Wythe's Reports cites this as "1 Call, 435-450", but that appears to be due to a quirk of legal publishing history. Peter Cottom published a second edition of Call's Reports that included notes from Joseph Tate and altered the volume's layout, so that page 500 from the first edition of Call's Volume 1 was on page 435 of the second edition. Presumably the editor of the second edition of Wythe's Reports was using this second edition of Call's Reports as a reference. Today, though, most sources (including Westlaw, Lexis, and BloombergBNA Law) use the page numbers from first edition of Call's Reports.