McGeorge School of Law

U.K. Supreme Court Adopts Sprankling Thesis

October 13, 2010

State and federal appellate courts often cite the scholarship of McGeorge faculty in their decisions. There is even the occasional reference to faculty articles and books in decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States.

But it is unusual for a major foreign court to use three paragraphs of a law review article in an important decision. That's what occurred in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom's recent decision in Star Energy Weald Basin Limited v. Bocardo SA [2010] UKSC 35. Professor John Sprankling's article, Owning the Center of the Earth, 55 UCLA L. Rev. 979 (2008), which attacked the conventional wisdom that a landowner holds title to everything between the land surface and the center of the earth, was heavily quoted in the ruling.

The UK Supreme Court agreed with Sprankling's thesis, observing that "the simple notion that each landowner is the proprietor of a column or cylinder of land that stretches down to the centre of the earth and upwards infinitely is plainly no longer tenable.... As Sprankling explains ... productive human activity is possible only within the shallowest portion of the earth's crust and humans have never penetrated below it."

England's high court upheld an appellate ruling that left a landowner with a minimal award of damages after an oil company "trespassed on his land" while carrying out horizontal drilling. The decision does not stop landowners from applying for an injunction to prevent drilling without permission, but it does limit any damages to a nominal sum. British courts had previously set a potential award structure that entitled a landowner to 9 percent of income generated by an oil reservoir.