United States v. Causby

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United States v. Causby
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued May 1, 1946
Decided May 27, 1946
Full case name United States v. Causby
Citations 328 U.S. 256 (more)
328 U.S. 256
Prior history 104 Ct.Cls. 342, 60 F.Supp. 751, reversed and remanded.
Cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos has no legal authority in the United States when pertaining to the sky. A man does not have control and ownership over the airspace of their property except within reasonable limits to utilize their property. Airspace above a set minimum height is property of the Masses and no one man can accuse airplanes or other such craft within of trespassing on what they own.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Douglas, joined by Reed, Frankfurter, Murphy, Rutledge
Dissent Black, Burton
Jackson took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

United States v. Causby 328 U.S. 256 (1946) was a United States Supreme Court related to ownership of airspace above private property. It held that the ancient common law doctrine of ad coelum had no legal effect "in the modern world." In the case, Causby sued the United States for trespassing on his land, complaining specifically about how "low-flying military planes caused the plaintiffs' chickens to 'jump up against the side of the chicken house and the walls and burst themselves open and die' . . . The plaintiffs sued the government, arguing that they were entitled to compensation under the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment."[1]


Under the common law, persons who owned real property owned it "from the depths to the heavens".[2][3]

Therefore, real estate traditionally has included all rights to water, oil, gas, and other minerals underground, and over.[2]


The United States Supreme Court held in this case that "this doctrine has no place in the modern world,"[4] at least as far as air rights are concerned,[5] but it remains as a source of law to this day, or "fundamental to property rights in land.":[2]

The court's decision, authored by Justice William O. Douglas, could have resolved the case on a narrow ground by simply holding that there was a taking of land because the government's flights affected the land. Justice Douglas did reach that conclusion, but then he went much further and opined on what airspace landowners do and do not own. He wrote that "if the landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere. Otherwise buildings could not be erected, trees could not be planted, and even fences could not be run" ... Thus, a landowner "owns at least as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land," and invasions of that airspace "are in the same category as invasions of the surface."[1]

The majority opinion cited the law (49 U.S.C. § 180) where Congress defined the "navigable airspace" in the public domain, as that above the "minimum safe altitude" which varies from 500 to 1,000 feet depending on time of day, aircraft, and type of terrain. Since the aircraft passing over Causby's property were at 83 feet, the court determined the flight path was an easement, a form of property right. Because the government had taken the easement through private property, Causby was owed compensation under the Takings Clause.

The Court did not extend its interpretation to what lies under the ground, just over.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Huebert, Jacob H. (2011-04-18) Who Owns the Sky?, Mises Institute
  2. ^ a b c Thomas Merrill, Establishing Ownership: First Possession versus Accession, p. 14, fn. 22-23, Law and Economics Workshop (University of California, Berkeley 2007 Paper 3), found at CDLib website. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  3. ^ Cjus est solum, ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos. This has been translated as “To whomever the soil belongs, he owns also to the sky and the depths.” Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed. 1990). From Merrill, fn. 22, q.v..
  4. ^ United States v. Causby, 328 U.S. 256, 261 (1942), see 328 U.S. 256 (1946). From Merrill, fn. 23, q.v..
  5. ^ The Straight Dope website. Retrieved September 17, 2008.

External links[edit]

Text of United States v. Causby is available from:  Findlaw  Justia