Tenant or servant?

by Lisa Y. Henderson

Joseph Hare v. Barney Pearson, 26 NC 76 (1843).

This matter was appealed from Fall Term, 1843, Superior Court of Law of Nash County. The case involved an action of trover (wrongful possession of private property) for a quantity of corn.  At trial, the Hare showed that Pearson rented a small tract of land in 1841 to Elijah Powell, a free man of color, for the year 1841. Powell agreed to pay one-half his corn crop as rent. On 13 March, 1841, an unnamed person obtained a judgment against Powell and an execution was levied on his growing crop the following June. When the corn was gathered, Powell and Pearson divided it equally and stored it in one barn.  Before the sheriff’s sale on 8 February, 1842, more than half the corn had been removed from the barn. Pearson objected to the sale, claiming the remaining corn as his. The sale proceeded, and Hare bought was left. Pearson exclaimed that he would break every bone in Hare’s body before he would let Hare take the corn. Pearson offered evidence that he had not rented the land to Powell, and Powell was only a laborer with no ownership interest in the crop.

The Court left it to the jury to decide whether Powell was Pearson’s tenant in 1841 (in which case, the sheriff had a right to levy on the crop and Hare was entitled to its value after Pearson refused to give it over), or whether he was merely his servant (in which case Hare could not recover.) The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, and the defendant appealed.

The Supreme Court found that, even if Powell had been Pearson’s servant, the evidence showed that they had split the crop, giving Powell title to half. Powell was present at the sale, and it was he, rather than Pearson, who had standing to object to any irregularity.  Pearson claimed Powell’s corn without title, and his threat to beat Hare rather than let him take his purchase amounted to conversion. This was a matter of law, not fact, and should not have been sent to the jury. Judgment affirmed.