By Richard F. Bales
Chicago Title Insurance Company
The Old Days
In the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, attorneys began hiring abstractors to perform title work. Abstractors would compile a history of the land, sometimes from the original land patent forward. (A land patent is a land grant or deed from a sovereign entity. In Illinois the examiner will sometimes see a land patent from the United States of America for a section of land or more.) These abstractors would then issue this compiled history, together with an abstractor’s certificate. The certificate would inform the proposed purchaser and the attorney as to the matters purported to be covered by the abstract.
Abstracts have not been used in the Chicago area for many years. Until a few years ago, though, they were occasionally prepared in the central and southern parts of the state.
But relying on an abstract had its disadvantages. Consider the case of Watson v. Muirhead, 57 Pa. 161 (1868). Watson wanted to buy some property in Philadelphia. He hired Muirhead to abstract the public records. Muirhead discovered an unsatisfied judgment. Relying on a previous opinion from a local lawyer who felt that the judgment was not final and that therefore did not affect the land, Muirhead omitted the judgment from his report.
After Watson purchased the land, the judgment creditor successfully enforced his judgment, and Watson lost the property at a judicial sale. Watson sued Muirhead for his damages. The court ruled, however, that Muirhead had exercised due care and therefore decided that Muirhead should not be held liable for an error that was not due to his negligence.
It was clear that something better was needed.