THAT EQUITY MAY PREVAIL
Sometimes you really wish you knew the back story on a lawsuit. To merely read the recitation of facts and the application of the law in some cases leaves you wondering – why is this case even in the courtroom?
Today’s case is a perfect example. The Mannings lived in a housing development. Behind their well-manicured lawn lay some scrubby, undeveloped woods. Their neighbors had a back lawn that was about 30 feet deeper, and the Manning family mistakenly thought that their own lawn must be that long, too. So they cleaned and chopped weeds and took down some saplings, and installed a park bench and baseball batting cage.
But it turned out that the land wasn’t theirs. Presently, they got a letter from some limited liability company’s lawyer, telling them to cease and desist forthwith, govern their actions accordingly, and all of that legal mumbo-jumbo. Chastened, the Mannings withdrew to their own boundary.
End of story? Nope. The owner of the land, CUDA Associates, LLC — “CUDA” undoubtedly being short for “barracuda” — sued the Mannings for the grievous harm they obviously had done to its rather decrepit piece of real estate. The ‘Cuda sued for trespass, for intentional and wrongful cutting of timber in violation of Connecticut law, and for “unjust enrichment.”
And exactly who was unjustly enriched? You have to wonder why CUDA would have sued at all. After all, there was no damage to the CUDA land. In fact, the Court suggested the Mannings had improved it. What’s more, the trespass was an honest mistake, and the trespassers withdrew as soon as their attention was called to the error. We’ll never know the whys. But the trial court pretty clearly agreed with us that the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot: the judge dryly observed that “[t]he equities in this claim clearly rest with the defendants, and as such must be balanced with the nominal losses that the plaintiff has suffered.” In other words, the Mannings’ trespass was pretty minor and done honestly enough, and CUDA didn’t really suffer for it. In fact, it was better off for the trespass, because its property was left in better shape than it would have been in had the Mannings stayed home. The whole case seems like a monumental waste of the court’s time.
However – and we should all know this by now – litigants are allowed to waste the court’s time, and they do so daily. As maligned as lawyers are, sometimes the fees they charge are the only brakes ever applied to the wacky legal claims their clients want to press in the courtroom. Unfortunately for the Mannings, no cooler heads prevailed in the offices of CUDA’s counsel, so the suit was litigated to judgment.
The court recognized that Connecticut law dictated that damages had to be awarded, even where the trespass was trifling. So it awarded CUDA $1,500, an amount which (we hope) was probably much less than its attorney’s fee. So some justice prevailed in the end, even if it was only found in a lawyer’s pocket.
CUDA Associates, LLC v. Manning, Not Reported in A.2d, 2008 WL 249974 (Conn.Super., Jan. 8, 2008). CUDA Associates owned 3,000 square feet from which the Mannings cleared trees, removed underbrush and in effect extended the back boundary of their property line by approximately 30 feet along the entire easterly line of their backyard. All of the surrounding land owned by CUDA or its successor was undeveloped. The Mannings’ house was located in a developed residential area with housing on both sides of White Avenue, and abutting the plaintiff’s property to the east and south. The Mannings installed a park bench, a baseball practice apparatus and the cutting of certain trees and undergrowth, an intrusion into the CUDA’s property that ended when CUDA wrote to them. The Mannings were operating under a mistaken belief that the property that they had encroached upon was theirs and roughly matched the back property line of their neighbor. This mistaken belief led them to do certain clearing and cutting of trees and underbrush and to use the property for their own benefit. CUDA sued for trespass, removal of timber in violation of statute and unjust enrichment.
Held: The Court found that the Mannings commited a trespass upon a portion of CUDA’s property for their own use and benefit, but any loss of use for CUDA was not measurable. The trespass was negligent and not intentional and, therefore, only minimal damages were awarded. As for the cutting of trees, timber or shrubbery in violation of Connecticut General Statute §52-560, while the Mannings did cut trees, CUDA failed to establish the quantity or the value of any of the trees that had been removed. In fact, the Court said, the cutting may have actually improved the overall site appearance for CUDA’s benefit. Nothing more than reasonable and ascertainable value under the statute can be awarded.
As for unjust enrichment, the Court held that the non-permanent intrusion by the Mannings was unintentional. What’s more, any benefit derived by them from the CUDA land was coincidental to the use of their own backyard property, and was of a de minimis nature. The Court said that equities in this claim clearly rested with the Mannings, and had to be balanced with the nominal losses that the CUDA suffered. The Court awarded CUDA $400 for the common-law trespass, $600 for the timber statute violation, and $500 for unjust enrichment.