SIR, YOU ARE NO GEORGE WASHINGTON
Today, we conclude our consideration of the trespass problems faced by our New Hampshire landowners Larry and Laura Littoral. If you have followed along to this point, you know that the Littorals’ pastoral cottage getaway, situated on a classic New England pond, has been disrupted by neighbor Wally Angler.
Wally – who is really a NINO (neighbor-in-name-only) – is an angler, and asked the Littorals to chop down some dead trees on their property to create a trout habitat in the pond for the primary (and sole) purpose of adding to Wally’s piscatorial pleasure. You can hear him now: “Thanks for all the fish!”
The Littorals preferred that their dead timber remain standing. When Wally asked them to cut down the trees, they said, “so long,” refusing to dump their tree into the pond. Apparently reasoning that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission – especially where permission has already been denied – Wally then took advantage of the Littorals’ weekend absence by bringing in a tree service to cut the trees down for him. According to the Littorals, Wally affirmatively misled the tree cutters that the dead trees were on his property, and the tree service cut down the timber with alacrity.
For the record, Wally denies having anything to do with the felling of the dead trees. He seemingly maintains that he turned around one day, and mirabile dictu, the trees were on the ground. If George Washington had tried a similar woof story on his father about a downed cherry tree, we’d probably all be speaking English and enduring lousy health care right now. As every schoolchild knows, however, Little George ‘fessed up, telling his father, “I cannot tell a lie.” Channeling Lloyd Bentsen, our observation is this: Wally, we served with George Washington, George Washington was a friend of ours. Wally, you’re no George Washington.
Our analysis this week has assumed that unless Wally can produce the elves responsible for the tree cutting (and their saws), the Littorals will easily meet their burden of proof.
So far this week, we have concluded that the Littorals may bring a double-barreled complaint, alleging a statutory violation of New Hampshire’s trespass-to-tree statute, R.S.A. § 227-J:8, and a common-law trespass count. The § 227-J:8 count carries some pretty serious penalties, from three to 10 times the market value of the trees. The catch is that the penalties must be based on a multiple of market value. Market value may be the stumpage value of the wood – what it is worth on location to a lumber buyer – or on the cost to replace the tree, minus transportation and planting costs.
We’re assuming for the sake of this column that a few dead trees probably are not going to have much stumpage value. The Littorals could find an expert to establish how much replacement of the trees would cost, but replacement value has traditionally been used because everyone assumes that the destroyed trees would have continued to flourish but for the actions of the defendant. Here, the defendant’s expert would have a good argument that those trees were going to fall in the near future anyway, and awarding the Littorals new live trees to replace their old dead ones would represent as windfall to the plaintiffs.
Given Wally’s underhanded approach to getting what he wanted (and what the Littorals did not want), we don’t have much trouble with the Littorals receiving a “windfall.” The law in New Hampshire and elsewhere does, however, holding that damages should be limited to compensating for the actual injuries suffered. For that reason, the Littorals can take the confluent approach that under the common law of trespass, their real property has suffered a decrease in value because of Wally’s conduct, both because of where the dead trees are no longer standing and because of where they are currently laying.
Even then, the Littorals might have a problem because the usual assumption underlying damages for loss of trees is that standing timber will continue to stand for the indeterminate future. That assumption may be challenged where the standing timber is already dead. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that dead trees standing have value. As we noted the other day, dead trees provide shelter or sustenance to over 40 percent of all birds, to amphibians, and to lichens and moss. Dead trees create “snow fences” that slows wind-driven snow. The snow that is trapped melts in place and saturates the ground, providing additional moisture to live trees. Dead trees create hiding cover and thermal cover for big game as well.
Even more counter-intuitive, dead trees – after dropping their needles and bark – may reduce fire hazard. Their flammability is greatly reduced compared to green trees containing flammable resins.
In the case we’re looking at below, the plaintiff relied on standing dead timber to help maintain privacy from his neighbor. The court appeared to recognize that the elimination of the standing dead trees contributed to a substantial diminution of her property value, even while acknowledging that the trees themselves had no value. It’s not a New Hampshire case, but then there is a dearth of cases nationwide where the wrongfully cut trees were ornamental in nature and yet very dead even before tasting the ax. We were glad enough to find this one. The decision suggests that an action alleging loss of privacy may be the strongest case of all.
Caciopoli v. Lebowitz, 131 Conn.App. 306 (Court of Appeals, Connecticut, 2011). Dominic Caciopoli was a man who liked his privacy. He bought his place because it was isolated and private, surrounded by forest on all sides except for one area of the lot though which his driveway passed. A short while later, Jeffrey Lebowitz bought the place next door. His house was about 100 yards from Dom’s, and the area between the residences was wooded, affording each privacy from the other.
A few months after moving in, Jeff hired a tree service to clear standing dead trees from the wooded area between the two homes. Jeff believed the dead, but he didn’t check that carefully. The tree service removed all the dead timber, both standing and on the ground, some small saplings, and a few larger trees to provide more sunlight and enlarge the areas surrounding his house. Of course, it turns out that virtually all of what was cut belonged to Dom.
When Dom came home to find that his natural privacy barrier had been clear-cut, he was not happy. He went to Jeff’s front door and expressed his displeasure, pointing out the actual property line in the process. Nevertheless, the next day, the tree service returned and finished the job. The removal of the trees and brush left Jeff with an unobstructed view of Dom’s house.
Jeff tried to make amends. He sent Dom a letter admitting his error and planted some trees on Dom’s property to replace what had been taken. Dom was not happy with the results, and undertook his own extensive landscaping project in a failed attempt to restore his lost privacy.
Dom sued Jeff for common-law trespass and for treble damages pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes § 52-560 (the Connecticut adjunct to R.S.A. § 227-J:8). The trial court found that Dom had proven the elements of an intentional trespass action, and awarded him $150,000. for the diminution in the value of his property caused by the trespass. Notably, the trial court declined to award any damages for the value of timber removed.
Jeffrey Lebowitz appealed, alleging a lot of infirmities with the trial judgment. Of interest to the Littorals is Jeff’s appeal of the damage award.
Held: The trial court’s award of $150,000 was proper. The trial court found that after the cutting Dom’s place was worth $675,000, according to an appraisal performed by a certified general real estate appraiser. The appraiser opined that prior to the cutting, Dom’s market value was $825,000. The Court of Appeals noted that Jeff could have presented his own expert testimony on the diminution of value, but he did not. Applying the ancient legal doctrine, et dormiat, ne perdatis (“you snooze, you lose”), the court said Dom’s expert was found to be credible and competent, and absent Jeff making an expert showing at all, that was good enough.
But, Jeff complained, Dom’s expert was not qualified to give an opinion as to the effect of the removal of certain trees from Dom’s property on its market value. He argued the expert had no relevant experience, and was considered an expert only because she had a real estate appraiser’s license. However, the Court of Appeals said, the trial court relied on the fact she had conducted 1,500 appraisals before, and when the trial judge asked her whether she was able to testify as to the value of the property before and after the removal of the trees, she said she could. (This is rather like finding that she was an expert because she asserted she was, a rather bizarre ipse dixit, but the Court of Appeals was loathe to disturb a verdict, and thus to give Jeff a second bite of the apple on remand).
Jeff also argued that the court made no finding whether there was an adequate factual foundation for a “retrospective appraisal” – an appraisal after the fact of the value of the property before the cutting – and that Dom did not ask the court to find there was an adequate foundation for allowing the opinion evidence. The Court of Appeals pointed out that it was Jeff’s burden to object to the testimony on those grounds at the time of trial. Again, et dormiat, ne perdatis. The expert testified she visited the property in January and February 2009, and had determined the lot enjoyed a high degree of privacy prior to the incident. She also studied photographs of the lot prior to the trespass and after the trespass, and noted that the pictures depicted more clearing of trees than she had imagined and thus, strengthened her opinion as to diminution in value.
The Court observed that Jeff pointed to no authority to suggest that the expert’s personal observation of the property, her reliance on the plaintiff’s descriptions of the prior conditions of the property and photographs of the property in its prior conditions formed an inadequate factual foundation. The Court said the expert’s personal observation of the property “complemented by the plaintiff’s descriptions of the property in its prior conditions, is not impermissibly speculative…” After all, the Court said, Dom – as the owner – was undoubtedly familiar with his property (if perhaps lacking disinterest in the outcome), and no one was more competent than he to describe to the expert what it had looked like before the cutting.
The Court held the fact that the expert “could not give a logical explanation for how she arrived at her opinion and did not articulate or apply methodology suitable to determining any diminution in value caused by the clearing of trees” was not fatal to her testimony. She testified that she examined real estate in the area, found comparable properties, estimated degrees of privacy and made adjustments, positive or negative, for the differences in the properties in order to “equal everything out.” She also noted that an appraisal is not based on science, but it is just an opinion as to value, and the Court accepted that.
Jeff had to pay the $150,000. That’s a lot of money for some dead trees that had no stumpage value.