Case of the Day – Tuesday, December 4, 2018

BEHIND THE BAMBOO CURTAIN

I admit to being old enough to remember the Bamboo Curtain, the Cold War political demarcation between the Communist states of East Asia – particularly the People’s Republic of China – and the capitalist and non-Communist states of East, South and Southeast Asia.

As the passing of President George H.W. Bush – the man on whose watch many of those kinds of “curtains” fell – has reminded us, the Iron Curtain, Cactus Curtain, Bamboo Curtain and others of that ilk are now relics of unpleasant history.

But “bamboo curtains,” and literal ones at that, are still with us. Every so often, I am reminded of that when I come across a case involving a stand of bamboo, encroachment that usually started when some well-meaning homeowner (who maybe anticipates an attack of hungry pandas) plants a little stand of bamboo in his back yard.

The problem is that the owner has a “little stand of bamboo” only for a minute or so. The stuff is pernicious and fecund. Bamboo, which is a giant grass and not a tree, has fairly been called one of the world’s most invasive plants. Once established, it is next to impossible to control. The sprouts that shoot up from the ground each spring can grow 12 inches a day. The underground roots of common running “fishpole” bamboo, which can easily reach 15 feet tall, can travel as far as 20 feet or more from the original clump. The experts suggest you control it by digging a two-foot deep trench and lining it with aluminum. Or lead. Or titanium. Or concrete. But whatever you use, leave a portion of it sticking up above ground, because bamboo roots can jump barriers like Superman leaps buildings.

Bamboo: the Asian carp of grasses. As one homeowner site puts it: When you need a concrete bunker to contain a plant, you know you’re in trouble.

Bamboo is not a very good idea. Unless, of course, you’re like Mike and Roberta Komaromi, who simply did not give a rip that their bamboo stand was galloping across neighbor Caryn Rickel’s lot. Usually, we complain about people foolish enough to represent themselves, but here, we grudgingly admit that pro se litigant Caryn was holding her own.

The Komaromis were smug, arguing that they had no duty to corral the bamboo. Well, as is usually the case when hard facts collide with justice, courts find a way to recompense the victim. So it did here, ruling (and right on the Bay State’s south border, too) that the Massachusetts Rule cut no ice in Connecticut.

Rickel v. Komaromi, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 5254 (Superior Ct. Conn., July 13, 2011): Caryn Rickel, bringing her case without a lawyer, complained that her neighbors Mike and Roberta Komaromi planted bamboo in their yard without any plan for containment. As a result, her back yard has been overrun by invasive bamboo.

Mike and Bobbi, who did hire a lawyer, filed a motion to strike the complaint as legally insufficient. That is to say, they claimed that if everything Caryn said in the complaint were true, she still was entitled to no relief.

Here Mike and Bobbi complained that Caryn has not alleged that they had any legal duty to her.

Held: Connecticut would follow the Hawaii Rule, and under that Rule, Caryn had adequately claimed her neighbors had a duty to her which they violated with the bamboo. “The essential elements of a cause of action in negligence are well established,” the Court said, “duty; breach of that duty; causation; and actual injury.” There can be no negligence without there first being a cognizable duty of care.

The test for the existence of a legal duty of care, the Court said, entails (1) a determination of whether an ordinary person in the defendant’s position, knowing what the defendant knew or should have known, would anticipate that harm of the general nature of that suffered was likely to result, and (2) a determination, on the basis of a public policy analysis, of whether the defendant’s responsibility for its negligent conduct should extend to the particular consequences or particular plaintiff in the case.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.

So how did Caryn do? First, she alleged the Komaromis planted bamboo without any plan for containment and watched while the non-native plant fully invaded Caryn’s back yard. She also alleged the Komaromis failed to take action to alleviate the situation even though the bamboo growth was readily visible. This, the Court ruled, sufficiently alleged that the damage to Caryn’s property was reasonably foreseeable to the Komaromis.

Second, the Court held, the Komaromis’ responsibility for their negligent conduct should extend to the Caryn on public policy grounds. The Court looked at (1) the normal expectations of the participants in the activity under review; (2) the public policy of encouraging participation in the activity, while weighing the safety of the participants; (3) the avoidance of increased litigation; and (4) the decisions of other jurisdictions. Consideration of these four factors, the Court said, “supports the conclusion that the court should impose a duty on a property owner to refrain from planting bamboo without a containment plan in order to avoid harming an adjacent property.”

First, property owners are normally expected to refrain from engaging in conduct that would cause damage to an adjacent property. Although landowners may reasonably expect some level of discomfort from having adjacent property owners, it does not mean that property owners should reasonably expect bamboo belonging to an adjacent landowner to fully invade their property.

For the second factor, as a matter of public policy, it is desirable to promote property ownership, and the ability to live free of concern of encroaching vegetation from adjacent properties directly impacts this goal. Allowing a landowner to cultivate his or her land “should be fairly balanced against the rights of adjacent landowners, and imposing a duty on the cultivating landowner whose vegetation harmfully invades another’s property would be in accord with public policy.”

Turning to the third factor, it is true that imposing a duty like this one could encourage other property owners suffering from the same problem to bring similar actions. On the other hand, however, establishing such an affirmative duty may deter potential defendants from engaging in this type of activity.

Finally, the Court rejected the Massachusetts Rule. That rule provides that a defendant has no duty to prevent his trees from causing damage to his or her neighbor’s property and that “a landowner’s right to protect his property from the encroaching boughs and roots of a neighbor’s tree is limited to self-help, i.e., cutting off the branches and roots at the point they invade his property.” The Hawaii Rule, by contrast, grants the landowner a remedy for damages caused by the encroaching vegetation of an adjacent property owner.

The Court adopted the Hawaii Rule, it said, for two main reasons. First, the Rule serves as a gatekeeping mechanism in that it imposes a requirement of actual harm to the property, discouraging trivial suits while simultaneously providing a cause of action for deserving plaintiffs. The Massachusetts Rule, by comparison, “deprives deserving plaintiffs of any meaningful redress when their property is damaged.” Second, the Massachusetts Rule is not “realistic and fair… Because the owner of the tree’s trunk is the owner of the tree,” the Court opined, “we think he bears some responsibility for the rest of the tree. It has long been the rule in Hawaii that if the owner knows or should know that his tree constitutes a danger, he is liable if it causes personal injury or property damage on or off of his property… Such being the case, we think he is duty bound to take action to remove the danger before damage or further damage occurs.”

In addition, the Court said, Caryn had linked the breach of the Komaromis’ duty, the damages she suffered and the causation between the breach and the damages suffered. She alleged that the Komaromis planted the bamboo and that their subsequent inaction as to the bamboo growth “directly caused the harmful condition and continual damage” to her property. Accordingly, the Court said, Caryn has successfully set forth a cause of action in negligence.

So does Caryn win an injunction to get the bamboo eradicated? Stay tuned tomorrow…

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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