THERE ARE LEGAL COSTS, AND THEN THERE ARE LEGAL COSTS
You might be cynical, and see today’s case as nothing more than a lawyer worried about collecting a large and unwarranted fee. But the case is much more than that.
The facts are rather prosaic. Some landowners failed to carefully mark the common boundary with their neighbor before setting a timber company loose on the property. Sure enough, the cutters harvested some of the neighbor’s trees. That much wasn’t an issue.
When Valarie Garvey sued the Chaceys for timber tress, property damage and a collection of related causes of action, the Chaceys hired some aggressive litigators. Their lawyers knew that the best trial defense often is a good pretrial offense. They fought tooth-and-nail before trial, gaining their best tactical high ground when Valerie’s lawyer inexplicably didn’t identify the plaintiff’s timber expert by the pretrial deadlines.
The expert was crucial, because he was going to testify as to the value of the timber that had been wrongfully cut. But once the expert established the value of the missing trees, Section 55-332 of the Virginia Code would let Valerie Garvey collect three times the value of the wrongly-cut timber, plus reforestation costs, plus other damages to the property (such as the private road the timber harvesters ripped up) plus “legal costs directly related to the trespass.” In short, it looked like a big payday for Valerie Garvey. She just had to do one thing. She had to prove the value of the stolen timber.
Alas, she screwed it up. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say her lawyer screwed it up. Without the expert, Valerie had no way to get the value of the timber into evidence. When the jury decided the case, it was able to award her the princely sum of $15,135.00 (only a fraction of the reforestation costs she estimated to be $ 78,000.)
Valerie’s lawyer, trying to save a case that was going south pretty fast, successfully convinced the trial court that the “directly associated legal costs incurred by the owner of the timber as a result of the trespass” included attorneys’ fees. Valerie claimed she had spent over $135,000 in legal fees, and the trial court awarded even more than that – $165,000 – in fees.
I doubt that Valerie’s lawyer was going to get all of that pile of cash. In fact, Val had every right to be as mad as a wet hen over counsel’s missing the expert witness deadline. I suspect that the lawyer and client had made a deal to salvage something out of the case, and counsel would had ended up with little more than cabfare (but no malpractice claims). Unfortunately, we’ll never know, because on appeal, the Chaceys convinced the Virginia Supreme Court that whatever “directly associated legal costs” might be, they are not “attorneys fees.” The Supreme Court was impressed that wherever the legislature intended to authorize the award of attorneys fees – in over 200 statutes in the Code – it was able to clearly say so.
The Chaceys – not satisfied with hitting a triple – swung for the fence. They asked the Supreme Court to rule that where a plaintiff claiming timber trespass did not prove the value of the missing timber, the case should be thrown out. The Supreme Court disagreed. Proving a timber trespass does not require that one prove the value of the purloined pines. Of course, not doing so cuts the plaintiff out of a lot of damages, but the offense does not depend on proven damages. It just requires that a trespass to timber occur, whether the tree is worth anything or not.
As for Valerie’s attorney, I suspect he marched straight from the courtroom to his malpractice carrier’s office.
Chacey v. Garvey, 295 Va. 1, 781 S.E.2d 357 (Supreme Court of Virginia, 2015). In 1995, Valerie Garvey bought 50 acres of land from Allan and Susan Chacey. The Chaceys retained ownership of adjacent property, and they reserved to themselves an easement over Garvey’s property as a means for ingress and egress to their property.
At the end of 2012, Garvey sued the Chaceys and Blue Ridge Forestry Consultants, Inc., alleging timber theft and trespass. Garvey said the Chaceys had hired a logging company a few years previously to remove some timber located on their property, and that the company had trespassed on her property and removed timber without her permission. She alleged that she was entitled to damages for timber theft at three times the value of the timber on the stump, as well as reforestation costs not to exceed $450 an acre, the costs of ascertaining the value of the timber, and her attorney’s fees. She also asked for $30,000 for damages to her property caused by the trespass, including damage to the road, fencing, and the stone bridge.
Prior to trial, Garvey attempted to designate an expert witness for the purpose of establishing the monetary value of the timber on the stump at issue in the complaint. However, she did so too late, and trial court refused to let her expert testify during the three-day jury trial.
While she was testifying at trial, Garvey was asked by her attorney whether she had incurred legal costs in connection with the trespass. The Chaceys objected, but the trial court ruled that legal costs included attorney’s fees. Garvey told the jury that she had incurred more than $135,000 in legal costs, including attorney’s fees, which she claimed were all directly associated with the trespass. She also testified that she had negotiated with Bartlett Tree Services for the restoration of the trees, and she had paid a deposit of $440 towards that work, against a total price of $78,000.
The trial court ruled that Garvey could not recover treble damages since her expert evidence regarding the value of the timber on the stump had been excluded. However, the case could still go to the jury for consideration of damages for reforestation and legal costs.
The Chaceys argued that attorneys’ fees are not recoverable by a prevailing party in an action for timber theft pursuant to the Virginia Code § 55-331. They also contended that Garvey’s timber trespass claim should not have been submitted to the jury, because she had failed to provide any evidence related to the value of the alleged damaged timber. However, the jury found for Garvey on her claims of timber theft, trespass, and property damage. On the timber theft claim, the jury awarded Garvey $135.00 in reforestation costs. The jury also awarded her legal costs. On the trespass count, the jury awarded Garvey $15,000 in damages. The trial court held that Garvey was entitled to $165,135 in “directly associated legal costs incurred by Plaintiff as a result of the trespass, including attorney’s fees, in the amount of $150,000 …”
The Chaceys appealed.
Held: The Virginia Supreme Court split the ticket. It observed that although Virginia Code § 55-331 permits any victim of timber trespass to collect “directly associated legal costs incurred by the owner of the timber as a result of the trespass,” whether Garvey was entitled to attorney’s fees depends upon the meaning of “costs.” Garvey argued that her attorney’s fees are legal costs directly associated with the trespass. The Chaceys argued that Garvey is merely entitled to the costs necessary for the prosecution of her suit.
Tracing the definition of “costs” in other proceedings, the Court held that “the term ‘costs’ is limited to the costs necessary for the prosecution of a suit, and does not include attorney’s fees. The Code of Virginia contains more than 200 instances where the General Assembly has determined a successful litigant is entitled to ‘attorney’s fees and costs’ or ‘costs and attorney’s fees’ … However, the General Assembly did not include the right to recover attorney’s fees in this statute, something it has done in more than 200 other separate instances.”
The Court disagreed with the Chaceys, however, about the timber trespass claim. The Chaceys, no doubt wanting to capitalize on their pretrial success in keeping Garvey’s expert off the stand, argued that the trial court erred in permitting Garvey’s timber trespass claim to proceed to the jury because Garvey failed to provide any evidence related to the value of the alleged damaged timber. Essentially, the Chaceys were contending that evidence related to the value of the damaged timber is a prerequisite to awarding any of the additional damages provided for under Code § 55-332(B).
Virginia Code § 55-332(B) holds that any person who removes timber from the land of another without permission is liable to the rightful owner for “three times the value of the timber on the stump and shall pay to the rightful owner of the property the reforestation costs incurred not to exceed $450 per acre, the costs of ascertaining the value of the timber, and any directly associated legal costs incurred by the owner of the timber as a result of the trespass.” The Court held that there was nothing in the statute that stated that an owner is only entitled to reforestation costs, legal costs, or the costs of ascertaining the value of the timber after he or she had first established the value of the timber that was improperly taken. Instead, the Court said, the statute made clear that the person who removed the timber “shall be liable to pay” all of these damages to the owner. The fact that Garvey was unable to prove the value of the timber on the stump in this case did not preclude her from being able to recover the other damages she was entitled to under Code § 55-332(B).
– Tom Root