Case of the Day – Wednesday, October 23, 2019

TRESPASS

Remember that kid when you were small, the neighborhood schemer who would convince everyone else to do something fun (which quickly became something stupid)? In our small Ohio town, the local instigator-in-chief was a jug-eared kid named Rick.

Rick’d talk us into going into the Smiths’ strawberry patch and make off with a quart or more of the biggest, reddest, juiciest berries… At least, until grumpy old Mr. Smith would catch us. Like he always did.

Everyone knows that trespass is an intentional invasion of a property owner’s interest in the exclusive possession of property. Pretty simple, huh? We were all trespassers, but back then, the penalty was meted out by our parents after they got an earful from Mr. Smith.

Rick? He was no trespasser. He never stepped foot in the strawberries, although he had every intention of sharing in the berry spoils we brought back. We were liable. He was not.

Does that seem right? It did not seem so to us at the time. It did not seem that way to the Washington Supreme Court, either.

Porter v. Kirkendoll, 2019 Wash. LEXIS 588, 2019 WL 4683940 (Supreme Ct. Wash. Sept. 26, 2019). Pepper and Clarice Kirkendoll hired loggers to harvest their trees. They owned a parcel of timberland abutting the western edge of a 60-foot-wide easement. The easement was located on land owned by Jerry Porter and Karen Zimmer.

A private access road known as Madison Drive ran within the easement. A strip of land west of the access road but east of the Kirkendolls’ land belonged Jerry and Karen. Nevertheless, when Pepper hired G & J Logging Inc. to harvest timber, told the loggers that he and Clarice owned all the land west of Madison Drive. G & J Logging and Boone’s Mechanical Cutting, Inc., harvested 51 Douglas firs located on Jerry’s and Karen’s land.

Jerry and Sharon sued the Kirkendolls and the loggers for waste under RCW § 4.24.630 and for timber trespass under RCW § 64.12.030. The loggers settled with Jerry and Karen, paying $125,000 and assigning their indemnity and contribution claims against the Kirkendolls as part of that settlement. The settlement was pretty slick. Jerry and Karen figured they would score another one-third of $125,000 by taking the loggers’ right to get contribution from the Kirkendolls ($41,666.67).

The Kirkendolls replied with their own slickness. They argued that the settlement with the loggers effectively released them from liability under principles of vicarious liability. The trial court agreed with the Kirkendolls, dismissing the case.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the settlement did not release the Kirkendolls from potential liability for directing the timber trespass. And it held that Jerry and Karen were precluded from recovering under the waste statute because relief is available under the timber trespass statute.

The Kirkendolls appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, renewing their argument that the settlement agreement released them from liability under principles of vicarious liability. They also argued that they are not liable for indemnity as a matter of law. In their answer, Jerry and Karen sought review of whether the timber trespass statute precludes them from recovering under the waste statute.

Held: The settlement did not release the Kirkendolls from liability, but Jerry and Karen are precluded from recovering under the waste statute.

In contrast to direct liability, which is liability for breach of one’s own duty of care, vicarious liability is liability for the breach of someone else’s duty of care. A principal – like the Kirkendolls – may be vicariously liable as a matter of public policy to ensure that the plaintiffs have the maximum opportunity to be fully compensated. That public policy does not apply when a plaintiff has accepted a release from the primarily liable party who committed the tort and who was financially capable of making the plaintiffs whole. When a plaintiff settles with a solvent agent from whom he or she could have received full compensation, the very foundation of the principal’s liability is undermined. In at least some situations, then, a plaintiff releases a vicariously liable principal by settling with a solvent agent.

But, the Court said, that was not the case here. Pepper Kirkendoll misrepresented his boundaries, and thus directed G & J Logging and Boone’s to commit a timber trespass. Therefore, it did not matter that the loggers separately settled with Jerry and Karen for their trespass. Pepper and Clarice were independently liable for their “culpable misfeasance” in directing the loggers to cut the wrong trees.

Under RCW § 4.24.630, the waste statute, more expansive remedies are available to a party. In addition to treble damages, the injured party may recover reasonable costs, including but not limited to investigative costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees and other litigation-related costs. However, the waste statute explicitly states that it does not apply in any case where liability for damages is provided under § 64.12.030, the timber trespass statute.

– Tom Root

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