YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOSE
This past weekend was a rainy, cold and dreary one, one that called for a warm hearth, a soft chair, a delightful beverage (you can imagine coffee, if you like) and a the first Big 10 football Saturday of the COVID season. Even with all of this, I kept nodding off to sleep.
I used to have the same problem, many decades ago, in Property Law, a required course for first-year law students. All of those terms I had happily lived 22 years without knowing: fee simple absolute, livery of seizen, life estates, enfeeoffment, trespass quare clausum fregit… Contract law made great sense, civil procedure had a certain elegance, but property…
More often than they should have, my eyes glazed over, my head slumped, and I slumbered while Professor Prosser droned. Ah, how education is wasted on the young.
Speaking of slumber, the defendant in today’s blast from the past did just that. Like your author, he paid too little attention to byzantine concepts like life estates. When the owner of a life estate gave him permission to harvest timber on her land, Hempy slept on his rights. The owner of the life estate died, whereupon Hempy awoke from his slumber, and figured maybe he had better get those trees cut.
Too little, too late. A life estate lasts only as long as the person holding the life estate does. While the holder lives, the life estate can create real mischief, but once the life expires, so does the estate. And so do any rights the estate holder may have granted.
But the reason the timber cutting was a trespass is not terribly relevant to today’s case. Instead, it is only the setup for the real issue, which is how to value the damages.
Koonz v. Hempy, 120 N.W. 976 (Supreme Court, Iowa, 1909). Koonz sued Hempy for cutting timber on property in which he had recently obtained an interest in following the death of his mother. Apparently, Koonz’s mother, who had held a life estate in the property granted by her deceased husband, had contracted with Hempy to remove timber on the property. However, Hempy did not harvest the timber until after the mother had died. The trial court ruled that mom’s demise meant that Hempy had lost his right to cut the timber, because the life estate was extinguished with her passing, and Koonz was now in possession. The court awarded damages to Koonz, and both parties appealed.
Held: Hempy was liable to pay the value of the harvested timber to Koonz. Although Hempy argued that if he was liable at all, it was only for the reduction in the value of the property after he removed the timber. The Court disagreed, ruling that “where the thing destroyed or removed from real property, although it is part of the realty, has a value which can be accurately measured … without reference to the soil on which it stands, the recovery may be of the value of thing thus destroyed or removed, and not for the difference in the value of the land.”
Applying this rule, the Court held that the trial court had properly measured damages in terms of the value of the timber alone. Throwing a bone to Hempy, the Court ruled that the trial court properly denied treble damages, because Hempy’s actions failed to demonstrate the requisite willfulness to warrant such an award.
– Tom Root