DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE
Courts of appeal sit mostly to determine how the law should apply to facts. Usually, when a trial court decides a legal question, a court of appeal will give a fresh look to the issue, called “de novo” review. You Latin scholars will recall that this literally means “of new.” Think “fresh look.”
Not so with facts. Whether the trial court got the facts right is something that seldom worries an appellate court. Usually, the appellate court won’t alter a grail court’s factual finding unless it’s clearly wrong. This is known generally as the “clearly erroneous” standard.
The different states and Federal government apply slightly different standards of review to different types of cases, and generalizing may be useful for our purposes, but not for real life. Still, as a rule, appellate courts treat trial courts’ findings of fact with great deference. Today’s case is one of those decisions that make you wonder why they should.
The Tinnes had owned a lakefront resort for years and used a private road, Corewood Lane, for their guests to have access to the beachfront property. When they retired, the couple sold all of the place except for a small piece on the north side, where they built a retirement home.
Their golden-age digs had a driveway that attached to Corewood Lane. The new resort owners, the Brands, promptly began obstructing Corewood Lane, even tearing out big chunks of the asphalt. Finally being roused from their retired reverie by the Brands’ unfriendly conduct — which even included the Brands trimming trees on the Tinnes’ property — the retired couple sued for a judgment that Corewood Lane had become a public road by implied dedication. They asked for an injunction against future obstruction, and treble damages for the cut tree limbs.
The trial court obliged on a record that was pretty thin. It ordered that Corewood was public, told the Branches to repave it, pay $10,000 to the Tinnes for having obstructed it, and $250 (which it trebled to $750) for having trimming the Tinnes’ trees without permission.
The Court of Appeals reversed it all.
It turned out that Mrs. Tinnes had herself testified that she and her husband had never intended Corewood to be a public street. The landowner’s intent is the most crucial element in an implied dedication of a private road as a public one. What’s more, no one bothered to introduce any evidence of the amount of damage that had been caused by the trespass and pruning of the Tinnes’ trees, and at any rate, Missouri’s treble damage statute related to cutting down trees, not just pruning them. To be sure, damages are presumed when a trespass is proven, but the damages that are awarded are nominal – think “symbolic and puny” – unless actual harm is shown.
And how much was nominal in this case? The Court of Appeals cut the damage award to one dollar. About enough for one-fifth of a Starbucks Double Chocolaty Chip Crème Frappuccino® Blended Crème.
One is left to wonder what evidence the trial court was weighing when it throttled the Brands to begin with. It would appear that the trial judge decided the case with his heart, not his head.
Tinnes v. Brand, 248 S.W.3d 113 (Mo.App. S.D. 2008). Corewood Lane runs through property once owned by the Tinnes but now owned by the Brands. When they owned the land, Mr. and Mrs. Tinnes ran a lakefront resort on the property. Corewood Lane was the access road through their property to the resort site and lakefront. When the Tinneses sold the resort in 1996, they retained four acres on the property’s north side, where they built a home and a driveway leading to Corewood Lane.
As soon as they bought the resort, the Brands started obstructing Corewood Lane with tree limbs, boats, and open ditches. They also removed asphalt pieces (which they claimed were broken) from the paved road, after which parts of the road eroded and washed away. They even trimmed some tree limbs on the Tinnes property.
The Tinneses sued for a declaratory judgment that Corewood Lane was “a road easement for Plaintiffs, and the public,” or alternatively that plaintiffs had the right to use it as an easement appurtenant to their residential property. They also sought an injunction requiring the Brands to repair the road, and not damage or obstruct it in the future, plus actual and punitive damages. The trial court found that the entire length of Corewood Lane was dedicated to the public for use as a roadway; ordered the Brands to repair and repave the road at their own expense; enjoined them from interfering with the use of the road by plaintiffs or the public; awarded $100 actual damages against the Brands for obstructing and damaging the road; and awarded trespass damages of $250, “trebled according to law” to $750, for the Brands’ cutting of trees and limbs on the Tinnes’ property.
The Brands appealed.
Held: The decision was reversed because the evidence didn’t support a finding that Corewood Lane had been dedicated to public use.
To show implied or common-law dedication of a roadway, a plaintiff must prove (1) the landowner’s unequivocal intent to dedicate the land to public use; (2) public acceptance; and (3) public use. Intent must be unequivocally manifested, expressly or by plain implication. Here, plaintiff Deanna Tinnes herself denied on the stand that they had ever intended to dedicate the lane to public use. The Court held that the record did not “convincingly demonstrate” that any landowner meant to create public rights in Corewood Lane adverse to the owner’s own rights.
As for the $250.00 trespass award, “trebled according to law” to $750.00, the Court of Appeals held that that the Brands had only cut tree limbs, not any whole trees, and neither party presented evidence as to damages. However, the Brands admitted the trespass, and the Tinnes were entitled to nominal damages, even if they proved no actual damage. Because the trial court awarded $100.00 for the Corewood Lane access damages, the Court of Appeals said that the $250.00 damages for the trespass could hardly be called nominal.
The Court ordered damages for the tree trimming to be reduced to $1.00.
– Tom Root