A RATHER SURPRISING HOLDING FROM A DELAWARE TRIAL COURT
In this tree law gig, I read a lot of cases. After awhile, reading between the lines gets a lot easier.
Today’s case, I decided when I was most of the way through it, was nothing special, just some neighbors who were over-the-top haters of the defendant. The defendant seems like a guy whose crime was that he apparently had the effrontery to move in next door, and then fixed up the place.
The trial court’s long opinion had flushed away most of the plaintiffs’ breathless and frantic complaint – and “flushed” is the correct verb for most of the claims the tin-foil-hatted neighbors made against the defendant– when I got to their claim that defendant Bill Collison had “damaged a maple tree near the property line by shaving the trees directly up from the property line.”
“Holy Massachusetts Rule!” I muttered to myself. Everyone knows that this claim should be summarily tossed, because the Massachusetts Rule is as universally accepted as is turkey at Thanksgiving. Assuming Bill did “shave” the tree at the property line, that’s perfectly within his rights.
Much to my shock, the Court disagreed. It held that the right of “self-help” trimming of encroaching branches is not established in Delaware, and if this court was going to do it, it would not do it on summary judgment. It became obvious to me that whatever else Judge Calvin Scott, Jr., of Newark, Delaware, reads with his morning coffee, it sure isn’t this blog.
It did not take long to find reason to question the Judge’s refusal to grant summary judgment on this issue. In the 1978 Delaware Chancery Court decision Etter v. Marone, the court ruled
At the same time, certain generally accepted principles obtain with regard to encroaching trees or hedges. Regardless of whether encroaching branches or roots constitute a nuisance, a landowner has an absolute right to remove them so long as he does not exceed or go beyond his boundary line in the process. 2 C.J.S. 51, Adjoining Landowners § 52; 1 Am.Jur.2d 775, Adjoining Landowners § 127. He may not go beyond the line and cut or destroy the whole or parts of the plant entirely on another’s land even though the growth may cause him personal inconvenience or discomfort. 2 C.J.S. 51, supra.
So the Judge seems to be wrong: Delaware is firmly in the Massachusetts Rule camp.
Pretty clearly, what with allegations of underground tanks and clogged drainpipes and extreme mental anguish contained in the messy and unsupported complaint, Judge Scott had his hands full. By and large, he acquitted himself masterfully in the opinion, carefully deconstructing the plaintiffs’ complaints. But I’m betting that in about nine weeks, the Judge will be sitting down to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. When he does, he should reflect that as many of us accept the Massachusetts Rule as will be dining on the same meal that day.
Dayton v. Collison, C.A. No. N17C-08-100 CLS (Super. Ct. Del. Sept. 24, 2019), 2019 Del. Super. LEXIS 446. Margaret Dayton and Everett Jones clearly had it out for their neighbor Bill Collison. They claimed that since 2014, Bill had removed a significant number of standing trees and about 5,000 square feet of naturally growing plants from the City of Newark’s natural buffer zone, removed a 30-year-old drainage pipe located on his property and filled the remaining pipe with rocks and debris, intentionally altered the natural grade of his property so as to interfere with the natural flow of water, and trimmed a maple tree located on Maggie and Ev’s property along the boundary line. Additionally, they claim that an underground storage tank Bill installed – apparently your garden-variety propane tank – violates Newark’s municipal ordinances.
Maggie and Ev allege Bill’s property is a public nuisance, and that they have suffered “extreme mental anguish and damages of at least a $50,000 loss in the value of their home” because of flooding caused by Bill’s alteration of the grade’ invasion of privacy due to the removal of the buffer zone, being forced to live next to a hazardous condition because of the propane tank, and “damage or potential damage” (guess they’re not sure which) to the structural integrity of their property’s foundation.
They also claim Bill trespassed on their property multiple times to “alter the natural drainage flow of water, construct a berm, cut Plaintiffs’ trees, and take pictures or otherwise spy on Plaintiffs. From this, Plaintiffs claim they have suffered and continue to suffer damages and mental anguish in a sum to be determined at trial.”
Bill moved for summary judgment, claiming that Ev and Maggie cannot bring claims based on alleged violation of city ordinances, and showing that their claims were baseless.
Held: Summary judgment in Bill’s favor was granted on all claims except the tree-trimming claim.
The Court held that a public nuisance is one which affects the rights to which every citizen is entitles. The activity complained of must produce a tangible injury to neighboring property or persons and must be one which the court considers objectionable under the circumstances.
To have standing to sue on a public nuisance claim, an individual must be capable of recovering damages and (2) have standing to sue as a representative of the public “as in a citizen’s action or class action.” Here, Maggie and Ev have no right to bring a claim against Bill for alleged violations of the Code and thus, no standing to sue as a representative of the public. The Newark Code creates no rights enforceable by members of the public, and thus, it presents no basis upon which the requested relief may be granted.
To determine whether an implied private right of action exists, Delaware courts ask, among other things, whether there any indication of legislative intent to create or deny a private remedy for violation of the act. Under the Newark City Charter, the City possesses “all the powers granted to municipal corporations by the Constitution and laws of the Delaware, together with all the implied powers necessary to carry into execution all the powers granted..” The city manager is responsible for the administration of all city affairs authorized by or under the Charter and may appoint individuals to enforce select ordinances of the Code. The Court held that these reservations showed the City of Newark intended for it to be solely responsible for enforcing its ordinances, and did not intend to create a private right of action based upon ordinance violations.
Claims that Bill’s tree cutting was creating a public nuisance on the floodplain likewise claimed violation of City ordinances, and was a claim Ev and Maggie lacked any standing to bring. Likewise, their claim that Bill’s propane tank had been installed without a permit alleged violation of the City Code, and was a claim only the City could make.
Finally, Ev and Maggie claimed Bill created a public nuisance because he allegedly removed a drainage pipe from his property and filled the remaining pipe with rocks and debris. Outside of the fact that they were able to cite to no evidence that any drainpipe had ever existed on Bill’s property, only the City of Newark had jurisdiction and control over drainage.
But Ev and Maggie claimed that Bill created private nuisances, too. A private nuisance is a nontrespassory invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of their land. There are two types of private nuisance recognized in Delaware: nuisance per se and nuisance-in-fact. A claim for nuisance per se exists in three types of cases: 1) intentional, unreasonable interference with property rights of another; 2) interference resulting from an abnormally hazardous activity conducted on the person’s property; and 3) interference in violation of a statute intended to protect public safety. A claim for nuisance-in-fact exists when the defendant, although acting lawfully on his own property, permits acts or conditions that “become nuisances due to circumstances or location or manner of operation or performance.” Plaintiffs allege claims under both nuisance per se and nuisance-in-fact.
But saying it doesn’t make it so. The Court granted Bill’s motion for summary judgment on the private nuisance claims because Ev and Maggie did not provide sufficient evidence supporting their nuisance per se claim, did not submit expert reports to show necessary elements of their claims.
Ev and Maggie also argued that Bill’s destruction of certain trees on their property and his failure to respect known boundary lines also constitute a continuing nuisance. They alleged they suffered a diminution in the value of their home, in a minimum amount of $50,000, as a result of the “nuisance created and maintained by” Bill. Ev and Maggie estimated the value of their home and the loss they had suffered. They argue that as landowners, they may give an opinion as to the value of real estate. The Court disagreed: “Although Plaintiffs might know the fair market value of their property based on what they paid for it and based on a comparison of their property to other homes in the area, Plaintiffs do not know how each of Defendant’s alleged actions changed the value of their property. To establish how each of Defendant’s actions changed the value of Plaintiffs’ property, Plaintiffs would need to identify and submit an expert report from an expert witness; Plaintiffs have not done so.”
Ev and Maggie allege that that they have suffered “extreme mental anguish” as a result of Bill’s alleged nuisances. The Court ruled that Ev and Maggie “needed to show proof of the ‘extreme mental anguish’ they allegedly suffered through a medical expert. Without expert testimony, the Court is not able to find that Plaintiffs suffered this type of harm or that Defendant’s conduct caused such harm. Plaintiffs have neither identified an expert witness to testify to this matter nor submitted an expert report regarding this matter.”
Ev and Maggie’s only victory came on their claim that Bill damaged their maple tree. They alleged that he damaged a maple tree near the property line by shaving the trees directly up from the property line. Ev and Maggie have identified and submitted a report from an arborist, Russell Carlson, detailing the manner in which the maple tree was damaged by Bill’s alleged cutting back of the branches. The report shows the damage done to the maple tree and provides a value of the damages done to the tree.
Bill responded to their report, arguing that he has a right to engage in “self-help” to the property line. The Court held that “it remains unclear in Delaware whether a defendant has a right to engage in ‘self-help’ by cutting tree limbs that extend onto his property. The Court declines to make a determination on this issue in a motion for summary judgment. Therefore, Defendant has not shown, in the face of Mr. Carlson’s report, that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, summary judgment on this allegation is not proper.”
Ev and Maggie argued they are entitled to treble damages pursuant to 25 Del. C. § 1401, Timber Trespass. The Court may award treble damages for timber trespass when the plaintiff establishes that a trespasser “fells or causes to be cut down or felled a tree or trees growing upon the land of another”; 2) that plaintiff’s property was established and marked by permanent and visible markers or that the trespasser was on notice that the rights of the plaintiff were in jeopardy; and 3) that the trespass was willful.
Because Ev and Maggie only alleged that Bill damaged the tree, and did not cut it down altogether, they are not entitled to treble damages.
Ev and Maggie also alleged Bill intentionally trespassed on their property. The elements of a claim for intentional trespass are that plaintiff has lawful possession of the land, the defendant entered onto plaintiff’s land without consent or privilege, and plaintiff shows damages. The Court held that there was a factual dispute as to whether Bill ever entered onto Ev’s and Maggie’s land. Thus, Bill was denied summary judgment on the trespass count.
Still, the Court pretty much savaged Ev’s and Maggie’s rather shrill and frantic claim, leaving their all-encompassing nuisance broadside a rather puny trespass and trim of a single tree.
– Tom Root