Senator Hubert Humphrey once said, “Show me a self-made man – and I’ll show you the horrors of unskilled labor.”
When Farmer Wilson decided to sue his neighbor, demanding after 50 years of not bothering to enforce an agreement on keeping trees bordering his field trimmed that the neighbor clear cut a 40-foot wide swath, he decided to represent himself. After all, it seemed that that lawyering business was just so much talk. Anyone ought to be able to do it…
Well, not just anyone. It turned out that as a lawyer, Farmer Wilson was more a son of the soil than he was a barrister. The heart of Farmer Wilson’s nuisance beef was that the trees cut down the crop yield on his land, because they shaded the field. Reduced to its essence, that was just a claim that he had a right to light, that is, a right to the sun being shaded by his neighbor’s trees. What he was claiming was the easement known as “ancient lights,” the Court said, and “ancient lights” was a doctrine that had been run out of West Virginia.
If that weren’t enough, the Court threw even more shade on Farmer Wilson’s lawsuit. The prior owner of Farmer Wilson’s land had had a deal with the former owner of the next-door property on keeping the bordering trees trimmed. Farmer Wilson candidly admitted he had not tried to enforce the contract for a half century, confidently asserting that this meant his damages had really accumulated.
But what it really meant was that under the West Virginia statute of limitations that applied to nuisance suits, his lawsuit was about 48 years too late.
Farmer Wilson may not have been a self-made man, but his lawsuit was an excellent illustration of the horrors of unskilled labor.
Wilson v. Polino Enterprises, Inc., 2018 W. Va. LEXIS 413, 2018 WL 2277812 (Supreme Ct. of Appeals W.Va., 2018). Farmer Wilson and Polino Enterprises own adjacent properties in Upshur County, West Virginia. The Wilson property borders the Polino land’s western and southern boundaries. Farmer Wilson sued Polino, complaining that the Company had created a nuisance on the western boundary of its property that was damaging his farmland.
Farmer Wilson claimed that that trees on Polino’s side of the property line were nuisances because of “[d]amage to the production (yield and quality) of crops as a result of invasion by roots and shading.” For this alleged crop damage, Farmer Wilson asked for $100 per year for a total of $4,500 from May of 1969 through 2014 when he originally filed the action. He also sought unspecified “labor and equipment cost[s] of removing branches and limbs of trees fallen” on his farmland. Finally, he wanted Polino to remove deer stands placed in trees near the property line because he had “no way of policing the killing of deer” on his property.
Polino filed a motion for summary judgment in the trial court. The Company showed the court letters between the parties regarding the care of boundary areas between the properties. In the letter, Farmer Wilson noted that Polino had previously agreed to his “cutting overhanging limbs and dragging them back to the wooded area” of the Wilson property, but that the proposal would restrict his cutting of tree limbs to those “no higher than 25 to 30 feet from the ground level.” Consequently, Farmer Wilson requested that Polino “clear-cut all the area 40 feet from our fenced border to remove the encroaching limbs and roots of trees from your forested land.” His letter explained that ‘I have neglected enforcement of the agreement between Mr. Robert Woofter[, a previous owner of the Polino property,] and my father. As a result, [I] have suffered economic loss during the past 50 years and [am] suffering economic loss each year in the form of forage corps harvested from the cultivated fields involved.’
In its motion for summary judgment, Polino argued that assuming all of Farmer Wilson’s allegations were true, it was nevertheless entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the nuisance claim. The trial court agreed.
Farmer Wilson appealed.
Held: Polino’s trees were no nuisance.
A private nuisance is a substantial and unreasonable interference with the private use and enjoyment of another’s land.
The lower court properly ruled that Farmer Wilson’s nuisance claim was barred by the statute of limitations under West Virginia Code § 55-2-12(a). That section gave a party claiming a nuisance only two years from the time the claim arose to sue.
The Supreme Court even consider the statute of limitations, because it did determined that Farmer Wilson’s rather opaque and do-it-yourself nuisance claim was fatally flawed. His contention, as best the Court could surmise, was that insufficient sunlight caused by overhanging trees on respondent’s property had resulted in his farmland yielding fewer crops. That claim, the Court said, “fails as a matter of law… The common law doctrine of ancient lights has been abolished in West Virginia… Though an adjoining property owner may still establish an easement implied by necessity to light and air, such an easement does not exist here because there is no prior common ownership of the parties’ properties.”
In Cobb v. Daugherty, the court discussed easements of necessity, also called easements by necessity or ways of necessity. Such easements are typically implied to provide access to a landlocked parcel. Easements implied from quasi-easements, also called implied easements or easements by implication, are based on a landowner’s prior use of part of the landowner’s property (the quasi-servient tenement) for the benefit of another portion of the property (the quasi-dominant tenement). Three elements – common ownership, transfer of part of the land (severance), and necessity of some kind – are required in both cases. The fundamental distinction is that easements implied from quasi-easements are based on prior use.
While Cobb recognized that a certain type of an easement to light and air still exists in West Virginia, the Court said, Farmer Wilson did not meet the legal requirements. He had not previously owned the Polino property. Therefore, the Court ruled, “we conclude that the circuit court did not err in awarding respondent judgment as a matter of law with regard to petitioner’s nuisance claim.”
– Tom Root