Case of the Day – Tuesday, November 30, 2021


… there’s plenty of half-vast lawyering going on.

I found myself thinking that in connection with a case I was reviewing yesterday, one that had nothing to do with trees (but a lot to do with plants, those being Cannabis sativa, and involving trucks and conspiracies and the pesky Controlled Substances Act).

Potheads or not, I thought, the defendants deserved better lawyering than they got. There’s a lot of that substandard, just-barely-enough-to-prevent-a-malpractice-suit representation, not only in the criminal courts but in civil practice a well.

Today’s case is an excellent example of phone-it-in representation on both sides of the courtroom. The plaintiff’s lawyer seems to simply have loaded a civil action blunderbuss and fired away. It was evident that the defendant’s tree roots were destroying the boundary wall by pushing against it from the defendant’s side of the edifice. Therefore, the roots were located on the defendant’s property. So why would the lawyer include a trespass count? Any first-year law student could tell you that the roots were not on his client’s land, and being on someone else’s land without permission is the sine qua non of trespass.

And before the defendant starts to feel smug about the plaintiff’s pleading miscue, she should look at her counsel’s performance. That lawyer spent the defendant’s money on a couple of experts, who may or may not have rendered solid, helpful opinions. We’ll never know – because the defendant’s lawyer did not bother to put the expert’s opinions in affidavit form – a pure rookie mistake.

The defendant might have walked away from this lawsuit relatively inexpensively by getting the plaintiff’s entire complaint dismissed. But she never had a chance to make her substantive argument because her lawyer overlooked something everyone knows – that statements by experts and witnesses have to be in affidavit form.

Half-vast lawyering all around…

1212 Ocean Ave. Housing Development Corp. v. Brunatti, 50 A.D.3d 1110, 857 N.Y.S.2d 649 (Sup.Ct.N.Y. 2008). 1212 Ocean Avenue Housing Development Corp., a soulless, faceless corporation, if ever there was one, owned property next to Debbie Brunatti’s place. The two properties are separated by a 10-foot high retaining wall built in 1924 when an apartment building was constructed on 1212’s premises. The heartless corporate suits alleged that an elm tree planted on Debbie’s property more than 40 years ago grew over time so that its trunk came to rest atop the retaining wall. The roots of this tree also damaged the retaining wall, causing it to crack and curve. In December 2004, the New York City Department of Buildings issued a summons to 1212, requiring it to fix the defective retaining wall. Shortly later, 1212 sued Debbie to recover damages for nuisance, trespass, and negligence.

Debbie had the tree removed about four months after being sued. She argued, among other things, that the defective condition of the retaining wall had not been caused by tree roots, and that 1212 could not maintain an action for damages because it had not engaged in self-help to remedy the situation. The trial court denied Debbie’s motion.

Debbie appealed.

Held: The trial court properly denied Debbie’s motion to dismiss for nuisance and negligence.

The unsworn reports from two engineers she submitted in support of her application were insufficient to establish, as a matter of law, that the tree roots did not damage 1212’s retaining wall. “Furthermore,” the court said, “while it has been recognized that a property owner may resort to self-help to remove tree roots encroaching upon his or her property, and that this may constitute a sufficient remedy in some circumstances, the defendant failed to demonstrate that self-help would have been practicable here, where it is undisputed that the tree roots rested entirely on her property.”

However, the Court said, the trial judge should have granted that part of Debbie’s application for summary judgment on the trespass count. Since the tree roots rested entirely upon Debbie’s property, there was no intentional intrusion or entry onto the 1212’s property, which could constitute trespass.

– Tom Root


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