The Peters didn’t know where the lot lines were. Their real estate agent didn’t, either. Ah, details, details … That didn’t stop them from hacking down trees on the property as soon as the ink was dry on the deed, in order to build their dream house. You probably know where this is going. Harry Peters, acting as his own tree service, goofed and cut down 29 trees on the Kriegs’ land.
The Peters admitted their honest error. OK, they intended to ground the trees. They just didn’t know that the trees they grounded were the Kriegs’. They were willing to pay for the mistake. But what they were not willing to do was pay the treble damages authorized in the law for wrongful timber cutting.
It was sort of like the intentional grounding foul in football. It’s one thing to get assessed a 10-yard penalty. But on top of that, the team loses the down. Sort of like the double whammy (or triple, if you like) of the statutory multiplier for wrongfully cutting trees.
C’mon, the Peterses said, there wasn’t any evidence they knew they were cutting Kriegs’ trees. The Court pointed out that the state of the evidence was precisely the problem. It was up to the Peterses to prove that they thought the land was theirs. The wife’s testimony was all they had offered, and it didn’t help: she explained they didn’t really know where the boundaries were, and never bothered to find out. But the biggest problem was what Mr. Peters testified to: nothing. He was the one who cut the trees down, and the Court seemed to expect that he would have material testimony to offer. But he didn’t testify.
There’s a well-known principle in evidence known generally as the “missing witness instruction.” As the legendary Professor Wigmore put it, the principle holds that “the nonproduction of evidence that would naturally have been produced by an honest and therefore fearless claimant permits the inference that its tenor is unfavorable to the party’s cause.” In other words, if you have particular control of evidence, and you do not bring it forward, a court is allowed to assume it would have been harmful to your cause if you had done so.
The Court didn’t say it here, but it strongly implied that the absence of testimony from Harry Peters led it to conclude that if he had taken the stand, he wouldn’t have helped his cause any.
Krieg v. Peters, 46 A.D.3d 1190, 850 N.Y.S.2d 211 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept., 2007). In May 2004, the parties became adjoining property owners when the Peters family purchased the vacant lot next to the Kriegs. The Peterses intended to construct a house on their property, so Mr. Peters began clearing land without consulting the map referenced in their deed or having a survey conducted. He removed 29 trees from Krieg’s property. Following a jury trial, the Kriegs were awarded damages, including treble damages under New York statute for the removal of this timber. On appeal, the Peterses only contest the treble damages award.
Held: The treble damages were upheld. Under RPAPL §861, the New York treble damage statute, in order to avoid treble damages, the Peterses had the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that when they removed the trees from the Kriegs’ property, they “had cause to believe the land was [their] own.” Their proof in this regard was woefully inadequate. Mrs. Peters was the only defense witness to testify on this critical issue, and the appellate court found that her testimony had been more damning than helpful in sustaining their burden. She said that, before she and her husband purchased the property, she walked it on one occasion with their realtor. At that time, she specifically asked about the boundary lines but the realtor couldn’t answer her question with any certainty. She said she told her husband of the realtor’s uncertainty when they later walked the property together. She also candidly admitted that no steps were taken to obtain a survey or consult the map referenced in their deed before clearing the land. The Court found it significant that, although he had logged the property, Mr. Peters never testified. It found plenty of evidence that the defendants had no cause to know whether the land Mr. Peters was logging belonged to them or not.
The Peterses also argued that the legislature never intended for RPAPL §861 to apply to individuals such as themselves who make “honest” mistakes about boundary lines. The Court disagreed, holding that on its face, the statutory scheme clearly applied to the facts and circumstances of the case and, in the absence of sufficient proof on the defendants’ part to avoid treble damages, it didn’t find the treble damage award to be inconsistent with the law’s purpose or intent.
– Tom Root