DOWN ON THE FARM
Take your masks off, people, and get back to the classroom. The pandemic’s over, so Uncle Joe has said, and it’s time America returns to normal (whatever that is).
It’s high time Ohio takes you all to school, even if it’s only about tree law. We have some thinking people here in Ohio (we think). Just to prove the Buckeye State’s arboreal mettle, we’re going to spend the next three days talking about a single Ohio case, a lengthy decision that’s a veritable final exam in tree law.
This Ohio appellate court decision answers some tough questions, questions such as, if the Massachusetts Rule lets me trim encroaching tree branches and roots up to my property line, what duty do I as the trimmer have to the trimmee? Or, how do I maximize my damages (if I’m the plaintiff) or minimize them (if I’m the defendant)? Or, what method may I have to use to trim back to the property line?
Serious questions, indeed. So we’ll leave COVID-19 and January 6th and Ukraine and immigration and climate change to others, and travel to sunny Darke County, where megafarmer Dick Levy has just had one of his farmhands trim a property-line fencerow by ripping down offending branches with a trackhoe. He claims the Massachusetts Rule lets him use anything short of tactical nuclear weapons to vindicate his tree-trimming rights (pay attention, Vladimir Putin).
The Court, however, is more cautious…
Brewer v. Dick Lavy Farms, LLC, 67 N.E.2d 196, 2016-Ohio-4577 (Ct.App. Darke Co., June 24, 2016). In 2007, James Brewer bought about 70 acres of rural property for $180,000. About 30 acres of the land were tillable, and 40 acres were wooded. The only access to the tillable and wooded property was a 25-foot wide lane of about 3,600 feet in length.
The former owner had allowed his neighbor Dick Lavy Farms to farm the property, and the lane had not been used. Brewer cleared the lane of undergrowth in order to access the rest of the property. The lane ran west to east, and had trees on both sides of the lane, with the trees on the south side forming a fencerow between Brewer’s property and land owned by Dick Lavy Farms. The trees in the fencerow were a woodland mix; none of the trees were ornamental or unique.
In January 2013, Dick Lavy ordered an employee to clear the fencerow between the two properties. At the time, Lavy understood that he could clear brush straight up and down the property line, and that such clearing was important for crop production, yield and safety for farm equipment. Using a trackhoe, which had an arm that could reach about 15 feet in the air, the employee reached up, grabbed limbs, and pulled on them, trying to break them off cleanly. Although the employee tried to keep the track hoe on DLF’s side of the property, occasionally a branch would snap off or tear the tree on Brewer’s side. Occasionally, a branch would fall on Brewer’s side, and the employee would reach over to grab the branch, but he never consciously reached over with the bucket to try and break a branch at the tree trunk on Brewer’s side of the property.
When Brewer learned that DLF was clearing the fencerow, he went out to look at the operation, and called the sheriff. At that point, the track hoe was about halfway down the fencerow, destroying trees. A Darke County Sheriffs Deputy told Lavy that a complaint had been made, and expressed his concern that civil or criminal issues could be involved in what he was doing. Lavy said that he had a right to take down any branches that were hanging over his property. In addition, Lavy said he would let Brewer remove the branches if Brewer wanted to do so, but he wanted the branches removed before crop season began in March or April.
The deputy told Brewer that Lavy claimed the right to take tree branches from his side, and that if Brewer did not like the way he was doing it, Brewer could cut them himself. Brewer told the deputy that he was going to have an expert look at the trees. The deputy filed a report with the prosecutor’s office, but no charges were brought.
Although the deputy suggested that Lavy obtain legal advice before continuing, Lavy continued clearing the fencerow. Knowing that Brewer was upset, Lavy told his employee not to clean up branches that fell on Brewer’s side.
Within days after the damage occurred, Brewer’s wife took photos of the damaged trees. Three months later, Brewer and an arborist counted 326 damaged trees.
Brewer sued Dick Lavy Farms, alleging (1) a violation of O.R.C. § 901.51; (2) reckless trespass; and (3) and negligent trespass. Prior to trial, the court held that Brewer was not limited to damages for diminution in value, and the court would apply a standard that allowed recovery of the costs of restoration.
DLF argued that it had a common law privilege to cut off, destroy, mutilate or otherwise eliminate branches from Brewer’s trees that were overhanging DLF land. The Farm also argued that if it was liable, the proper measure of damages should be the diminution of Brewer’s property value; in the alternative, the court’s holding on the issue of damages was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Finally, DLF claimed it had not negligently or recklessly trespassed on Brewer’s property.
The Court found for Brewer, awarding him $148,350 in damages, including treble damages of $133,515.
Dick Lavy Farms appealed.
Held: The Massachusetts Rule is not a license to maim and maul.
DLF argued it had a common law privilege to sever or eliminate Brewer’s overhanging branches in any manner that it desired, and that the trial court nullified the privilege by holding that DLF could not cause breakage that impacts the tree on the other side of the property line. DLF argued this holding “emasculates the common law privilege and creates a conflict between O.R.C. section 901.51 and a property owner’s constitutional rights.”
Section 901.51 of the Ohio Revised Code provides that:
No person, without privilege to do so, shall recklessly cut down, destroy, girdle, or otherwise injure a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree, or crop standing or growing on the land of another or upon public land. In addition to the penalty provided in section 901.99 of the Revised Code, whoever violates this section is liable in treble damages for the injury caused.
The Court agreed that “a privilege existed at common law, such that a landowner could cut off, sever, destroy, mutilate, or otherwise eliminate branches of an adjoining landowner’s tree that encroached on his land.” However, the Court said, “even in situations involving common law privilege, a landowner should not act in a manner as to cause damage to the property of an adjoining landowner. Thus, while a privilege exists, it is not absolute.”
The appellate panel said “it is a well-recognized principle of common law that a landowner has the right to protect his own land from threatened injury, even though, in doing so, he produces a condition that injures adjoining land, provided he acts with reasonable care. Ohio has recognized the right of a property owner to use self-help in removing encroachments on his property. Other jurisdictions also recognize the right of an owner to remove any encroachment on his property which deprives him of the complete enjoyment of his land.”
The critical phrase, the Court held, is “reasonable care.” DLF’s privilege to remove encroachments was limited by the requirement that it use reasonable care not to injure neighboring property. By imposing a standard of recklessness, which requires a higher degree of fault, the Court said, O.R.C. § 901.51 does not interfere with the common law privilege. Owners have an absolute right to destroy any vegetation on their own side of the property. Liability attaches only where the owners’ actions create harm on the other side of the property line.
Thus, an owner must use reasonable care when exercising his or her rights under the Massachusetts Rule.
We should note that two judges concurred in the judgment, arguing that there is no duty of reasonable care required by a property owner when protecting his or her own property from encroaching vegetation. The dissenters said the owner “may cut, mutilate, decimate, pulverize or obliterate branches or roots which infringe upon her property from a neighbor’s trees or plants. Self-help is permitted to remove trees or plants. What she cannot do is intrude into the neighbor’s property in doing so. That is why liability is imposed here. Tearing off branches on the DLF property which extended into the Brewer property and which severed the branches at the trunk, or some other point on the Brewer property, constituted an intrusion and the trespass across the property line into the Brewer property, regardless of any degree of care or lack thereof.”
The dissenters drew “a distinction between removal of encroaching vegetation, where self-help is universally accepted, and removal of structures, building or fences, where self-help is often unacceptable.” Curiously, they noted that it “seems likely that a landowner could not chemically treat or poison the roots or limbs that encroach upon her property if that method of destruction will migrate to that portion of the vegetation on the neighbor’s yard and destroy the tree or shrub altogether, but that is an issue for another day.”
– Tom Root