THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT
You know the guy I’m talking about. Nothing is ever his fault. (No, I did not suggest a certain former inhabitant of the White House or the current inhabitant, either – we stay above politics around here).
But… that guy. The blame always lies with someone else. Think of John Belushi in the Blues Brothers, groveling at the feet of an assault rifle-toting Carrie Fisher, explaining all the reasons he had left her standing at the altar and ending with the plaintive wail, “It’s not my fault!”
Today’s defendants have something in common with the pathetic Jake Blue. For reasons unexplained (but I suspect, given this occurred on breathtaking Kodiak Island, Alaska, that it was intended to enhance their view), Joel and Darlene wanted to remove some trees on the downslope of the hill they lived on, out to about 400 feet. Most of the trees – beautiful 100-foot plus Sitka spruces – were not on their property. A minor detail.
Darlene called her neighbor, Lisa, and asked whether she and her husband could cut down a few trees on Lisa’s land, you know, just trees that might pose a hazard if they were to fall in a windstorm across the property line and strike Joel and Darlene’s cabin. Lisa was at work when Darlene called her, and she didn’t really have a well-formed idea of what her neighbors had in mind. This was understandable, given that Darlene misled Lisa into believing they were talking about a few sickly boundary trees. Lisa, thinking that thinning the woods there would probably let more light in and spur growth, said that she did not mind at all.
When Lisa got home that evening, she discovered a denuded hill, with trees clear-cut from the boundary line toward her cabin for almost 400 feet. Hyperion itself couldn’t have fallen from that point and hit Joel and Darlene’s. Lisa was furious and called Darlene (who had the good sense not to answer the phone). Lisa told Darlene’s voice mail that there would be no more tree cutting.
Now for the fly in the ointment: Lisa had always thought that her land extended all the way from her cabin to Joel and Darlene’s property line. But it did not. Her brother, Paul, who had subdivided a larger parcel years before and sold Lisa one of the plots – the one with his old cabin on it – had reserved for himself a plot between Lisa’s and Joel and Darlene’s place. After selling in 1992, Paul had left for an extended sojourn (well over a decade) in Washington state and Hawaii. When he finally came home from wandering the Lower 48, some two years after the tree-cutting incident, he was not pleased. Paul demanded of Lisa to tell him who had cut all of his trees. That was when Lisa found out that much of the property between her cabin and the land up to Joel and Darlene’s property line belonged to Paul.
Naturally, Paul went after Joel and Darlene. Who wouldn’t? But they sniveled, “It’s not our fault! Lisa told us we could cut your trees!” Well, they did not exactly snivel, not audibly, but they promptly brought Lisa into the lawsuit as a third-party defendant. They maintained that because Lisa gave them permission to cut some trees without telling them that some of the intermediate land between their property and her cabin was Paul’s (and that they could not cut his trees), she was negligent. Joel and Darlene whined that if Paul had been damaged, Lisa owed Paul some of those damages. They argued Lisa had breached her duty to inform them, that she had made misrepresentations to them, and that she had breached her duty to Paul as well as a general duty she had to her neighbors.
The Alaska Supreme Court cut through Joel and Darlene’s arguments like a hot knife through butter. Lisa got nothing out of the tree-cutting episode, and she thus owed nobody nuthin’. Joel and Darlene had no right to rely on Lisa’s permission without checking the boundaries themselves. The Court’s finding might have been a blessing for the defendants, too, because it avoided the sticky question of whether – given Darlene’s obvious fraudulent misrepresentation to Lisa as to their tree-cutting – Lisa could possibly be liable at all. After all, if Darlene asked Lisa, “Hey, mind if we clear-cut 400 feet in the direction of your shanty so that we can improve our magnificent view?”, we suspect Lisa would not have been so forthcoming with permission.
Clearing up the issue of Lisa’s liability let the Alaska Supreme Court get to the meat of the case, which was the amount of damages owed Paul. We’ll take up that part of the holding tomorrow.
Wiersum v. Harder, 316 P.3d 557 (Supreme Court of Alaska, 2013). Paul Harder owned a pretty nice piece of Alaskan wilderness near Kodiak. He built a cabin on it and lived happily for quite a stretch. But when wanderlust set in back in 1992, he subdivided the land, sold the plot with the cabin on it to his sister Lisa and kept one for himself, and set off for parts unknown.
Not completely unknown, however. Paul spent the next 15 years living in Washington state and Hawaii, but he returned every so often to visit his plot of land and enjoy the hunting, fishing and recreation opportunities it afforded. It was, after all, overlooking Monashka Bay on Kodiak Island – it would be hard to stay away from home when it was as beautiful and wild as that.
About nine years after Paul went south, Joel and Darlene Wiersum bought some land at the top of a hill adjacent to the Harder tracts. Looking down the hill, they could see Lisa’s cabin several hundred yards below, and they assumed she owned everything between their home and hers. One day, Darlene called Lisa at work, and asked whether they could cut down some trees on Lisa’s property that Darlene thought might “come down with the wind” and fall on their land, damaging their home. Lisa readily gave them permission, because she thought the removal of some trees might “let a little more light in.”
Darlene was not being exactly straight with Lisa. She and Joel never intended to thin out some hazard trees. Instead, they intended to clear-cut the entire hill, out to more than 300 feet beyond their property line. When Lisa returned home from work later that day, the deed had been done; she discovered that bare naked hillside. Upset by the number of trees that had been cut, Lisa immediately called the Wiersums and left a message instructing them not to cut any more trees.
Paul did not return to the Last Frontier for about two years. When he did, he discovered the clear-cut hillside. Paul asked Lisa who had cut the trees, and then explained to her that the trees had been on his plot, not hers. After that, he promptly sued the Wiersums for timber trespass.
The Wiersums, apparently a couple not lacking chutzpah (just look at the clear-cutting escapade), filed a third-party complaint blaming Lisa for the trespass. They sought to apportion fault onto Lisa, claiming that she had negligently misrepresented that she owned the property where the trees were cut when she gave them permission to remove trees from her property. The trial court granted Lisa’s summary judgment motion and dismissed the claim against her. The Wiersums and Paul went to trial, and a jury awarded Paul $161,000 in compensatory restoration damages along with statutory treble damages.
Held: Lisa was not liable for the Wiersums’ trespass, but the case had to be sent back to the trial court, because the damages were excessive. Today, we’ll talk about Lisa’s “duty” to the Wiersums and her own brother.
The Wiersums contended that fault must be apportioned to Lisa because she was negligent when she failed to disclose to Darlene that she did not know exactly where her property lines were and that Harder also owned property in the area. In essence, their negligence claim was based on the theory that Lisa had negligently misrepresented or failed to disclose information to the Wiersums, and her negligence thus caused them to trespass on Paul’s property and remove his trees.
However, the Court held, negligent misrepresentation requires a showing that a party made a misrepresentation in the course of her business, profession, or employment, or in any other transaction in which she has a pecuniary interest.” Likewise, a person is liable for failure to disclose information when there is an affirmative duty to do when someone “fails to disclose to another a fact that he knows may justifiably induce the other to act or refrain from acting in a business transaction.” Lisa had no financial interest in what the Wiersums did with their land and thus owed them no duty under a theory of negligent misrepresentation or failure to disclose information when she had an affirmative duty to do so.
But did Lisa owe a duty to Paul? The Wiersums argued that Lisa owed a broad duty of care to her neighbors – both themselves and Harder – and was liable for any unreasonable risk of harm to them that stemmed from her own conduct. They supported this assertion with references to the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 158 and § 165, and they cited decisions from other states in support of the rule that a “landowner who intends to have timber cut on his land owes a duty to an adjoining landowner to ascertain the boundary line of the adjoining land with diligence and care.”
None of these arguments carried the day. The Court held that sections 158 and 165 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts were inapplicable, because they applied only where the person intentionally causes a third person to enter land, that is, “commands or requests” a third person to enter the land of another. Lisa never commanded the Wiersums to do anything. Section 165 similarly provided no support for the Wiersums’ position, but rather imposes liability where someone recklessly or negligently enters land in possession of another, or causes “a thing or third person so to enter,” and thereby harms the land. Comment (a) to this section indicated that the rule applies where “the conduct of the actor either… involve[s] an unreasonable risk of invading the possessor’s interest in his exclusive possession of the land, or… [is] caused by an abnormally dangerous activity carried on by the actor.” Lisa’s act of giving the Wiersums permission to cut trees on her own land did not present an unreasonable risk that the Wiersums would enter Paul’s land and cut his trees.
The Wiersums also argued that a Texas case held that landowners who intended to cut timber on their own land owed a duty to adjoining landowners to ascertain the boundary lines of the adjoining land. But Lisa did not seek out the Wiersums to remove trees from her land, nor did she affirmatively offer inaccurate information about her property boundaries. The Wiersums did not ask her for this information and, because this was not a business transaction, she was under no legal obligation to provide it. Thus, the Court said, she did not assume a duty to give accurate information to the Wiersums when they asked permission to remove her trees.
Finally, the Wiersums relied on Prosser and Keeton’s treatise on tort law for the rule that a landowner owes a broad duty “to cause no unreasonable risks of harm to others in the vicinity.” The Court was unimpressed. “Our prior decisions recognize that landowners have a duty to use due care to guard against unreasonable risks created by dangerous conditions existing on their property. We have also held that a landowner must act as a reasonable person in maintaining his property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances. But we have never previously gone so far as to hold that a landowner has a broad duty to prevent the unreasonable risk of harm to her neighbors caused by third parties.”
Foreseeability of harm is the most important factor in whether Lisa had a duty to Paul, the Court said, and “there can be no duty where the harm is unforeseeable, but foreseeability alone is insufficient to establish a duty if the burden of taking care or the effect on society is too harsh.”
The foreseeability of harm to Paul resulting from Lisa’s conduct was low. Lisa made no active representation to the Wiersums to imply that the trees on the hillside near their property were hers and not Paul’s. She merely gave the Wiersums permission to cut trees on her own land. It was thus foreseeable that the Wiersums would cut trees on Lisa’s property, but it was not foreseeable that they would remove 70 large trees from Paul’s hillside – some of which were located between 300 and 400 feet from their own land – “without conducting proper due diligence to identify the true property owner and then seeking that person’s permission. No person,” the Court said, “can be expected to guard against harm from events which are not reasonably to be anticipated at all, or are so unlikely to occur that the risk, although recognizable, would commonly be disregarded.”
– Tom Root