IT TAKES A THIEF
It was perhaps the last of the 60s-era TV spy genre series: It Takes a Thief featured the adventures of cat burglar, pickpocket, and thief Alexander Mundy, suavely played by Robert Wagner, who stole to finance his life as a polished playboy and sophisticate. He ends up in prison, which is where the story begins. A U.S. spy agency proposes a deal to Mundy: steal for the government in exchange for his freedom.
Real life thieves are not so accomplished, and seldom so handsome and cosmopolitan. Which brings us to Logan County, Ohio, and Lowman Lumber Company.
We’re not calling company owner Sturgil Lowman a thief. The courts of Logan County have already done that for us. Sturgil was in the timber harvesting business. Over 40 years, he seems to have developed what the criminal justice people call a modus operandi: Cut a few corners, cross a few boundary lines, and wherever possible, take some timber from the neighbor’s land as well as the tract you’ve bought the right to harvest.
Sometimes you get caught. Then, you affect your most self-deprecating head shake and chuckle, admit you made a dumb mistake, and compensate the victim for the trees you unlawfully took. When you balance the books at the end of the year, the timber you got away with is enough to make the timber you got caught taking worthwhile. Cost-benefit, baby.
The problem is that word spreads – especially at the courthouse, where every lawsuit record is preserved. After awhile, the “oops, I goofed” schtick gets old. That’s what happened to Sturgil.
He finally crossed someone who filed a criminal complaint, and he was convicted of receiving stolen property (the trees). He paid restitution and did a little probation for the misdemeanor. But at the same time, another timber trespass case was playing out across the hall in a different courtroom.
Sturgil was logging Dale’s place under contract. While doing so, he busted the boundaries with the Shanklin’s wooded tract, and proceeded to butcher 15 of the prettiest acres in Logan County (which is a rather pretty place to begin with). This time, the owners pursued him with a vengeance, and Sturgil’s history of being private property-challenged – as well as the grossness of his violation of the Shanklin land – was enough for the jury to inflict real pain on him. Sturgil was ordered to not just pay for the damage to the Shanklins, but to pay treble damages for recklessness and punitive damages on top of that for malice.
Sturgil especially contested the trial court’s award of punitive damages on top of treble damages, and frankly, it is rare for a Court to approve both. But this case, if any, proves the old maxim that “hard cases make bad law.” The jury and the courts knew a bad actor when they saw one, and they used the tools at hand to dissuade him from continuing his malefaction. The final ticket was $45,000 in compensatory damages, increased by another $90,000 under ORC § 901.51, and an additional $33,500 in punitive damages, and $35,600 in the Shanklins’ attorney fees. A bill of $204,100 for $30,600 in stolen timber.
How’s that cost-benefit analysis looking now, Sturgil?
Shanklin v. Lowman, 2011-Ohio-255 (Ct.App. Logan Co., Jan. 24, 2011). Sturgil Lowman, a lumber company owner, harvested some timber for landowner Dale Kauffman. Dale identified the fence line that marked the boundary between his land and that of the Shanklin family, next door.
The Shanklins were retirees living in Florida, who used the wooded tract they owned solely for recreational purposes. The man who looked after the land for them, Tom Stacey, said that it was an “old growth area” with a beautiful high canopy, completely shading when leaves were present, and with tall, straight trees. He described it as having “the most lush undergrowth” he had seen anywhere in Ohio, and that the east edge of the back parcel had a dramatic, deep, narrow ravine that was about forty or fifty feet deep, with rich wildlife.
In spring 2006, Tom was cleaning up the Shanklin property due to an ice storm. As he walked the back of the property near the ravine, he discovered a road and bulldozer tracks. About twelve to fifteen acres of the property had been clear-cut, except for some stumps, and a logging road had been cut nearly a quarter mile into the property from the Kauffman property line. There two points of entry into the property, with the main logging road going through the fence line, with the fence cut off and rolled up. In addition to the removed trees, Tom found damage to trees that were not taken, including scars and “chunks” resulting from equipment being moved through the area.
It did not take long to connect it to Sturgil. Sheepishly, he admitted that Dale had shown him the property line, that he never hired a surveyor to confirm the property lines, that he never consulted any maps or real estate records to determine the property lines, but instead had an employee “mark the lines with ribbons,” and that neither he nor his employees kept any documentation about how many trees or what types of trees were cut.
This was not Sturgil’s first rodeo. He had been sued perhaps five time in his 40 years of operation for trespass to timber, and he was convicted of the felony of receiving stolen timber, for which he paid restitution and was sentenced to probation. Even more troubling, Tom reported that a Lowman employee had approached him a year earlier to learn who owned the Shanklin land. Tom walked the man through the property, whereupon the man offered him $10,000 if he could convince the Shanklins to let Lowman cut the timber. Tom refused, and told the man that if the Shanklins were interested, they would contact Sturgil’s company directly.
James Bartlett, a consulting forester, performed a stump count for the Shanklins, identifying species and estimating the value of the wrongfully-cut trees at the time they were cut. He found 282 stumps, and – using a United States Forest Service formula – found the aggregate value of the timber to be at least $30,671. He said he could not put a value on the “loss of beauty” to the property or the loss of enjoyment of the property.
A professional registered surveyor testified that he had examined the property line, and it “seemed very straightforward to him where the property line was.” He said that if Sturgil had hired a surveyor prior to the cutting, the line between the properties would have been easily determined.
A licensed realtor who had lived in Logan County his entire life testified that the property was unique because it was directly across from the highest point of Ohio, and was the most scenic ground in Logan County. He estimated that the value of the area that had been harvested, prior to the cut, would have been about $6,000 an acre, or $90,000 for the 15 acres affected. He estimated the value after cutting was about $3,300 an acre.
The jury returned a verdict awarding the Shanklins compensatory damages of $45,000, resulting in trebled damages of $135,000, and punitive damages of $33,750.
Held: The $168,750 damages award was upheld.
The Court found that the compensatory damages were amply justified by the testimony that the 15 acres fell in value from $90,000 to about $49,000. Additionally, the evidence showed that the timber was worth at least $30,671, but possibly more, because the Shanklins could have put the timber out for competitive bidding. Thus, the Court ruled, the record contained “competent, credible evidence supporting the jury award of compensatory damages.”
Sturgil complained that the evidence did not show that the timber trespass had been reckless, which is necessary under ORC § 901.51 in order for treble damages to be assessed. The Court of Appeals made mincemeat of this argument:
Evidence showed that a man identifying himself as representing Lowman Lumber approached Tom Stacey and inquired about harvesting the timber on the Shanklin property. The man offered Tom $10,000 if he could convince the Shanklins to let his company harvest the timber, but Tom declined the offer and gave no indication that the Shanklins were willing to sell timber to Lowman. Tom eventually discovered that twelve to fifteen acres of the Shanklin property had been cut, that a logging road had been cut nearly a quarter of a mile into the Shanklin property from Dale Kauffman’s property line, and that there were two points of entry into the Shanklin property with about twenty branches off the main logging road. A fence marked the property line between the Shanklin property and Dale’s property, but the main logging road went through the fence line, with the fence itself cut off and rolled up.
A professional surveyor identified the property line between the Kauffman and Shanklin properties, and observed that cutting had taken place across the line onto the Shanklin property. The cutting extended five or six hundred feet across the property line. Lowman did not hire a surveyor before cutting on the property, but Dale had showed him the corners of the property. Sturgil Lowman admitted he had previously been convicted of receiving stolen property and criminal damaging involving tree trespass in August 2007, and that there had been several judgments in civil cases against him for cutting onto neighboring property without authorization.
The foregoing litany, the Court ruled, was “credible evidence that Lowman perversely disregarded a known risk with heedless indifference to the consequences.”
Sturgil argued that the trial court should not have awarded both punitive damages and treble damages.
The Court disagreed. “An award of punitive damages in a tort case may be made only upon a finding of actual malice on the part of the defendant,” the Court said. “‘Actual malice’ for these purposes is ‘(1) that state of mind under which a person’s conduct is characterized by causing substantial harm’… When ordering punitive damages, the trier of fact is to make a “reasoned determination… of an amount that fairly punishes the tortfeasor for his malicious or malevolent acts and that will deter others from similar conduct.”
The Court held that an award of punitive damages “will not be overturned unless it bears no rational relationship or is grossly disproportionate to the award of compensatory damages.”
The Court easily found that the long list of horribles that supported a finding of recklessness also rose “to the level required to demonstrate ‘a conscious disregard for the rights… of other persons that has a great probability of causing substantial harm’.” There can be little doubt that the jury, and later the Court of Appeals, saw Sturgil as a serial trespasser who had long ago concluded that the cost-benefit analysis of stealing timber was such that it was worth getting caught now and then, passing it off as a “mistake,” given all the times he could get away with it.
– Tom Root