ALWAYS SHOW UP
The Pitts had a nice piece of undeveloped land in the outback of Utah, next to the Pine Meadows Ranch. Mr. and Mrs. Pitts weren’t exactly obsessive about checking on their land. After all, what could possibly go wrong with a chunk of meadow and pine trees?
Well, some lousy neighbors, for one thing. While the Pitts lived in the city, the people at Pine Meadows Ranch turned the Pitts’ rural paradise into … well, the pits. Pine Meadows Ranch dumped its trash on the land, drilled a well — for what, the decision doesn’t mention — and cut down a number of trees. When the Pitts finally discovered the perfidy of their adjoining landowner, they sued.
Pine Meadows Ranch never answered the suit, and the trial court — after waiting a suitable period of time — granted default judgment. The court then took the testimony of Howard Pitts — who said the land was worth $16,000 before the trespass but was “totally ruined” afterwards, the trees constituting $5,000 of the total — and granted judgment for $36,000. The 36 large ordered in the judgment finally got the Ranch’s attention.
On appeal, the Ranch complained that the dog ate its summons or some such nonsense. The Court of Appeals didn’t forgive the Ranch’s non-appearance, but it did reverse the damages. The Court thought Pitts’ conclusory testimony about the value of the trees and land was a little too light on fact to support the award. Additionally, the trial court had observed during the damages hearing that the $36,000 was probably too much, but maybe it would get the non-appearing Defendant’s attention. From that aside the Court of Appeals suspected that maybe the trial judge had assessed $36,000 to punish a no-show.
The case went back down for a new hearing, but there’s an important lesson her anyway: not showing up does not endear a defendant to a court.
Pitts v. Pine Meadow Ranch, Inc., 589 P.2d 767 (1978). The Pitts alleged that Pine Meadows Ranch or its agents intentionally and willfully trespassed on their unimproved real property, used it as a junkyard and a garbage dump, drilled a well in the middle of it, and destroyed a number of beautiful trees. The Pitts claimed damages in the amount of the full market value of the real property, being $16,000, of which $5,000 was the value of the trees, for which they claimed treble damages under Utah Statute § 78-38-3, together with punitive damages of $10,000.
The Ranch didn’t answer the complaint, and the trial court granted default judgment. After that, the court took Howard Pitts’ testimony under oath and granted judgment in the amount prayed for, $36,000. The Ranch moved to vacate the judgment, which was denied.
After the Pitts started trying to collect on their judgment, the Ranch appealed.
Held: The default judgment could not be attacked, but the damage award had to be set aside. There was no evidence of the market value of the plaintiffs’ property after trespass on which to base a finding of malice or wanton destruction of property.
The Court observed that the measure of damages for trespass on real property and destruction of the property is generally the difference between the value of the property before and after the trespass. Where there was no evidence of the market value of plaintiffs’ property after the trespass except a statement that the property was “totally ruined,” nor where any evidence had been provided upon which to base a finding of malice or wanton destruction of property, the defendants were entitled to a new hearing on the damages issue.
The Supreme Court said that Mr. Pitts’ bare statement that the destroyed trees constituted $5,000 of the value of the property was the only evidence to support the treble damage award. Under these circumstances, the Court said, it did not find sufficient credible evidence to support the judgment of $36,000.
The record showed that the trial court thought the $36,000 to be too much, but suspected they might respond “to a judgment of this size.” The Supreme Court found that the trial court entered judgment in that amount because the defendants had been dilatory, and he thought a large judgment would bring them into court. When the defendants did respond to the big judgment, the trial court refused to overturn it because at that time to do so would be an injustice to the plaintiff.
Damages have to be based on stronger evidence than that.
– Tom Root