WHEN ARM’S LENGTH ISN’T QUITE FAR ENOUGH
When I was a mere first-grader, I had an uncle – a Wharton School grad – who taught me a business aphorism he had learned in B-school. Everyone thought that it was cute to hear a 6-year-old try to say, “infamous machinations,” sort of the same way that the Teddy Ruxpin creator picked the bear’s name because he figured so many children would mispronounce it so cutely.
But six decades later, I remember what Uncle Harl taught me through his omnipresent swirls of cigar smoke: “Always deal with your business associate at arm’s length. For if he be an honest man, he will respect your caution…”
Apropos of our regular discussions about independent contractors, you, Harry and Harriet Homeowner, may figure that you are being prudent by hiring your vendors and service providers as such. After all, we all know that the homeowners are not liable for the negligence of independent contractors.
Certainly, our neighbors will respect our caution.
In today’s case, however, the Svensons discovered to their chagrin that trespass ain’t negligence. As a result, they got no respect. When the independent contractor tree service hired by their independent contractor architect – making the tree service something akin to an independent contractor once removed – cut down a pair of boundary trees, the Svensons were sued along with the architect and the tree service. They figured they were insulated. It was the contractors’ fault, after all, not theirs.
But one can be dinged for trespass, or for causing someone else to trespass. And the fact that the party that has been caused to trespass may be liable, like an eight-ball going into a side pocket, does not absolve the person who directed the trespass. Like the cue ball that put the eight ball into motion, the party who caused the trespass was indispensable to the tort. And regardless of the relationship between the director and the directee, both may share liability.
Oh, and one other thing, Svensons… if you have a good argument to make on appeal, make sure you make the same argument before the trial court. Like l’esprit de l’escalier, thinking of a great argument for the first time on appeal is about 10 minutes too late.
Swegan v. Svenson, 960 N.Y.S.2d 768,104 A.D.3d 1131(Sup.Ct.A.D., 2013). The Svensons were doing some remodeling around their place. They did it right. They hired an architect to design the project and manage the contractor. The architect hired a tree service to remove two trees. The tree service did exactly as it was instructed.
But the trees were boundary trees, partly in the Svensons’ yard and partly in the touchy neighbors’ yard. It didn’t take a New York minute for the neighbors to sue everybody involved for conversion and trespass.
The Svensons moved for summary judgment, on the novel argument that they could not be held liable for the trespass because the architect was not their agent, but rather an independent contractor, and tree service certainly was not their agent, but instead was an independent contractor as well. The trial court denied their motion.
The Svensons appealed.
Held: The Svensons were not entitled to summary judgment. The court held that regardless of the architect’s status as an independent contractor, the Svensons may be held liable for the trespass and ensuing conversion if they “directed the trespass or such trespass was necessary to complete the contract” between Svensons and the architect. Here, the Swegans had raised an issue of fact whether the Svensons “directed the trespass or whether such trespass was necessary to complete the contract.”
For the first time on appeal, the Svensons floated the argument that they had the right as joint owners to remove the trees because they were structurally unsafe and created a safety hazard or private nuisance. At any rate, they claimed, they should not be assessed treble damages under RPAPL 861 because there is no evidence that they acted recklessly, willfully or wantonly. The court did not consider either contention, because neither had been raised in the trial court.
– Tom Root