Case of the Day – Monday, November 14, 2022


My wonderful and sainted Latin teacher, the late Emily Bernges of Sturgis, Michigan, would have shaken her head in dismay, correcting me that I should say, Cogito, ergo sum.

Non hoc tempus, Mrs. Bernges. That was that Descartes fellow who said that. Today’s case departs from his admittedly excellent philosophical proposition, being more in the vein of, “I think it’s mine. Therefore, it is mine.” The facts are kind of pedestrian: two rectangular home lots, with the owner of one, Dolfo Otto, suffering the real estate version of “mission creep.” His mowing, trimming and planting expanded incrementally until what he thought was the boundary between the parcels had wandered several feet into the neighbors’ yard. Being a green thumb kind of guy, Dolfo planted a row of maples to mark what he thought was the property line. The trees served a boundary purpose, and Dolfo liked how they looked.

The neighbors changed over the years, and whatever institutional knowledge the earlier ones may have possessed about the original property line was lost. So it was well over 20 years after the Cornells, the latest owners of the place next door, had a survey done. They discovered that the strip with the maple trees did not belong to Dolfo at all. Dolfo, surprised at the situation, dug in his heels, got a lawyer and sued to quiet title in his favor because he had adversely possessed the land all those years.

Belatedly trying to assert dominion over land he never knew he owned, neighbor Richard Cornell cut down Dolfo’s maples. This unwise escalation of the existing tension only threw legal gasoline on the fire. Courtroom hijinks ensued.

What I found particularly interesting about this case was that while mowing and general upkeep of a piece of property generally is insufficient to establish possession, the Court found that Dolfo’s planting and nurturing four maple trees was more than enough to establish his possession of property to which he held no title. I guess that when your trees set down roots, so do you.

Otto v. Cornell, 119 Wis.2d 4 (Wis.App. 1984). Dolfo Otto owned a 50’ x 150’ lot next to a similar lot owned by Richard and Dorothy Cornell. Dolfo Otto had maintained a fence on what he believed was the southern boundary of his lot for many years prior to 1945. That year, he removed the fence and planted four maple trees to mark the boundary. Since then, Dolfo mowed and maintained the lawn around the trees and to the north.

The house next door was rented to the Wilsons in 1949. Their driveway was located close to the maple trees. When Mrs. Wilson hit one of the trees with her car and destroyed it in 1951, Dolfo replaced it.

The Cornells bought the next-door lot in 1963. After the land was surveyed 16 years later, the Cornells first realized that the true lot line between their lot and Otto’s lay some feet north of the line on which Dolfo had planted the trees. Dolfo refused to accept the survey results, and in 1980 he sued to establish his title to the property up to the tree line. A few months later, Richard Cornell cut down Dolfo’s four maple trees.

The trial court found that Dolfo had acquired the strip of land on which his maple trees had stood by adverse possession and awarded him damages for the destroyed trees.

The Cornells appealed.

Held: Dolfo had title to the disputed property and was entitled to punitive damages.

Dolfo based his claim to the disputed property on Wisconsin Ch. 893, Stats., which allows a person who has had uninterrupted adverse possession of land for 20 years to bring an action to establish title. Adverse possession under this section requires enclosure, cultivation, or improvement of the land and physical possession that is hostile, open and notorious, exclusive and continuous for the statutory period.

“Hostility” means only that the possessor, in this case, Dolfo, claimed an exclusive right to the land possessed. The parties’ subjective intent is irrelevant to the determination of an adverse possession claim.

The requirement of continuity is satisfied by activities that are appropriate to seasonal uses, needs and limitations, considering the land’s location and adaptability to such use. The true owner’s casual reentry on the property does not defeat the continuity or exclusivity of an adverse claimant’s possession unless it is a substantial and material interruption and a reentry for the purpose of dispossessing the adverse occupant.

An adverse possession action can often devolve into a pissing contest …

Here, the Court found that the trial judge’s findings were sufficient to support its conclusion that Dolfo established title by adverse possession. The Court found he had planted ornamental trees in 1945 and 1951 to establish the southern boundary of his lot; that at all times he claimed, maintained, and occupied the land around the trees; and that he posted a thermometer on one of the trees. The Court found that the Cornells first became aware of where the boundary was located when the property was surveyed in 1979 and that Dorothy Cornell knew for 17 years before that Dolfo claimed the disputed property. The evidence showed that the Cornells never used the disputed property.

The Court of Appeals said Dolfo’s acts in planting the ornamental trees more than 25 years before the lawsuit and in maintaining the land around the trees since then constituted possession of the land by usual improvement, in the same manner that a true owner might have manifested possession of land of this character and location. Regardless of his subjective intent in occupying the land – in this case, belief that he owned the property – Dolfo’s possession was legally hostile, open, and notorious.

As well, his possession was continuous and exclusive. The Cornells never tried to dispossess Dolfo until after he sued and his adverse possession had been established. Although the Cornells testified at trial that they had used the property and were not aware that Dolfo claimed it until the lawsuit, they also admitted that they gave conflicting answers about the extent of their claim and their knowledge of Dolfo’s claim in their pretrial depositions. Apparently, the Cornells raked leaves, and their children played on the disputed strip from time to time, but these uses were casual, the Court said. It was unnecessary for Dolfo to be belligerent if his neighbors happened to step across a particular line.

The trial court awarded Dolfo the replacement cost of maple trees. The Cornells argued on appeal that damages could only be assessed based on the diminished value of Dolfo’s land as a result of the destruction of the trees.

The evidence indicated that the trees were planted in a row on a small residential lot. Dolfo maintained the lawn around the trees, and when one was damaged he replaced it. The trees could be ornamental even though they marked a boundary. Had his sole purpose been to mark a boundary, Dolfo could have replaced the fence that existed before the trees, or he could have installed metal stakes or monuments.

The Court cited a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in which the high Court said, “An owner of real estate has a right to enjoy it according to his own taste and wishes… yet the arrangement… of buildings and trees selected by him might be no considerable enhancement of the sale value of the premises… and the disturbance of that arrangement, therefore, might not impair the general market value… While the owner may be deprived of something valuable to him… he might be wholly unable to prove any considerable damages merely in the form of the depreciation of the market value of the land. The owner of property has a right to hold it for his own use as well as to hold it for sale…”

The same applied here. The diminished land value rule is not exclusive. Rather, Dolfo is entitled to have his land returned to the configuration which suited him.

The trial court determined that the property lane went through the trees. The Cornells argued that they were entitled to credit for half the value of the tree, but the Court rejected the claim. “Regardless of where the trial court set the boundary after the trees were cut down,” the Court of Appeals said, Dolfo “possessed both the trees and the land around the trees since the time he planted them.” The trees belonged to Dolfo, and he was entitled to all the damage done to them.

– Tom Root


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