BROWN GETS A MULLIGAN
It’s been awhile, a long while, since we were young pups in law school. But we still seem to recall that when a plaintiff complains that she’s been damaged by a trespass, she has to put on some sort of evidence as to the amount of the damage. If the trial record closes, and the plaintiff hasn’t done so, time was she would be out of luck. No do-overs, no mulligans. One and done, as the sports guys say.
Well, apparently that’s no longer true in Mississippi. When Martha Murrell decided to build a fence in front of her house without checking her subdivision restrictions first, her neighbor Jeanette Brown took exception. It seems the restrictions prohibited building anything within 25 feet of the property boundary, and Martha crowded that a little – by about 23 feet. In fact, she put the fence so close to the property line that she had to hack off a few branches from one of Jeanette’s trees in order to finish the project.
Jeanette sued Martha, asking the trial court to order her to remove the fence and to give her $30,000 in damages because she had hindered Jeanette’s enjoyment of her property. Admittedly, we enjoy our property, too, especially sitting on the deck with an appropriate legal beverage, but $30,000? That’s a lot of hindrance being compensated.
The trial court granted the injunction, because the fence violation was pretty clear. Martha must have figured that showing the trial court her snapshots of the “mutilated” tree was good enough. The trial court must have found the pictures compelling, although not $30,000 worth of compelling. It awarded Jeanette $5,000.
The Court of Appeals was made of more skeptical stuff. It ruled that while the picture was good enough to show that Martha or her minions had trespassed onto Jeanette’s land, and had hacked up her tree, it was not good enough to show how much damage Jeanette had suffered. Despite a strenuous dissent from a judge who thought Jeanette had had ample opportunity to prove the amount of damages, the Court sent the case back to the trial court to give Jeanette a second bite of the apple.
Murrell v. Brown, 202 So.3d 287 (Ct.App. Mississippi, 2016). Jeanette Brown filed a complaint against their next-door neighbor, Martha Murrell, for constructing a fence in violation of their subdivision’s protective covenants. The North Colony subdivision covenants state that “[n]o fence shall be constructed nor any other structure be constructed within 25 feet of front property line.” Brown complained that Murrell built a fence within a few feet of the front property line in violation of this covenant, thereby diminishing the value of Brown’s property and “hindering her use and enjoyment of her property.” Brown wanted the fence taken out and damages of $30,000.
After a hearing, the trial court found Murrell in violation of the subdivision’s covenants and ordered her to remove the fence. The court further held that because Murrell or her agents mutilated Brown’s tree and came on to Brown’s property to do so, Brown was entitled to $5,000 in damages.
Held: The damage award was reversed. The Court of Appeals said that in awarding Brown $5,000, the trial court reasoned that Murrell or someone on her behalf “mutilated [Brown’s tree] by chopping off these limbs in such a way that I don’t know what it would look like when it grows back. And [the person] came several feet over onto [Brown’s] property to do it.”
Murrell asserted that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding damages for the tree, because Brown never mentioned the tree damage in her complaint. The Court, however, noted that while the complaint did not reference the tree damage, pictures of the tree were entered into evidence at the hearing, showing that the tree’s branches had been cut at the fence line, and Brown’s lawyer had written to Murrell about the damage before the case was filed.
Murrell also claimed that Brown failed to prove that Murrell or her agent caused the damage to the tree. Brown asserted at the hearing that Murrell “took a power saw and cut [her] tree to build the fence,” but Brown conceded that she did not personally witness Murrell, or anyone acting on her behalf, cut the tree. She simply testified that she “was informed [Murrell’s] father had cut the tree.” The appeals court, however, was satisfied that the trial judge, “as the fact-finder, clearly determined that Murrell or her agent cut Brown’s tree.” Circumstantial evidence, after all – such as limbs cut at the fence line – supported the trial court’s finding that someone acting on Murrell’s behalf cut the limbs during the construction of the fence. That was good enough.
The heart of Murrell’s appeal was that the award of $5,000 “for the mutilation of the tree” did not address the fair market value of the tree before and after the cutting. After all, the tree in question was not a fruit-bearing tree “and the cost of complete life maturity is no more [than] two hundred and fifty dollars.”
The appellate court held that while the trial court properly found Brown’s tree suffered some damage, and Murrell (or her agent) likely trespassed on Brown’s property to cut the tree, the award of $5,000 for the tree damage was excessive and not supported by substantial evidence. “Brown’s tree was not cut down,” the Court observed, but rather “the tree’s branches were merely cut back at the fence line. While the pruning was unsightly, there was no evidence presented that the tree was permanently damaged.”
Proof of actual damages must be shown in order to recover more than nominal damages, and Brown made little in the way of such a showing. The Court, however, held that Brown showed photos of “mutilated” tree and those photos were enough to let the judge ascertain damages. Once a judge is “presented clear evidence that [the plaintiff] owned the property and that the trees had been cut without [her] consent, the [judge] was obliged under the circumstances to award damages in some form.” So something is to be paid, but there has to be some evidence of what.
A dissenting judge complained that “Brown did not even establish what kind of tree is at issue in this appeal. It was Brown’s burden to prove her damages, and having failed to present any evidence of actual damages, she should not be given another opportunity to do so. “A litigant is entitled to but one bite at the damages apple…”
– Tom Root