Case of the Day – Thursday, February 14, 2019

A PRÉCIS ON ENCROACHMENT

North Dakota - you can see the gas flares from outer space.

North Dakota – you used to be able to see the gas flares from outer space. Now, the place is hot once again. 

It’s been a roller coaster for North Dakota over the past decade. Early on, North Dakota was a pretty happenin’ place. It was the No. 2 oil producer in the country, unemployment there was at a measly 2.6%, 18,000 more people moved there in 2013 than left … and the state had so much underground methane that it was flaring $100 million in natural gas a month that it couldn’t use.

Suddenly, you couldn’t give away houses there, equipment firms were saddled with bulldozers they couldn’t use, and boom towns were going bust.

But what goes around comes back again. Now, Nodak is back on top, pumping as much oil as all of Venezuela (although that’s a pretty low bar). But we’re not here to talk about fracking.  The natural resources we care about around here are underground only to the extent of their root systems – root systems that, along with branches, can occasionally encroach on the neighbors. And that can be a real pain in the neck.

About seven years ago, our guest justices from the North Dakota Supreme Court took time from deciding mineral rights, liability for train derailments, mobile home park regulation and the like to consider the law of tree encroachment. They did a bang-up job of summarizing the history, policy bases and goals of the various rules, before thoughtfully consigning the Massachusetts Rule’s proscription against lawsuits to what we here at treeandneighborlawblog call the “wood chipper of history.”

Back to the pain-in-the-neck tree. Dr. Richard Herring knows something about pains in the neck. They’re his livelihood, as long as they’re found in his patients. But this chiropractor had to deal with another pain the neck, too. The property next door, on which sat an apartment building, had a large tree with branches that were overhanging Dr. Herring’s bone-crunching office. He fought back with self-help, trimming branches, cleaning up the debris that clogged his gutters, and raking up the mess the tree made every fall. But he couldn’t keep ahead. Finally, the branches damaged his building, and the debris created an ice dam on his roof that flooded the place.

pain-neck140211The absentee owners and hired managers at the apartment house next refused his entreaties to care for the tree. So he sued, claiming that they had a duty to manage the tree so it didn’t mess up his place. The trial court threw the suit out, telling the good doctor that he could trim the parts of the tree that were overhanging his place, but that was his only remedy.

“Wait,” you say, “that’s the Massachusetts Rule.” Right you are. But, as the North Dakota Supreme Court decided, there are other rules out there as well, including some that it thinks are a whole lot better than the doddering relic from Michalson v. Nutting. It reversed the trial court, holding that a tree owner does indeed have a duty to care for his or her trees so as to avoid damage to others.

In its thoughtful opinion, the Court wrote perhaps as fine a roundup on tree encroachment rules as has yet been written.

Herring v. Lisbon Partners Credit Fund, Ltd., 2012 N.D. 226, 823 N.W.2d 493 (Sup.Ct. N.D., 2012). Dr. Herring owned a commercial building in Lisbon housing his chiropractic practice. The apartment building next door is owned by Lisbon Partners and managed by Five Star. Branches from a large tree located on Lisbon Partners’ property overhang Herring’s property and brush against his building. For many years, Dr. Herring trimmed back the branches and cleaned out the leaves, twigs, and debris that would fall from the branches and clog his downspouts and gutters. He claimed that the encroaching branches caused water and ice dams to build up on his roof, and eventually caused water damage to the roof, walls, and fascia of his building. Herring contends that, after he had the damages repaired, he requested compensation from Lisbon Partners and Five Star but they denied responsibility for the damages.

Encroaching tree roots and branches can sometimes be unsightly

Encroaching tree roots and branches can sometimes be unsightly

Dr. Herring sued Lisbon Partners and Five Star for the cost to repair his building, claiming the companies had committed civil trespass and negligence, and maintained a nuisance by breaching their duty to maintain and trim the tree so that it did not cause damage to his property. The district court granted Lisbon Partners and Five Star’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing Herring’s claims. The court held Lisbon Partners and Five Star had no duty to trim or maintain the tree, and Herring’s remedy was limited to self-help. He could trim the branches back to the property line at his own expense, but that was it.

Held: The trial court’s dismissal was reversed, and Dr. Herring was given his day in court.

The North Dakota Supreme Court began its analysis by observing that the Massachusetts Rule was the original common law on tree law in the United States, holding that a landowner has no liability to neighboring landowners for damages caused by encroachment of branches or roots from his trees, and the neighboring landowner’s sole remedy is self-help: the injured neighbor may cut the intruding branches or roots back to the property line at his own expense. The basis for the Massachusetts Rule is that it is “wiser to leave the individual to protect himself, if harm results to him from the exercise of another’s right to use his own property in a reasonable way, than to subject that other to the annoyance and burden of lawsuits, which would likely be both countless and, in many instances, purely vexatious.

The Hawaii Rule, on the other hand, rejected the Massachusetts approach as overly simplistic. Instead, it held that the owner of a tree may be liable when encroaching branches or roots cause harm, or create imminent danger of causing harm, beyond merely casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit. When overhanging branches or protruding roots actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may require the owner of the tree to pay for the damages and to cut back the endangering branches or roots and, if such is not done within a reasonable time, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may cause the cutback to be done at the tree owner’s expense.

The Restatement Rule, based upon the Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 839-840 (1979), distinguishes between natural and artificial conditions on the land. Under the Restatement Rule, if the tree was planted or artificially maintained it may be considered a nuisance and its owner may be liable for resulting damages, but there is no liability for a naturally growing tree that encroaches upon neighboring property.

The Virginia Rule, adopted in 1939, makes a distinction between noxious and non-noxious trees. Under the old Virginia rule, a tree encroaching upon neighboring property will be considered a nuisance, and an action for damages can be brought, if it is a “noxious” tree and has inflicted a “sensible injury.”

The district court concluded that under N.D.C.C. § 47-01-12, Herring had a “right” to do as he wished with the overhanging branches and underlying roots of the tree, and therefore this portion of the tree was “just as much the responsibility of the adjacent landowner as it is the owner of the trunk.” In effect, the district court concluded that because Herring had the “right” to the branches above his property, he therefore had the responsibility to maintain them as well.

The state Supreme Court complained that the district court had essentially nullified N.D.C.C. § 47-01-17. That statute expressly provides that when the trunk of the tree is wholly upon the land of one owner, the tree “belong[s] exclusively to that owner.” The district court’s holding that Herring in effect owned the branches above his property was thus contrary to statute. Statutes must be construed as a whole and harmonized to give meaning to related statutes, and are to be interpreted in context to give meaning and effect to every word, phrase, and sentence. The interpretation adopted by the district court did not give meaning and effect to that portion of N.D.C.C. § 47-01-17 which provides that the owner of the tree’s trunk “exclusively” owns the entire tree.

Our thanks to the Supreme Court of North Dakota for its comprehensive opinion ...

Our thanks to the Supreme Court of North Dakota for its comprehensive opinion …

Contrary to the district court’s conclusion that the Massachusetts Rule was more consistent with North Dakota statutory law, the Supreme Court held that the Hawaii Rule more fully gives effect to both statutory provisions. The Hawaii Rule is expressly based upon the concept, embodied in N.D.C.C. § 47-01-17, that the owner of the trunk of a tree which is encroaching on neighboring property owns the entire tree, including the intruding branches and roots. And because the owner of the tree’s trunk is the owner of the tree, the Supreme Court thought he or she should bear some responsibility for the rest of the tree. The Court said “we think he is duty bound to take action to remove the danger before damage or further damage occurs.”

The Supreme Court also observed that “the Hawaii Rule is the most well-reasoned, fair, and practical of the four generally recognized rules. We first note that the Restatement and Virginia rules have each been adopted in very few jurisdictions, and have been widely criticized as being based upon arbitrary distinctions which are unworkable, vague, and difficult to apply … In fact, the Supreme Court of Virginia has … abandoned the [old] Virginia rule in favor of the Hawaii Rule [in] Fancher …”

The Court said the Massachusetts Rule fostered a "'law of the jungle' mentality" among landowners.

The Court said the Massachusetts Rule fostered a “‘law of the jungle’ mentality” among landowners.

The Court also complained that the Massachusetts Rule has been widely criticized as being “unsuited to modern urban and suburban life.” The Massachusetts Rule fosters a “law of the jungle” mentality, the Court said, because self-help effectively replaces the law of orderly judicial process as the only way to adjust the rights and responsibilities of disputing neighbors. The Court observed that while self-help may be sufficient “when a few branches have crossed the property line and can be easily pruned by the neighboring landowner himself, it is a woefully inadequate remedy when overhanging branches break windows, damage siding, or knock holes in a roof, or when invading roots clog sewer systems, damage retaining walls, or crumble a home’s foundation.”

Accordingly, the North Dakota Supreme Court held that “encroaching trees and plants are not nuisances merely because they cast shade, drop leaves, flowers, or fruit, or just because they happen to encroach upon adjoining property either above or below the ground. However, encroaching trees and plants may be regarded as a nuisance when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. If so, the owner of the tree or plant may be held responsible for harm caused by it, and may also be required to cut back the encroaching branches or roots, assuming the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance.” The rule does not prevent a landowner, at his or her own expense, from cutting away the encroaching vegetation to the property line whether or not the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance or is otherwise causing harm or possible harm to the adjoining property.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, February 13, 2019

YOU, SIR, ARE NO GENTLEMAN

It is fairly common to find parties in some kind of kerfluffle over an alleged breach of contract, where one complains that despite what the document might say, the parties had really orally agreed to something else altogether.

That’s what canny lawyers make sure that every contract has an integration clause in it. An integration clause is no relic of the civil rights era. Instead, it provides that the parties have no deals but the deal written down in the contract, and if it ain’t written, well… then it just ain’t so.

Beyond the careful draftsmanship lies the common-law “parol evidence rule.” The word here means “oral” or “solely evidenced by speech.” Today’s case provides a perfect example of it. When the power company got a written easement to trim trees on the Larew estate, that easement provide it could keep the lines free of tree hazard. But as the easement was being signed, Mr. Larew asked, “How about my 300-year old white oak?”

“Oh, that?” the slick power company real estate man said. “We’ll never touch it. You have my word on it.”

Right. It may have taken the power company 20 years, but the tree did get hacked up. When old man Larew’s kids sued – he was long gone – the power company said, “What gentlemen’s agreement?”

Its lawyers, having gone to law school, said, “Parol evidence rule! You can’t introduce evidence of an inconsistent oral deal to undercut a clear written easement.”

They were right about that, but dead wrong that the easement meant that they could do as they liked to the trees. The trimming crew boss talked to the property owners, but then unlimbered the saws and, as for what was needed, said, “I’ll be the judge of that!”

The West Virginia Supreme Court said, “Not so fast, my friend! ‘Reasonableness’ and a due regard for the rights of the Larews have a lot to do with it, too.

Larew v. Monongahela Power Co., 199 W. Va. 690 (Supreme Ct. W.Va., 1997). In 1975, Glen Larew (a predecessor-in-interest to Susan and Keith Larew) granted a written easement to Monongahela Power Company giving Monongahela the right to trim, cut or remove trees in order to maintain electric service. According to the Larews, there was also a “gentlemen’s agreement” in 1975 that a 300-year old white oak tree on the Larew property would never be touched.

However, one day in 1994, Asplundh Tree Expert Company, Monongahela’s tree trimming contractor, told the Larews that tree trimming would commence shortly pursuant to the easement. The Larews discussed the extent of the trimming with Asplundh, but to no avail. Two months later, the trimmers arrive with chainsaws blazing. They trimmed three trees on the Larews’ property, including severely cutting up the 300-year old white oak.

The Larews sued for wrongful cutting, arguing that the extent of trimming was unreasonable. Monongahela filed for summary judgment, alleging that “reasonableness” is not an issue because the determination of the extent of tree trimming needed rests solely with the easement holder. The trial court agreed with Monongahela, and dismissed the Larews’ complaint.

The Larews appealed.

Held: The power company’s easement gave it the right to trim trees to the extent that the trees endangered the safety or interfered with the use of the power lines, but such trimming has to be done in a reasonable manner with due regard to the rights of all parties. The trimming must not inflict unnecessary damage to the land or unreasonably increase the burden on the servient tenement (the property owner’s rights).

The Larews raised two arguments on the appeal. First, they claimed, the trimming violated the 1975 “gentlemen’s agreement” not to trim the white oak. Second, they argued that the trimming performed was unreasonable.

The Supreme Court made short work of the “gentlemen’s agreement.” The parol evidence rule, which generally prohibits the introduction of any extrinsic evidence to vary or contradict the terms of written contracts, is quite clear: prior or contemporaneous statements that contradict clear, unambiguous language of a written contract are inadmissible. Parol evidence may only be admitted toexplain uncertain, incomplete or ambiguous terms.

Here, the terms of the written easement were clear, and evidence of an oral “side deal” that contradicted those written terms was inadmissible.

The fee interest in land over which a power company has been granted an easementremains in the party making the grant. The grantor-owner of the land retains the right to make any reasonable use of the land subject to the easement so long as that use is not inconsistent with the rights of the grantee.

In exercising the rights granted under an easement, a power company must follow the rule of reasonableness. In other words, the power company may not inflict unnecessary damage on the land and may not unreasonably increase the burden placed upon the servient tenement.

A power company does have the right, under a general right-of-way easement, to enter upon the land to maintain and repair its equipment to the extent necessary to the safe and effective operation of that equipment. A power company, however, in exercising that right of entry, may not inflict unnecessary damage on the land. A power company, in exercising its right to enter upon the land to maintain or repair its equipment, may not unreasonably increase the burden placed upon the servient tenement. This right of entry includes the right to enter upon the land to cut or trim trees or limbs which might be a danger to the power lines.

A power company’s right as an easementholder is limited to the removal of that which endangers the safety, or interferes with the use of the power company’s lines on the right-of-way and any removal must be done in a reasonable manner, with due regard to the rights of all the parties. The power company’s rights are not, however, unlimited. The power company must not inflict unnecessary damage to the land nor may its exercise of its rights unreasonably increase the burden placed on the servient tenement.

The Larews also maintained that there was a genuine issue of material fact concerning the reasonableness of Monongahela’s trimming. The circuit court held that “the easement permits Mon Power to exercise its own opinion in determining how much to trim to prevent the trees from interfering with the power lines” and that the rule of reasonableness stated in Kell v. Appalachian Power did not apply.

In Kellthe Court observed that the “fee interest in land over which a power company has been granted an easement remains in the party making the grant. The grantor-owner of the land retains the right to make any reasonable use of the land subject to the easementso long as that use is not inconsistent with the rights of the grantee.”

Thus, the Court said, in exercising the rights granted under an easement, a power company must follow the rule of reasonableness. It “may not inflict unnecessary damage on the land” and “may not unreasonably increase the burden placed upon the servient tenement.” In Kellthe Court held that the right given by the utility easement was “to cut and remove trees, overhanging branches or obstructions that endanger the safety, or interfere with the use, of the power company’s lines on the right-of-way granted by the indenture.”

Given the principles that Kell is predicated upon, the Court said, “we find that the circuit court erred in holding that as a matter of law, the appellees were not subject to the reasonableness rule of Kell. [Monongahela’s] right is limited to the removal of that which endangers the safety, or interferes with the use of the power company’s lines on the right-of-way and any removal must be done “in a reasonable manner, with due regard to the rights of all the parties.”  

Because there is a genuine question of material fact concerning whether the power company unreasonably increased the burden on the Larews’ property when it exercised its rights under the easement, and whether Monongahela limited the trimming to that necessary to assure the safety and continued use of the power company’s lines, summary judgment should not have been granted.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, February 12, 2019

DAMNED IF YOU DO…

Yesterday, we read about Mamie Segraves, who successfully sued an electric utility because its workers determined that trees within its easement posed a risk to the distribution lines, and that one should be removed and the other topped.

Segraves taught us that in Missouri, the utility’s judgment that a tree needs to be removed does not mean much if the homeowner wants it preserved. Today, from the Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t Department comes another Missouri decision, in which a utility is held liable because the landowner wanted a tree in the easement area removed, but the utility did not see the need.

When Greg Fenlon noticed a hazard tree he believed threatened his local power grid, he called the electric company. It’s crews, unfortunately, were uninterested in taking direction from Greg and, to make matters worse, did not perform their duties much to Greg’s liking. He wanted the hazard tree removed. They demurred.

After the crew headed off for coffee and doughnuts, Greg hired a crew that would take direction from him (because he was paying them). Greg’s crew removed the tree, and Greg sent the bill to Union Electric. Union sent it back.

Greg was as serious about litigation as he was tree removal. He sued Union Electric for the cost of his tree-cutting crew. And he got further than you might think.

Fenlon v. Union Electric Co., 266 S.W.3d 852 (Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, 2008). Greg Fenlon was not a guy to let a job go undone. When he noticed a dangerous tree interfering with Union Electric wires, he contacted the utility to report it. Union Electric sent a couple of men in a truck, who trimmed back a few branches but refused Greg’s demand that they cut down the hazardous tree (despite the fact it was inside the utility’s easement). So Greg did the job himself, hiring a contractor to cut down the tree. He then sued the utility for the cost of the removal.

The trial court dismissed Greg’s claim, and he appealed.

Held: Greg’s suit was reinstated.

The Court observed that suppliers of electricity must exercise the highest degree of care to maintain their wires in such condition as to prevent injury, citing the Missouri Supreme Court’s Gladden case. However, the Court said, “nothing in Gladden limits the exercise of the highest degree of care solely to the trimming of branches that are either touching or close to wires. Rather, the focus in Gladden is on the likelihood of injury and prevention thereof.”

The key issue here, the Court said, was whether the hazard tree created an unreasonable risk of injury, and that was a question of fact. If it did, then Greg’s self-help in the Union Electric easement should be paid by the utility.

The trial court was in error when it effectively determined a question of fact question on a motion to dismiss. Greg’s pleadings were adequate to state a cause of action, so the matter had to go back for trial.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, February 11, 2019

HERE WE CUT DOWN THE MULBERRY BUSH…

When Mamie’s lights went out, she called the electric company to fix them. The linemen tracked down the problem and fixed it while Mamie was off at Wal-Mart. But while they were there and Mamie wasn’t, the electric workers saw an excellent opportunity to saw… and to get rid of some trees in the utility’s easement across Mamie’s yard that they thought were in the way of the distribution line to Mamie’s house.

Mamie returned, shopping bags in hand, to find her mulberry tree had been cut down and cherry tree topped. Naturally, she sued. After all, her trees had not caused the power outage. But the electric company said the tree could have caused the power loss, but for the grace of God, and it relied on its easement to support its right to remove the one tree and permanently stunt the other out of concern that someday they might pose a hazard.

I would have bet a new chainsaw that the electric company was going to win this one, and I can only conclude that it may have been “homered” by the local judge. After all, Mamie was a neighbor, and the big, bad electric co-op was just some faceless out-of-towner. I know of no other way (than possibility an inability to read precedent and engage in reasoned thought) to justify a holding that while the utility had an easement, as well as the duty to maintain the reliability of its lines, it nonetheless could not merely be liable for overzealous trimming, but even be socked with treble damages.

Treble damages are only appropriate in Missouri if the malefactor lacks probable cause to believe it owned the land the tree stood on. That test should have been modified to comport with the facts. Consolidated had an easement for the electric lines to cross Mamie’s property, and whether its decision to trim or remove the trees near its lines was correct or not, the decision should have been accorded deference.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a subsequent Missouri electric company case, where we will see the utility get sandbagged despite its desperate reliance on today’s holding.

Segraves v. Consolidated Elec. Coop., 891 S.W.2d 168 (Ct.App. Missouri, 1995). Mamie Segraves sued Consolidated Electric Co-op, her electric utility, after one of its linemen cut down her mulberry tree and “topped off” her cherry tree.

One summer day, Mamie awoke to find that her electricity was off. She left to go shopping at 9 a.m., and when she returned two hours later, the lights were back on. However, the mulberry and cherry trees in her front yard had been cut down and one branch of her elm tree had been cut off.

Mamie testified these trees had never interfered with her electrical service before. In the past, Consolidated had asked to trim the trees around her electric lines, and she had always agreed, but it had not done so in the past six years. Mamie estimated the value of the mulberry tree was $2,000.00, and the value of the cherry tree was $500.00.

Mitch Hurt, a senior linemen with Consolidated, testified he was called to handle an electrical outage. He tracked the outage to a problem with one of the lines near Mamie’s home, but he could not pinpoint the problem. He had to drive down the road and look at the individual lines to try to find the problem. When he passed the line leading up to her house, he could not see the transformer pole. He stopped and went to inspect her service. He noticed her mulberry tree was very close to the transformer, and so he cut it down “to get it away from the transformer pole.” He also cut off the entire top of a nearby cherry tree because its branches had all grown towards the line. He felt these branches presented a safety hazard because children could easily climb them and reach the power lines. Mitch admitted it may not have been necessary to cut down either of these trees to reinstate electrical service.

Bob Pogue, Jr., Mitch’s boss, testified he told Mitch to trim as much of the trees as he thought was necessary. Bob Jahn, Consolidated’s general manager, testified Mamie knew about the location of the electric lines when she bought the place.

The trial court found in Mamie’s favor, and assessed treble damages. Consolidated appealed.

Held: The Co-op had no right to cut the trees, and treble damages were proper.

The trial court did not find Consolidated to be a trespasser, because it had the right to enter onto Mamie’s premises to maintain the electric lines. The right to remove limbs that have fallen onto the lines, however, “does not extend to cutting down trees or ‘topping’ trees that are not presently interfering with electrical service without prior consultation with the property owner.” While the mulberry and the cherry trees probably needed to be trimmed, the trial court said, there was no evidence that the mulberry “needed to be cut to a stump and that the cherry needed to be cut back to its major trunks, eliminating all of the fruit-bearing branches.”

Section 537.340 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri allowing for treble damages for the destruction of trees, does not require that a party wrongfully enter upon the property. In fact, the Court of Appeals said, Mamie can recover for wrongfully cut down trees if she can establish either that Consolidated wrongfully entered her land and cut down the trees, or Consolidated entered her land with consent but exceeded the scope of the consent by cutting down the trees without permission.

While it is true, as Consolidated argued, that a license may be converted into an easement by estoppel if the licenseholder can establish it spends a great deal of time and money to secure enjoyment of its use, the scope of such an easement nevertheless will be determined by the meaning and intent that the parties give to it. The Court found no history between the parties of cutting down trees, and nothing from which such a right to cut down trees can be implied. Thus, even if Consolidated did acquire an easement by estoppel, it exceeded the scope of the easement by cutting down Mamie’s mulberry and cherry trees.

The utility also argued it was required by law to trim or remove the trees to ensure safety. Under the National Electrical Safety Code, Consolidated argued, it was required to trim or remove trees that may interfere with ungrounded supply conductors should be trimmed or removed, and where that was not practical, the conductor should be separated from the tree with proper materials to avoid damage by abrasion and grounding of the circuit through the tree. Consolidated maintained it had authority to remove Mamie’s trees according to the Code because there was substantial evidence showing limbs of both trees had been burned by electricity, the mulberry tree was blocking the transformer pole, and the children living nearby could have easily climbed either tree and reached the live electric wires.

The Court rejected that, holding that Consolidated failed to show that the Code applied here because it failed to present evidence that the electrical wires leading to Mamie’s home were “ungrounded supply conductors.” Further, even if the Code applied, it gives electric companies two options, trim or remove the trees. The trial court found it was unnecessary to remove the trees in this case.

Not to be deterred, Consolidated also argued it was obligated to remove the trees because it had a non-delegable duty to maintain a safe clearance around its electrical lines. “Although Consolidated was required to exercise the highest degree of care in maintaining its electrical wires,” the Court said, “it was not required to remove the trees surrounding them, and it exceeded its authority by doing so.”

Section 537.340 of Missouri Revised Statutes holds that if any person shall cut down, injure, or destroy or carry away any tree placed or growing for use, shade, or ornament, or any timber, rails, or wood standing, being or growing on the land of any other person, the person so offending shall pay to the party injured treble the value of the things so injured, broken, destroyed, or carried away, with costs.

The Court noted that a person can only fell trees wrongfully in one of two ways: he can enter the land wrongfully and fell the trees; or, he can enter with the landowner’s consent and then exceed the scope of that consent by felling trees without permission. While the statute limits damages recoverable to single damages in certain cases, such as where it appears the defendant has probable cause to believe that the land on which the trespass is alleged to be committed, or that the thing so taken, carried away, injured, or destroyed, is his own. It was up to Consolidated to prove it has such probable cause.

The determination of whether the defendant proved probable cause existed rests with the trial judge. Here, the Court said, “the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in finding Consolidated did not have probable cause” to believe it had the right to cut down Mamie’s trees.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, February 8, 2019

ONE STATE’S TREE IS ANOTHER STATE’S PEST

Fast growing ... and messy as a 3-year old ...

Fast growing … and messy as a 3-year old child …

Long before the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Fancher v. Fagella, a little-noticed New Mexico decision grappled with the problems caused by cottonwood trees. Cottonwoods can be majestic, and they were welcome enough to the tired and thirsty pioneers that the cottonwood became the state tree of Kansas. But at the same time, there are some arborists (and more than a few homeowners) who label them as dangerous, messy and a tree that should “be removed from most residential property.

Mr. Fox had a cottonwood tree he loved dearly. His neighbors didn’t fall into the same category, however. They hated the constantly shedding tree with the invasive and prolific root system. Like the banyan tree in Whitesell v. Houlton, there was a lot about Mr. Fox’s cottonwood not to like.

I have often mentioned the time-honored legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law.” It bears repeating here. Like the Whitesell v. Houlton banyan tree, Mr. Fox’s cottonwood generated sufficient horror stories in the trial transcript to explain the trial court’s decision that Mr. Fox’s tree had to go. A more level-headed weighing of the competing property and societal interests was undertaken by the Court of Appeals.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas ...except it's June, and the cottonwood is shedding cotton like a plantation in a tornado.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas … except it’s June, and the cottonwood is shedding cotton like a plantation in a tornado.

None of that changed the outcome for Mr. Fox. He had to pay damages, and Abbinetts were free to hack away at the tree’s root system to the full extent of the Massachusetts Rule. But for those of us who admire the process, the Court of Appeals’ thoughtful opinion was a breath of fresh air.

Abbinett v. Fox, 103 N.M. 80, 703 P.2d 177 (Ct.App. N.M. 1985). The Abbinetts and Fox formerly owned adjoining residences in Albuquerque. The Abbinetts sued, alleging that while Fox owned his place, roots from a large cottonwood tree on his property encroached onto their land and damaged a patio slab, cracked the sides of a swimming pool, broke a block wall and a portion of the foundation of their house, and clogged a sprinkler system.

The Abbinetts asked for an injunction against Fox. The trial court found against Fox for $2,500, but denied injunctive relief to force Fox to remove the tree roots. Instead, the Court entered an order authorizing the Abbinetts to utilize self-help to destroy or block the roots of the cottonwood trees from encroaching on their land. The Foxes appealed the decision.

Cottonwoods are known for their intricate and aggressive root systems

Cottonwoods have intricate and aggressive root systems …

Held: The New Mexico Court of Appeals grappled for the first time with the Massachusetts Rule, the Hawaii Rule and the Smith v. Holt-era Virginia Rule. Instead, it adopted a modification of all of these, finding that when overhanging branches or protruding roots of plants actually cause – or there is imminent danger of them causing – “sensible harm” to property other than plant life, the damaged or endangered neighbor may require owner of the tree to pay for damages and to cut back the endangering branches or roots. Such “sensible harm” has to be something more than merely casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers or fruit. In so doing, the New Mexico Court anticipated the Virginia Supreme Court’s Fancher v. Fagella holding by about 22 years.

The New Mexico Court also opined that it is duty of a landowner to use his property in a reasonable manner so as not to cause injury to adjoining property. This is the Hawaii Rule. And the landowner who suffers encroachment from the tree of another may — but is not required to — “abate it without resort to legal proceedings provided he can do so without causing breach of peace.” This, of course, is the heart of the Massachusetts Rule. The New Mexico Court called all of these holdings a “modified Virginia Rule,” as indeed it was.

The Court held that a trial court may grant both damages for already incurred injuries and injunctive relief to prevent future harm, where there is showing of irreparable injury for which there is no adequate remedy at law.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Thursday, February 7, 2019

ENCROACHMENT, NUISANCE … AND THE MARCH OF TIME

camelhorse140429Encroachment – not the football kind, the tree kind. Encroachment governs the rights of adjoining property owners when the trees on one of the properties encroaches on the property of the other. Overhanging branches, invasive root systems, falling debris … those kinds of problems.

Monday, we explored one of the two different approaches to encroachment under American law, the “Massachusetts Rule” that landowners are limited to self-help – but not lawsuits – to stop encroaching trees and roots. Yesterday, we looked at the other end of these 50 United States, and the “Hawaii Rule,” a holding that a landowner could sue for damages and injunctive relief when a neighbor’s tree was causing actual harm or was an imminent danger to his or her property.

Between the two competing rules, Virginia found herself firmly straddling the line. The fair Commonwealth may be for lovers, (or, in these days of blackface scandals and accusations of sexual impropriety, for losers) but it is also for equivocators. The landmark Old Dominion case on the issue, Smith v. Holt, hailed from the 1930s, holding that the Massachusetts Rule applied unless the tree in question was (1) causing actual harm or was an imminent danger; and (2) “noxious.” This holding brings to mind the maxima camel looks like a horse designed by a committee.” Frankly, Smith v. Holt had “committee’ written all over it. It seemed to hold that the Massachusetts Rule applied except where it didn’t. And what did “noxious” have to do with anything?

hoist140715The Virginia Supreme Court finally addressed the confusing situation in Fancher v. Fagella. There the Court found itself hoisted on its own “noxious” petard. Everyone could agree that poison ivy was noxious, and most people could agree kudzu was noxious. But how about a cute little shade tree? Shade trees are definitely not in the same league with poisonous or entangling pests, but yet, a cute little shade tree can come out of the ground harder and do more damage than poison ivy or kudzu ever could.

Take the tree in Fancher. It was a sweet gum, a favored landscaping tree as well as a valuable hardwood. But for poor Mr. Fancher, it was Hydra covered in bark. Only halfway grown, Fagella’s sweet gum’s roots were already knocking over a retaining wall, kicking up patio stones, breaking up a house foundation and growing into sewers and even the house electrical system. Fancher sued for an injunction, but the trial court felt obligated to follow Smith v. Holt. There was just no way that a sweet gum tree could be noxious, the local court held, and thus, it would not help the frustrated Mr. Fancher. But the Virginia Supreme Court, wisely seeing that the “noxious” standard was of no help in these cases, abandoned the hybrid rule of Smith v. Holt, an unwieldy compromise that had already become known as the “Virginia Rule.” The Court – noting that the “Massachusetts Rule” was a relic of a more rural, bucolic age – decided that the “Hawaii Rule” was the better fit for modern, crowded, helter-skelter suburban life. It sent the case back to the trial court, instructing the judge that the court should consider whether an injunction should issue.

This decision fits neatly into what we have been considering for the past week on negligence and nuisance. Here, the tree had become a nuisance, possibly because Fagella had not cared for the tree before it began damaging the neighbor’s property. All the tree had ever done is what trees do – it grew. And grew and grew. It was healthy, perhaps amazingly so, but Fagella was ordered to shoulder the cost of damages caused not because it was dangerous, or dead, or anything other than an inconvenience.

Like the decision or hate it, you could see this coming. From an age in which trees grew and lived and died, and effects of the life cycle were not chargeable against the landowner, we may be arriving at a point where trees aren’t much more than big, woody pets, with their owners responsible for whatever the tree may naturally do.

Fancher v. Fagella, 650 S.E.2d 519, 274 Va. 549 (2007). Fancher and Fagella were the owners of adjoining townhouses in Fairfax County, Virginia (a largely urban or suburban county west of Washington, D.C., and part of the Washington metropolitan area). Fagella’s property is higher in elevation than Fancher’s, and a masonry retaining wall runs along the property line to support the grade separation. Fancher has a sunken patio behind his home, covered by masonry pavers.

treeonhouse160322Fagella had a sweet gum tree located a few feet from the retaining wall, about 60 feet high with a 2-foot diameter trunk at its base. Sweet gums are native to the area, and grow to 120 to 140 feet in height at maturity, with a trunk diameter of 4 to 6 feet. The tree was deciduous, dropping spiky gumballs and having a heavy pollen load. It also has an invasive root system and a high demand for water.

In the case of Fagella’s tree, the root system had displaced the retaining wall between the properties, displaced the pavers on Fancher’s patio, caused blockage of his sewer and water pipes and had begun to buckle the foundation of his house. The tree’s overhanging branches grew onto his roof, depositing leaves and other debris in his rain gutters. Fancher attempted self-help, trying to repair the damage to the retaining wall and the rear foundation himself, and cutting back the overhanging branches, but he was ineffective in the face of continuing expansion of the root system and branches. Fancher’s arborist believed the sweet gum tree was only at mid-maturity, that it would continue to grow, and that “[n]o amount of concrete would hold the root system back.” The arborist labeled the tree “noxious” because of its location, and said that the only way to stop the continuing damage being done by the root system was to remove the tree entirely.

Fancher sued for an injunction compelling Fagella to remove the tree and its invading root system entirely, and asked for damages to cover the cost of restoring the property to its former condition. Fagella moved to strike the prayer for injunctive relief. The trial court, relying on Virginia law set down in Smith v. Holt, denied injunctive relief. Fancher appealed.

Held: The Supreme Court abandoned the “Virginia Rule,” adopting instead the “Hawaii Rule” that while trees and plants are ordinarily not nuisances, they can become so when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. Then, injunctive relief and damages will lie. The Court traced the history of the encroachment rule from the “Massachussetts Rule” — which holds that a landowner’s right to protect his property from the encroaching boughs and roots of a neighbor’s tree is limited to self-help, i.e., cutting off the branches and roots at the point they invade his property — through the modern “Hawaii Rule.” The Court noted that Virginia had tried to strike a compromise between the two positions with the “Virginia Rule” set out in Smith v. Holt, which held that the intrusion of roots and branches from a neighbor’s plantings which were “not noxious in [their] nature” and had caused no “sensible injury” were not actionable at law, the plaintiff being limited to his right of self-help.

Invasive_rootsThe Court found the “Massachusetts Rule” rather unsuited to modern urban and suburban life, although it may still work well in many rural conditions. It admitted that the “Virginia Rule” was justly criticized because the classification of a plant as “noxious” depends upon the viewpoint of the beholder. Just about everyone would agree that poison ivy is noxious. Many would agree that kudzu is, too, because of its tendency toward rampant growth, smothering other vegetation. But few would declare healthy shade trees to be noxious, although they may cause more damage and be more expensive to remove, than the poison ivy or kudzu. The Court decided that continued reliance on the distinction between plants that are noxious, and those that are not, imposed an unworkable and futile standard for determining the rights of neighboring landowners.

Therefore, the Court overruled Smith v. Holt, insofar as it conditions a right of action upon the “noxious” nature of a plant that sends forth invading roots or branches into a neighbor’s property. Instead, it adopted the Hawaii Rule, finding that encroaching trees and plants are not nuisances merely because they cast shade, drop leaves, flowers, or fruit, or just because they happen to encroach upon adjoining property either above or below the ground. However, encroaching trees and plants may be regarded as a nuisance when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. If so, the owner of the tree or plant may be held responsible for harm caused to adjoining property, and may also be required to cut back the encroaching branches or roots, assuming the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance. The Court was careful to note that it wasn’t altering existing law that the adjoining landowner may, at his own expense, cut away the encroaching vegetation to the property line whether or not the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance or is otherwise causing harm or possible harm to the adjoining property.

The Court warned that not every case of nuisance or continuing trespass may be enjoined, but it could be considered here. The decision whether to grant an injunction, the Court held, always rests in the sound discretion of the chancellor and depends on the relative benefit an injunction would confer upon the plaintiff in contrast to the injury it would impose on the defendant. In weighing the equities in a case of this kind, the chancellor must necessarily first consider whether the conditions existing on the adjoining lands are such that it is reasonable to impose a duty on the owner of a tree to protect a neighbor’s land from damage caused by its intruding branches and roots. In the absence of such a duty, the traditional right of self-help is an adequate remedy. It would be clearly unreasonable to impose such a duty upon the owner of historically forested or agricultural land, but entirely appropriate to do so in the case of parties, like those in the present case, who dwell on adjoining residential lots.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, February 6, 2019

YESTERDAY CHOCOLATE, TODAY VANILLA

chocolate160325The law of encroaching trees runs a continuum from total self-help to the exclusion of any judicial remedy (theMassachusetts Rule,” which we discussed yesterday) – to tree owner liability (the “Hawaii Rule”), with many variations in between. If the law of encroachment were administered by Baskin Robbins, the Massachusetts Rule would be chocolate ice cream, and the Hawaii Rule would be vanilla.

In Whitesell v. Houlton, a Hawaiian appellate court first adopted what is generally known as the “Hawaii Rule,” which held that when there is imminent danger of overhanging branches causing “sensible” harm to property other than plant life, the tree owner is liable for the cost of trimming the branches as well as for the damage caused.

Maybe the court’s holding that the Whitesell v. Houlton tree was a nuisance arose from the hard facts of that case: the tree was a massive banyan tree, with a 12-foot trunk and 90 foot height. There is an old legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law,” and the banyan tree in this case was pretty clearly monster flora, sort of the kudzu of trees. Perhaps it was that the laid-back political and cultural nature of the Sandwich Islands is far removed from the flintier New Englanders and the type of self-reliance embraced by the “Massachusetts Rule.

banyan160325For whatever reason, if a branch from a healthy tree in Massachusetts is in danger of falling into a neighbor’s yard, that neighbor may trim it at his or her own expense … but that’s it. In Hawaii, overhanging branches or protruding roots constitute a nuisance when they actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit. Then, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may either use self-help to cut back on the encroaching tree, or may require the owner of the offending tree to pay for damages and to cut back endangering branches or roots. If such is not done within a reasonable time, the neighbor may even have the trimming done at tree owner’s expense.

As we said, nothing in this ruling prevents a landowner — at his or her own expense — from cutting any part of an adjoining owner’s trees or other plant life up to his property. It’s just that the Massachusetts Rule says that’s all a landowner may do. Hawaii thinks differently. Tomorrow, we’ll see that Hawaii may be on the right side of history in this debate.

Whitesell v. Houlton, 632 P.2d 1077 (App. Ct. Hawaii, 1981). The Whitesells and Mr. Houlton lived next to each other. Mr. Houlton owned a 90-foot tall banyan tree with foliage extending 100 to 110 feet from the trunk. The tree overhung the Whitesells’ property. and the two-lane street fronting both properties. The Whitesells asked Mr. Houlton repeatedly over a two-year period to trim the tree, and they took it upon themselves to do so at various times. Their VW microbus – probably chartreuse – was damaged by low-hanging branches, their garage roof was damaged by some intruding branches from the tree, and they identified branches damaged in a storm that were in danger of falling.

Despite their entreaties, Mr. Houlton did nothing. Finally, the Whitesells hired a professional tree trimmer who cut the banyan’s branches back to Houlton’s property line, and then sued Mr. Houlton to get him to pay.

The trial court sided with the Whitesells, and ruled that Mr. Houlton had to pay. He appealed.

Held: Mr. Houlton had to pay. The court surveyed different approaches taken by other states, identifying the “Massachusetts Rule” holding that Mr. Houlton had no duty to the Whitesells, or the “Virginia Rule” that said Mr. Houlton had a duty to prevent his tree from causing sensible damage to his neighbor’s property.

nuisance160325The Court agreed with Mr. Houlton that “the Massachusetts Rule is ‘simple and certain’. However, we question whether it is realistic and fair. Because the owner of the tree’s trunk is the owner of the tree, we think he bears some responsibility for the rest of the tree. It has long been the rule in Hawaii that if the owner knows or should know that his tree constitutes a danger, he is liable if it causes personal injury or property damage on or off of his property . . . Such being the case, we think he is duty bound to take action to remove the danger before damage or further damage occurs.” This is especially so, the Court said, where the tree in question was a banyan tree in the tropics.

Thus, the Court adopted what it called “a modified Virginia rule.” It held that “overhanging branches which merely cast shade or drop leaves, flowers, or fruit are not nuisances; that roots which interfere only with other plant life are not nuisances; that overhanging branches or protruding roots constitute a nuisance only when they actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit; that when overhanging branches or protruding roots actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may require the owner of the tree to pay for the damages and to cut back the endangering branches or roots and, if such is not done within a reasonable time, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may cause the cutback to be done at the tree owner’s expense.”

The Court pointed out that this rule did not strip a landowner of the right, at his or her expense, to trim a neighbor’s overhanging tree or subterranean tree roots up to the property line. It’s just where the Massachusetts Rule limits you to helping yourself, the Hawaii Rule lets you enlist the courts to do the heavy lifting.

– Tom Root

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