Case of the Day – Wednesday, July 14, 2021


Did that plaintiff ever have gall ... or gull ... or cojones or something...

      Did that plaintiff ever have gall … or gull … or cojones or something!  What he didn’t have was any proof.

The plaintiff in today’s case had his foot broken when a branch from his neighbor’s tree fell. So how was he different from this rather odd-looking seagull sitting on a seawall to our left?

Easy – the gull has a leg to stand on.

Our hapless litigant – Rick Meyers by name – lived next to a man named Delaney, who owned a catalpa tree. The catalpa is a pretty good-looking deciduous tree that drops bean pods and leaves in the fall, but little else. It’s a solid Anglo-American tree, flowering in the spring and with large leaves and deep shade in the summer. In fact, it’s the sole food source for the catalpa sphinx moth, a creature favored by southern anglers as bait. Birds love it, caterpillars love it, fishermen love it … and so do most people.

That list would exclude our hobbling protagonist, Rick Meyers. The Delaneys’ catalpa tree provided shade to Mr. Meyers’ driveway with its overhanging branches. But one day, Rick had run barefooted outside to put up the car windows (we suspect a thunderstorm was about to hit, which would have been accompanied by gusty winds, but the record didn’t say as much). While he was doing so, a branch broke free from the tree and fell on his foot.

A catalpa -beloved by fisherman and fowl - but not by Rick Meyers.

A catalpa -beloved by fisherman and fowl – but not by Rick Meyers.

Rick didn’t have a shred of proof that anyone – including the Delaneys – had reason to know that the branch was going to break. But lack of evidence would not inconvenience our Rick. He sued anyway, claiming that as owners of a tree in a residential area, the Delaneys had a duty to know the branch was going to fall, and never mind how they were supposed to have figured that out. You see, Rick’s foot hurt, and someone had to pay.

The trial court took a more sanguine view. It believed that if the Delaneys couldn’t clearly see that the tree was dangerous, they couldn’t be found to be negligent simply because they had not sleuthed it out. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed. The risk has to be seeable before it can be found to be foreseeable.

A landowner has no affirmative duty to inspect trees where no defect is "readily observable."

A landowner has no affirmative duty to inspect trees where no defect is “readily observable.”

Meyers v. Delaney, 529 N.W.2d 288 (Iowa Sup.Ct. 1995). Meyers and Delaney owned adjoining properties. Standing between their homes, but on the Delaney homestead, was a large catalpa tree. The tree limbs hung over the Meyers driveway. The Meyers family parked cars under the branch each day, and the Meyers kids played around it when outside.

One evening in mid-July, 1990, Rick Meyers ran barefoot out to his car to roll up the windows. He heard a large crack, and then a large catalpa limb fell from the tree, striking and severely injuring his foot. He sued the Delaneys for negligence, claiming they failed to maintain the tree properly, failed to warn him of the dangerous condition of the tree, and failed to protect him from a danger that in the exercise of reasonable care the Delaneys knew or should have known existed.

The trial court found that the Delaneys neither knew nor should they have reasonably known the tree was dangerous, so they were not negligent. Rick Meyers appealed.

Held: The Iowa Supreme Court agreed that the Delaneys were not liable.

The Meyers v. Delaney rule - it's not foreseeable unless its seeable.

The Meyers v. Delaney rule – a tree’s defects are not foreseeable unless they’re seeable.

The Court noted that the general rule is that one who maintains trees owes a duty to avoid injuring persons on adjoining premises by permitting a tree to become so defective and decayed it will fall on them. However, the Court held, there is no duty to consistently and constantly check all trees for non-visible decay. Rather, the decay must be readily observable in order to require a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent harm. If the decay or infirmity is readily observable, the tree owner may be liable for injuries caused by a defective condition of the tree if he or she had actual or constructive notice of the tree’s defective condition.

In this case, the catalpa tree had had a dead limb removed by a friend of the Delaneys the summer before. The friend, who had some experience working in trees, testified he observed nothing in the tree to cause him concern about his safety. Furthermore, while Meyer’s expert tree trimmer testified that the tree was dangerous, he conceded on the stand that there was nothing that Delaneys could have observed about the tree before the accident that would have alerted them to be concerned over its safety.

Thus, there was no negligence.

Tom Root

Case of the Day – Tuesday, July 13, 2021


mitty140808You know how free association goes. It’s summer, hot and humid, and we face a string 90-degree plus days in our future, so we’ve been groovin’ (a 60s term, kiddies) on an old Lovin’ Spoonful hit, “Summer in the City.

Although operating without a lot of the mental stimulants that were so freely available during the Summer of Love, we nonetheless started pondering the line “Back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty.” “Gritty” rhymes with “pretty,” which rhymes with “Priddy.” And there you have it. Thinking a lot about tree law (as we do), we recalled Walter Priddy.

“Oh, yeah,” you say, “that guy James Thurber wrote about. The secret life and all … The Ben Stiller movie …” No, not ‘Mitty.’ We’re talking ‘Walter Priddy.’ No “secret life” that we know of, but something just as fascinating – a line of boundary trees, an unhappy neighbor, a homeowner’s association, counterclaims. Our meat and potatoes, you know.

It ought to be rather obvious — a court can only decide issues that have been placed before it, and can only order remedies which address the causes of action that it has found to have merit. Courts sometimes lose their way, though, as did the California trial court in today’s case. The Boussiacoses (pronounced “them”) complained that the Priddys’ line of shade trees along their common boundary were a nuisance, messed up the Boussiacoses’ deck, and violated the homeowner’s associations’ rules. The Priddys argued that the trees did no such things, and anyway, the Boussiacoses’ deck had been built without homeowner’s association permission, constituted a nuisance itself, and violated the rules.

The trial court decided that neither side was right. Now your average observer would conclude that the decision meant that the Boussiacoses kept their deck and the Priddys kept their trees. But the trial court decided that the Boussiacoses must have reached an oral “understanding” (and we don’t know how an “understanding” surrounded by quotation marks differs one that isn’t in quotes) with the owners before the Priddys that the trees would be kept trimmed. Now, mind you, the Boussiacoses hadn’t argued that there was such an “understanding,” or that if there was it should be treated like some kind of enforceable agreement. But the trial judge – quite proud of his “solution” – decided that the phantom “understanding” should bind the Priddys anyway. He crafted a decision that let the Boussiacoses keep their deck provided the Priddys got to keep their trees, but the trees had to be hacked off at the height of some wrought-iron fence that was apparently part of the landscape.

Solomonic, you say? Not really. Remember that King Solomon never really intended to cut the baby in half. Plus, that decision at least directly addressed the issue the two warring women had placed before the King and no more – that questions being exactly whose baby the subject infant was. Here, the trial court found that there was nothing wrong with the trees and nothing wrong with the deck, but he ordered the trees trimmed anyway. It’s kind of like being charged with bank robbery, being found not guilty by the jury, but being sentenced to 5-10 years in the pen anyway because the judge thinks you probably cheated on your taxes.

In this dramatic re-enactment, King Solomon faces a tough decision.

In this dramatic and plastic re-enactment, King Solomon faces a tough decision – how to divide the bambino.

The Court of Appeals thought as little of the trial court’s decision as we do. It made short work of the trial court’s order. Because no one had raised the issue of whether there had been an understanding (or “understanding”) about the trees between the plaintiffs and the prior owners of defendants’ place, the trial court couldn’t find there had been one and enter an order accordingly.

Boussiacos v. Priddy, 2007 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 9979, 2007 WL 4306835 (Cal.App., Dec. 11, 2007). The Boussiacoses sued their next-door neighbors, the Priddys, for statutory nuisance and violation of their mutual homeowners association’s covenants and rules. They alleged the Priddys maintained trees which blocked the Boussiacoses’ view along the parties’ shared property line. The Priddys counter-sued, alleging nuisance and violation of the covenants and rules , because the Boussiacoses had apparently built their deck without the homeowners association’s approval.

Following a bench trial, the trial court found that neither party had proved any of the claims raised in the pleadings. However, the trial court entered judgment anyway, requiring the Priddys to maintain the trees at specified heights in accordance with an “understanding” allegedly entered into by the Boussiacoses and the previous owners of the Priddys’ property. He also ruled that the Boussiacoses could keep their deck. The Priddys appealed, arguing that the trial court couldn’t enter a judgment where it hadn’t found the Boussiacoses’ underlying claims to have any merit.

No pruning for the Priddys

No pruning for the Priddys

Held: The trial court’s “judgment” was thrown out. The Boussiacoses had asserted only two claims against the Priddys, statutory nuisance and violation of the homeowners’ association’s covenants and rules. Because the trial court concluded on the record that the Boussiacoses failed to prove either claim, the Court of Appeals said, the judge was without any legal authority to make findings regarding an “understanding” between the Boussiacoses and the previous owners of the Priddys’ property. Such an “understanding” wasn’t alleged in the pleadings. The judge could not conclude that this understanding was enforceable against the Priddys, and could not enter a judgment which imposed tree-trimming maintenance obligations on the Priddys.

The Court of Appeals held that a trial court’s award of relief must be based on a pleaded cause of action. Trial courts are more arbiters than gods. Here, the trial court transcended the limits of its authority. Because the record did not show that the enforcement of any agreement between the Boussiacoses and the previous owners of the Priddys’ property was before the court, the trial court erred by awarding the Boussiacoses relief on that basis.

Groovy appellate decision, we must say.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, July 12, 2021


sudoku150624The story’s not new, but it’s new to us … four jurors playing sudoku during a drug conspiracy trial in Sydney, Australia, caused a mistrial to be declared after three months and 100 witnesses. We feel for them – a lot of what goes on in the courtroom is deadly dull, and occasionally, rather foolish as well.

This is one of those cases that makes our point. The Wisemans had an access easement along the boundary of their property and their neighbor, Mr. Greenfield. They sold some land to a developer, and part of the deal was that the developer would install a driveway. The developer hired a company to do it. After the job was done — and the driveway was indeed properly within the access easement — Mr. Greenfield said that some branches had been cut from a pine tree of his that stood along the drive.

This being America, he sued his new neighbors.

Mr. Greenfield had no witness that his neighbor — or anyone else, for that matter — had cut off the branches. He had no evidence that the tree’s value had been lessened (except for his own claim that his property was worth $25,000 less, pretty steep for a couple of pine boughs). But the lack of evidence didn’t bother him that much.

It did bother the Court, however. First, the Court noted, the fact that the branches were missing didn’t mean the Wisemans had cut them. Second, the subcontractor for the developer wasn’t the Wisemans’ agent, even if he had cut the branches (and Greenfield had no evidence he had done so). Third, there was no unbiased evidence as to the extent of damage, and the Court wasn’t going to sit still to hear Mr. Greenfield speculate as to how much he ought to get in damages.

Most important for us students of the Massachusetts and Hawaii rules, the Court said even if the Wisemans had trimmed the branches back to the limits of the easement, they had the right to do so, and any damages Greenfield could recover for were only for any extra branch that might have been taken beyond the property line.

This action was truly a waste of everyone’s time… Ready for a hand of Old Maid?

Sometimes, trimming trees next to driveways is a darn good idea ...

Sometimes, trimming trees next to driveways is a darn good idea …

Greenfield v. Wiseman, 2008 Conn. Super. LEXIS 198, 2008 WL 344606 (Conn.Super., Jan. 17, 2008). David Greenfield owned property next to that belonging to Carter and Eileen Wiseman. The Wisemans had access to a portion of their land only by means of a 20-foot wide corridor running across the Greenfield land. When the Wisemans sold some of their land to a development company, part of the deal was that the developer would build a gravel driveway along the access corridor. The company hired a subcontractor to do so.

Shortly after the driveway was built, Greenfield sued, claiming breach of covenants and trespass. He abandoned all claims except the trespass claim, arguing that the development company and the Wisemans trespassed while the driveway was being built, by cutting some limbs off a large pine tree on the corner of his land. No one witnessed the actual cutting of the trees, nor was any testimony presented from those who actually cut the limbs. The uncontradicted testimony was that neither of Wisemans personally cut any of the branches, or witnessed the actions of those responsible. Nevertheless, Greenfield claimed damages under a Connecticut treble damage statute.

Held: Greenfield’s case was thrown out. The Court observed that the essential elements which must be proven to sustain an action for trespass were ownership or possession of an interest in land by the plaintiff, an invasion, intrusion or entry by the defendant affecting the plaintiff’s exclusive possessory interest, done intentionally, and causing direct injury. Here, the Court said, the evidence failed to show any intentional intrusion or invasion of Greenfield’s possessory interest by either of the Wisemans. The treble damage statute does not provide a new or independent cause of action. Instead, it merely provides a measure of damages applicable in situations in which compensatory damages, in the absence of the statute, would be recoverable.

This was just a stupid case to bring in the first place ...

This was just a stupid case to bring in the first place … That’s why Greenfield lost. Because he was a knucklehead, and his lawyer wasn’t any better …

But Greenfield said that the Wisemans were liable because the subcontractor was their agent. In order to demonstrate the existence of an agency relationship between the defendants and the unknown individual or individuals who cut the limbs from the plaintiff’s pine tree, the Court held, the evidence must establish a manifest action by the principal that the agent will act for him, an acceptance by the agent of the undertaking, and an understanding between the parties that the principal will be in control of the undertaking. Here, neither of the Wisemans controlled the means by which the driveway would be installed, and both were unaware of the name of the person or entity engaged by the development company to perform the actual installation work. There was no agency relationship.

Finally, Greenfield produced no evidence concerning the value of the cut branches, and all of the photographs revealed a healthy pine tree that did not have to be cut down as a result of the branches being removed. Besides, the Court said, the Wisemans or anyone acting as their agent would be fully justified in cutting any portion of the branches which extended beyond the stake onto their property.

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Friday, July 9, 2021


I got a call yesterday from a friend – I’ll call him Arnie Acme – who wanted me to look at a contract he was signing for office space. As a favor, Arnie said. “You know,” Arnie said, “just a quick read-through. After all, I know it’s OK.”

Enamored with the gravitas of a corporate structure, Arnie owns probably a dozen or more corporations or limited liability companies, all organized (I use that word very loosely) in a maze of affiliates, subsidiaries, parents, and joint ventures that would confuse a lab rat.  He forms them online, leaving the tedious work of writing bylaws, naming officers, and drafting minutes of corporate meetings until “later.” You can guess when “later” finally arrives… the day after he discovers he really needs them.

The contract he emailed me was between Office Megapark Corporation and “Acme.” I asked him which “Acme” he had in mind as the contracting party, given that he had “Acme Enterprises, Inc.,” “Acme Management, LLC,” “Acme Services Corporation,” “Acme Systems Limited Liability Company,” and a gaggle of other Acme variations of entities. He said he was not sure, and he would just put “Acme” in as the leasing party, so he could decide later which company he wanted to be the leaseholder. He planned to have his newly-hired office manager sign the lease, because her name had not yet appeared in any business records, and he could write her name and purported office into whatever corporate or LLC minutes he might need later. 

Arnie’s devil-may-care attitude toward contract and business association law reminded me of a sad fact. Small business owners sometimes (in Arnie’s case, always) skimp on the legal niceties. After all, they reason, paying out $500 to some lawyer for a bunch of forms and a vinyl corporate book doesn’t really “grow the business,” as the buzz phrase puts it. And who wants to squander money on a lawyer? Not Arnie. He just wanted a free and “quick read-through.”


Oops! Sometimes, misteaks happen.

That’s pretty false economy. In today’s case, a mom-and-pop timber harvesting business was hired to take down trees on one owner’s land, and — predictably enough — the chain saws wandered onto Mr. Follender’s land, to the tune of 439 commercial-quality trees cut down and removed without permission. Follender lost trees worth $54,500. After trebling and some discounts, he ended up with a $120,000 judgment against Bert Maxim, the defendant.

Unfortunately, the timber harvester had involved his wife in the business, and she did enough of the paperwork in the business that she had signed the contract for the timber operation that had gone awry. Oh, if they had only incorporated, formed an LLC, something! And if only Mrs. Maxim hadn’t signed that agreement! But hubby was out cutting down trees and they were in a hurry …

The Court ruled that her involvement in the unincorporated business was enough to make her liable for the $120,000 judgment as well.

Sure, or Lawforms-R-Us can sell you some boilerplate-laden forms over the Internet that’ll purportedly set you right up. But how a small business can best be structured to protect its principals from liability is a matter that varies from state to state. The legal niceties of the business organization — not just in the formation of the company but in day-to-day management — are best addressed by your local attorney or a specialist to whom he or she might refer you.

corporate_structureBut get the advice now. Usually, by the time you realize you should have spent the money on the legalities of business formation and protection, it’s too late.

Follender v. Maxim, 845 N.Y.S.2d 484, 44 A.D.3d 1227, 2007 WL 3101953 (N.Y.A.D., Oct. 25, 2007). Follender sued Berton Maxim and his wife for “wrongful and/or cutting down/taking of timber” from the purchased property. The Maxims, doing business as Prime Hardwood, had entered into a contract with Follender’s adjacent landowners, Valentine Riedman and Christl Riedman, to log their property. In the process, they inadvertently trespassed on Follender’s property and removed trees. Follender alleged negligence and conversion, with a request for treble damages, against the Riedmans and Maxim. They named his wife as a defendant, too, calling her “Jane Doe Maxim.”

Follender dropped the Riedmans from the suit, but the Maxims failed to answer or defend. After learning that Maxim’s wife’s name was Eileen Tine, Follender filed an amended verified complaint against them both individually and doing business as Prime Hardwood.

hook140806Again, they failed to answer or appear. After Follender got a default judgment against them, the court ordered an inquest. When the Maxims again failed to appear, Follender offered extensive proof which included, among other things, the contract between the Riedmans and Tine (signing on behalf of Prime Hardwood), an affidavit from Valentine Riedman which explained that when Maxim came to log his property, he was given a survey map which showed the Riedmans’ boundary line. Valentine Riedman was unaware that Maxim would remove timber outside of those boundaries. Michael Greason, a professional forester, testified that 439 commercial species trees were cut from Follender’s property, 386 of which had a value of $54,506.68. The Court trebled the damages, and assessed damages of $120,000 against Maxim but never mentioned his wife, Eileen. Follender appealed, contending that the failure to include Eileen in the order awarding damages was a mistake.

Held: The judgment was modified, and the order of the trial court awarding treble damages of $120,000 against logger Maxim for negligence and conversion was rewritten to include the logger’s wife in the award of damages. She had signed the contract between Maxim’s business and the landowner’s adjoining property owners, in connection with which the logger had trespassed onto Follender’s property and from which he unlawfully removed trees.

Generally, appellate courts may correct any mistake, defect, or irregularity in a judgment, provided that the correction does not affect a substantial right of a party.

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Thursday, July 8, 2021


They may just be the best doughnuts on earth ...

They may just be the best doughnuts on earth …

On Tuesday, we took up the case of a chagrinned Mazda RX-8 owner. Why was he unhappy? Was it the 18 mpg he got from the rotary engine? Was it the high-priced premium gas he had to burn? Was it the squirrely techniques he had to master for handing the temperamental little Regenesis engine? Of course not! RX-8 owners love their cars. Our guy was unhappy because a limb from his landlord’s tree had fallen on his pride and joy. He wondered whether he could sue.

The answer is, of course, sure he can sue. But, you ask, can he win? That’s a different question altogether. We tried to take up a collection to finance his lawsuit, but we got distracted once we had enough for a box of Lerch’s doughnuts. In the alternative, all we can do is consider his question. And we have an answer — a resounding, 9,500 r.p.m. “maybe!”

The car was damaged, the sandwich was a total loss. A tragedy of epic scale ...

The car was damaged, but Ms. Israel’s sandwich was a total loss. A tragedy that easily rivals the plagues visited on Pharaoh’s Egypt …

In Tuesday’s post, we looked at South Carolina’s duty of care for rural landowners. In today’s case, we see that the duty of care that urban or residential landowners owe to invitees and passersby is much stricter. Ms. Israel was sitting in her car one breezy spring day enjoying what was arguably the 21st best barbeque in the South when a large branch from a neighboring property fell on her car, destroying it and her sandwich. She was troubled about the damage to her car; she was devastated by the loss of the uneaten sandwich. So, naturally, this being the United States of America, she sued everyone.

The trial court awarded her thousands of sandwiches worth of damages, but the Court of Appeals reversed. As the owner of property in a residential or an urban area, the neighbor had a duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on his premises, including trees of purely natural origin. The evidence showed that the decayed tree could be seen from the ground. So the tree’s owner was toast.

But the Court wasn’t willing to serve any barbeque up on the toast. The owner of the pulled pork stand had a duty to his customers to exercise reasonable or ordinary care, measured by his ability to anticipate danger. In the absence of evidence that the restaurant owner either saw or could have seen the decayed limb from his property, he wasn’t liable.

The scene of the mishap - Orangeburg - is n the center of South Carolina "mustard-based" country.

The scene of the mishap – Orangeburg – is in the center of South Carolina “mustard-based” barbeque sauce country, a fact probably having nothing to do with the falling tree branch or the subsequent lawsuit …

So away from the succulent pork (covered in a mustard-based sauce, no doubt) and back to the gutsy little RX-8. The landlord certainly has a duty to his tenants, who are, after all, invitees. And we suppose the house is in a residential area. But was it clear from the ground that the limb was about to let go? If so, the landlord had a duty to fix it. If it was just one of those things, well … that’s what they call an ‘act of God.’

Israel v. Carolina Bar-B-Que, Inc., 292 S.C. 282, 356 S.E.2d 123 (Ct.App. S.C., 1987). Charlotte Israel sued for injuries she received, when a large limb from a tree on property owned by Andrew Berry, Trustee, fell over and onto the car in which she was seated and which was parked in the parking area of the Carolina Bar-B-Que. She sued both the owner of the real estate on which the tree was located and the owner of the land onto which the tree fell.

The next-door lot (the “Berry lot”) was 173 by 135 feet, on which there were a number of trees. Some large water oaks, planted about 1911, were located about 25 to 30 feet from the BBQ property line. These trees had received a radical pruning in 1971. Pictures showed visible signs of decay and rot in one of these trees. Some smaller oaks, planted about 1955, were located some 4 to 10 feet from the property line, between the large water oaks and the BBQ parking lot. These trees were bushy with some limbs overhanging the barbeque operator’s property, and having trunks of no more than 12 inches in diameter. A picture showed these trees in their relation to the barbeque parking lot. The Carolina Bar-B-Que owner occasionally pruned branches off those trees to the extent they were overhanging his lot. The limb that hit the car came from one of the large water oaks and had a diameter of between 12 and 25 inches. The limb was so large that the Israel car was, in effect, totally destroyed.

The Carolina Bar-B-Que’s manager said that no limbs from the large tree were overhanging his property. He noticed no decayed limbs on these trees. He surmised that the high winds that day “pushed [the limb] out” onto the Barbeque property. When he later removed the trees on this lot, he discovered only one tree in “bad shape” and it was not the tree from which the limb fell. A police officer who investigated the accident said that the limb was about 25 feet long and that he saw a tree from which the limb apparently came. He admitted that he couldn’t testify that there was a decayed portion of the limb visible from the Barbeque lot. However, the tree could have been inspected from the Berry property.

Ms. Israel sued the trust owning the Berry lot and Carolina Bar-B-Que. The jury awarded an $80,000 verdict (or about 27,119 really good BBQ sandwiches) against both the Barbeque and Mr. Berry. They both appealed.

crush160720Held: The Court reversed the judgment against the Barbeque but affirmed it against the Berry trust. The Court admitted that at common law, Berry would not have been liable for falling tree or limb. However, the realities of modern life had modified the rule. A landowner in a residential or urban area has a duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on his premises, including trees of purely natural origin. Here, the Court said, the evidence supported finding that Berry, the owner of the land from which the tree limb fell, was negligent. The tree was partially decayed, the limb’s dangerous condition and the likelihood of its falling could have been observed by reasonable inspection, and a reasonable person should have been aware of the danger which the decayed limb posed to persons on the adjoining property.

The Barbeque owed to a duty of care to the invitees or business visitors, one of exercising reasonable or ordinary care for the invitee’s safety. Reasonable care required by a business with respect to its invitees is measured by the ability of a reasonably prudent man to anticipate danger under conditions known or reasonably anticipated to exist. In the absence of evidence that the BBQ owner either saw or could have seen a dangerous condition from the Barbeque property with regard to a tree limb on the adjacent property, Carolina Barbeque was not liable to Ms. Israel.

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Wednesday, July 7, 2021


There’s an old saying that goes something like if you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes. Of course, the obverse of that aphorism is that if you are a lead dog, the view can be stunning indeed.

Appropriately enough, the plaintiffs in today’s case are the Boxers, a pair of top dogs if ever there were any. From their fancy home on South Spalding Drive, they “were accustomed to having an unobstructed view of the hills of Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills, and the Los Angeles basin, including the Hollywood sign, the Griffith Observatory, downtown Los Angeles, and – on a clear day – Mount Baldy 50 miles away.”

But then, in 1989, the City of Beverly Hills had to spoil things by planting 30 trees in nearby Roxbury Park. And not just any trees: the City planted coastal redwoods, which only grow to be the tallest tree in the world. The Boxers doggedly complained to the City, and in 2005, Beverly Hills responded by trimming the trees (but not completely restoring the view the Boxers loved so much). In 2013, the Boxers whined again, “but this time, the City simply ignored Plaintiffs’ concerns.”

So the Boxers sued, claiming that by destroying the view they loved so much, the City had impaired their view and decreased the value of their property.

The 5th Amendment prohibits the government from taking your property “without just compensation.” There are regular plain-vanilla takings, such as when the government bulldozes your house in order to let developers build a fancy high-priced neighborhood with houses, a marina, shops, and restaurants.

And then there are inverse condemnations, where the government does not take your land, but just does something else to make it uninhabitable, such as building a sewage treatment plant upwind to your house, planting a freeway embankment in front of your place, or extending a commercial airport runway to your front door stoop.

The Boxers blamed the City’s “plan, design, and maintenance of the redwood trees” for wrecking the view and increasing the risk of fire. The City demurred, which is the legal way of saying “even if everything they say in their complaint is true, they’ve got nothing coming.”

In California, property is taken or damaged, so as to give rise to a claim for inverse condemnation, when it has been physically invaded, or physically damaged, or an intangible intrusion onto the property has that places “a burden on the property that is direct, substantial, and peculiar to the property itself.” But no one has a basic right to an unobstructed view over adjoining property unless they have contracted with the adjacent property owners for it or the legislature provides for it.

Here, despite the Boxers’ rebellion, there had been no physical intrusion onto their property, and the fact that absent the view of the Beverly hills the property wasn’t worth as much does not constitute a taking or damaging. Imagine the mess were the court to agree with the Boxers: your neighbors’ house is painted a garish color that is an eyesore, or a new hotel goes up a block away that spoils your view of the sunrise, or a new grade school is built in the next block, and playground noise upsets your cats. If changes in the use of surrounding property – or, as here, the incremental growth of trees – that affect the character of the neighborhood in a way you don’t like somehow gives you the right to collect money damages from another, progress would grind to a halt. What would be as bad, you would be as restricted in making use of your property as you could restrict others.

Boxer v. City of Beverly Hills, 246 Cal.App.4th 1212 (Ct.App. 2nd Dist., 2016): The Boxers owned a house on Spalding Drive in Beverly Hills. They filed an inverse condemnation action against the City of Beverly Hills, seeking damages and injunctive relief based upon impairment of the views from their backyards by coastal redwood trees the City planted in Roxbury Park. They complained that they were accustomed to having an unobstructed view of the hills of Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills, and the Los Angeles basin, including the Hollywood sign, the Griffith Observatory, downtown Los Angeles, and even Mounty Baldy. Since their planting in 1989, the redwood trees had grown to block the previously unobstructed view. The Boxers wanted money and an order that the City had to trim or remove the trees.

The trial court agreed with the City that as a matter of law, inverse condemnation provides no remedy for impairment of view from private property.

The Boxers appealed.

Held: The Boxers went down for the count. The Court held that for inverse condemnation purposes, property is ‘taken or damaged’ within the meaning of the California Constitution when: (1) the property has been physically invaded in a tangible manner; (2) no physical invasion has occurred, but the property has been physically damaged; or (3) an intangible intrusion onto the property has occurred which has caused no damage to the property but places a burden on the property that is direct, substantial, and peculiar to the property itself.”

Where there is no physical intrusion, such as in this case, the plaintiff must allege that the intrusion has resulted in a burden on the property that is direct, substantial, and peculiar to the property itself. The diminution in the value of the property alone does not establish a compensable taking or damaging of the property. Rather, diminution in value of the property is just an element of the measure of just compensation when such taking or damaging has otherwise been proven.

The Boxers did not allege any physical intrusion, occupation, or invasion of their property or any physical damage to their property. The trees about which they complained were not located on their land. The Boxers necessarily relied upon the intangible intrusion theory and argued that because a “property owner’s loss of view is an aspect of compensable damage” in eminent domain cases, the impairment of their views is a harm sufficient to support their inverse condemnation claims.

It is not. While “a compensable visibility interest” has been recognized when the government has physically taken part of someone’s property, that interest is not itself a taking or damaging of the property.

The Court held that the Boxers did not have a property right to an unobstructed view, and they did not allege that either the trees in question or anything associated with the trees physically invaded their property, either tangibly or intangibly. Thus, they could not maintain an inverse condemnation cause of action.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Tuesday, July 6, 2021


An alert reader sent us a link to a sports car forum recently in which the proud owner of a Mazda RX-8 bemoaned the fact that his car had been hit by a limb that fell from his landlord’s tree. The owner wondered whether his landlord was liable for the deductible on his insurance.

Collisions with trees can be harrowing, whether in a care or on a bicycle.

Collisions with trees can be harrowing, whether in a car or on even just riding a bicycle.

Good question! Because the RX-8 and the tree both are South Carolina, we looked first at Staples v. Duell. In that case, Ms. Staples was driving down a rural road when she came upon one of Mr. Duell’s trees, which had fallen across the road. She came upon it rather suddenly, because she collided with it. She sued Mr. Duell, who was a landowner of some magnitude (about two miles worth of real estate along each side of the road).

Mr. Duell had an employee who was assigned the task of checking the security of the estate, including looking for dead trees, on a daily basis. Somehow, he must have missed this 100-foot pine’s condition. Ms. Staples sued Mr. Duell for negligence.

The Court found for Mr. Duell. It held that in South Carolina, rural landowners have no duty to others to inspect and improve their land. The fact that Mr. Duell voluntarily did so by sending an employee around didn’t create a duty where none existed. And that makes sense: if voluntarily performing a good deed created a legal duty to perform such deeds, no one would ever perform a good deed, that is, to go beyond the minimum the law requires for fear they would become liable for a good deed.

This doesn’t exactly answer our driver’s lament. After all, the landlord may be an urban landowner, and the Court suggests that an urban owner’s duty is different. Also, as a landlord, the tree owner’s duty may be greater. We’ll consider that tomorrow.

Meanwhile, good news from the Mazda front… our hapless sports car owner reported that his landlord’s insurance will cover his deductible.

Mr. Duell owned a lot of trees ...

Mr. Duell owned a lot of trees …

Staples v. Duell, 329 S.C. 503, 494 S.E.2d 639 (S.Ct. S.C. 1997). Ms. Staples was driving from Charleston toward Summerville on Highway 61 when she encountered a dead pine tree in the road. She swerved but collided with the tree, a 100-foot long-dead pine.

The tree fell about sixty feet from the roadway and was located on Mr. Duell’s land, a plantation that stretched for about two miles along both sides of the road. In this area, only one residence – a cabin – stood. About 13,500 vehicles a day passed by Duell’s two-mile stretch of land on Highway 61. Duell owned Middleton Place National Historic Landmark, a tourist attraction that received about 100,000 admission-paying visitors a year. The only public entrance or exit to Middleton Place is on Highway 61. Duell maintained a 250-foot buffer zone of trees on both sides of the highway to protect the scenic beauty of the road. Duell’s employee, James Woddle, took care of the woodlands at Middleton Place. Woddle’s job duties included twice a day driving around the perimeter of Middleton Place to inspect the premises. During his inspections, he looked for trespassers, abandoned vehicles, and dead trees.

Staples sued Duell for negligence in permitting the tree to become a hazard. The trial court directed a verdict for Duell, holding that because the land from which the tree fell was rural, he had no common-law duty to discover and prevent the dangerous condition caused by the dead pine tree. Even if Duell had a policy of searching for dead trees along the roadway, his voluntary practice did not create a duty. Duell could have abandoned it at any time and it did not increase the risk.

Staples appealed.

gooddeed140925Held: The Court found for Mr. Duell. To prevail on her theory of negligence, Ms. Staples had to establish that (1) Duell owed her a duty of care, (2) that by some act or omission, he had breached that duty, and (3) that as proximate result of his breach, she had been injured. The Court ruled that as an owner of rural property adjacent to a highway, Duell did not owe a duty of care to motorists on the highway to inspect and improve his land. Rural landowners have different duties and responsibilities from city dwellers, the Court said, based on the different levels of risk posed by defects on rural land and the burden of maintaining larger tracts of real estate. Thus, unlike urban landowners, rural landowners do not have a duty to inspect and improve land.

Mr. Duell’s policy of searching for dead trees on his property was good stewardship, but it did not result in his assuming a duty to motorists for injuries resulting from trees falling onto the road. His policy of examining his trees didn’t increase the risk of harm to motorists. The people driving by had no prior knowledge of the policy and thus did not detrimentally rely on it. This of course makes one wonder – if people did rely on Mr. Duell’s perspicacity and gumption, would the Court have turned his voluntary good deed into a duty? A scary thought…

– Tom Root