Case of the Day – Monday, March 23, 2020


Filthy_animal140324Any fan of the Christmas comedy hit of the 1990s, Home Alone, remembers Angels with Dirty Wings. It was the film noir movie that the kid protagonist played repeatedly, the mobster’s taunt – “Keep the change, ya filthy animal” – punctuated with a spray of .45 cal. bullets from a Model 1928 Thompson submachine gun, being used as part of the boy’s plot to keep the bad guys at bay.

In today’s case, the angel is Angel’s Path, a developer, and the dirt on its wings slid off a big mound the company put right on its property line as it built houses. The neighbors didn’t much like the dirt sliding into their back yard, and weren’t big fans of the stagnant water that collected after every rainstorm. But when Angel’s Path asked for summary judgment on the trespass and nuisance claims the Peters brought, for some reason they opposed it on the cheap, with an affidavit from Mr. Peters and a bare letter from their engineer.

It’s seldom a good idea, saving money at the most crucial moment in the litigation. Better to adhere to the old law school maxim, “too much is not enough.” You have affidavits from five experts? Use ’em all. You have five boxes of documents? Attach ’em. Opposing a motion for summary judgment is no time to spare the horses. Here, Mr. Peters should have had an affidavit from his engineer, his own survey done by a registered surveyor and recorded down at the county building, and enough pictures of shifting dirt piles and standing water to start his own Instagram site.

angelsfight140324But he didn’t. The trial court granted summary judgment to Angel’s Path, finding the survey of property lines — showing the dirt piles on its own land — more persuasive than Mr. Peters’ affidavit claim that the dirt had sloughed over the line. Peters’ affidavit was “self-serving,” the trial judge complained.

The Court of Appeals reversed. Sure the affidavit may be a little self-serving, the Court said, but for purposes of summary judgment — a fairly high bar for a defendant to leap — the Court had little problem believing that a property owner knew where his own boundary lay. The summary judgment test, after all, is whether the evidence, taken in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment is sought, shows there’s no material question of fact.

This standard required that the trial court assume that any reasonably detailed facts Mr. Peters raised in his affidavit were true. If after doing this, the court still believes that Peters was not entitled to a judgment, then summary judgment could go for Angel’s Path. It was pretty clear that Mr. Peters was going to need a whole lot more persuasion at trial to pull the halo off Angel’s Path, but for now – at the summary judgment stage– his showing was enough to stay in the hunt. Just barely.

Incidentally, this case was brought with a companion case from the Kramers, who sued Angel’s Path, too. That decision is an interesting study in nuisance and trespass. We’ll consider that decision tomorrow.

angelspath140324Peters v. Angel’s Path, L.L.C., 2007-Ohio-7103, 2007 Ohio App. LEXIS 6211, 2007 WL 4563472 (Ct. App. Ohio, 2007). Clarence and Nanette Peters complained that Angel’s Path, LLC, a developer, damaged their two residential properties. As a result of residential property development by Angel’s Path, dirt mounds at the edge of the development property caused water run-off and flooding on their adjacent land. They sought restraining orders to prevent Angel’s Path from trespassing on their properties or continuing to alter the natural flow of water, as well as damages.

Angel Path filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the earth mounds did not cause run-off to appellants’ property or any sinkhole conditions, and therefore, were not a nuisance; and that their surveyor said that the mounds did not encroach upon appellants’ property, so no trespass had occurred. The trial court also granted summary judgment against the Peters on both their nuisance and trespass claims. The Peters appealed.

Held: Summary judgment was reversed. A “nuisance” is the wrongful invasion of a legal right or interest. A private nuisance is a nontrespassory invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of land. In order for a private nuisance to be actionable, the invasion must be either intentional and unreasonable, or unintentional but caused by negligent, reckless, or abnormally dangerous conduct.

If the private nuisance is absolute, strict liability will be applied. By contrast, a qualified nuisance is premised upon negligence, essentially a negligent maintenance of a condition that creates an unreasonable risk of harm. To recover damages for a qualified nuisance, negligence must be averred and proven. A qualified nuisance is a lawful act so negligently or carelessly done as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm, which in due course results in injury to another.

Where damage to one property by water run-off from an adjacent property is alleged, Ohio has adopted a reasonable-use rule. A landowner isn’t allowed to deal with surface water as he or she pleases, nor is the owner absolutely prohibited from interfering with the natural flow of surface waters to the detriment of others. Instead, each landowner over whose property water flows is allowed to make a reasonable use of the land, even though the flow of surface waters is altered thereby and causes some harm to others. He or she incurs liability only when the harmful interference with the flow of surface water is unreasonable.

nuisance151019In answer to Angel’s Path’s motion for summary judgment, Mr. Peters provided an affidavit along with photos that claimed the mounds created by Angel’s Path had slid across the common property onto his property. Peters’ affidavit also said that Angel’s Path workers entered onto his property to cut the weeds because the slope of the mounds didn’t allow appropriate maintenance without entering onto his land. Finally, the Peters affidavit stated that the back portion of his property now flooded and would not dry out, preventing his use of the land for a rental or for farming. Peters also included as a letter from his expert stating the mounds blocked the natural flow of the water, creating a “permanent pond,” and suggesting possible ways to eliminate the problem.

The Court said that Mr. Peters’ testimony about the location of his property lines, although perhaps not the best evidence to rebut a commercially prepared survey, was something presumably within the property owner’s personal knowledge. Therefore, despite the fact that he had not yet had a separate survey done, the Court would not disregard the affidavit. At the same time, the Court criticized the trial judge for placing too much weight on the fact that Angel’s Path plans had been approved by the local county engineers. The Court of Appeals said that while the county engineer and other agencies approved the Angel’s Path development plans, including the projected effects that it might have on surrounding properties, “such facts are of little consequence and comfort when examining the real-world results of the construction…”

Here, for the purposes of summary judgment, the Court concluded that the Peters had presented prima facie evidence to establish causes of action for private nuisance and trespass. Whether Angel Path’s actions were reasonable, intentional, or negligent, the Court said, are decisions to be made in a trial, not on summary judgment.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Friday, March 20, 2020


leakybucket151016Law students learn in first-year civil procedure that it’s entirely proper to file utterly inconsistent pleadings. For example, if a complaint is that the defendant borrowed plaintiff’s bucket and broke it, the defendant can answer that (1) he never borrowed it; (2) when he returned it, it wasn’t broken; and (3) it was broken when he borrowed it. And lawyers wonder why there are so many attorney jokes …

But there are limits, and complaints in civil actions should not be completely mindless in their allegations. In today’s case, landowner Fischer changed the slope of his land, rebuilt a driveway and installed a retaining wall. His neighbor Christiana complained that the effect of his neighbor’s construction project was to send unwanted drainage onto his property. Fischer was unimpressed. “Cry me a river,” you can imagine him saying. Christiana’s lawyer – who perhaps was charging his client by the word – obliged, tearfully filing a four-count complaint claiming negligence, recklessness, nuisance and trespass.

crymeariver140326Fischer filed a motion to strike the recklessness and trespass counts. He argued that the complaint — even assuming everything Christiana has alleged was true — simply didn’t state a claim. Christiana depended on pretty much the same facts for recklessness as he did for negligence, except in the recklessness count, he charged that on top of everything else, Fischer hadn’t gotten permits from the town for the project. Well, maybe that was a little sloppy, at least as far as paperwork goes, but the Court held that Fischer’s lack of a few permits didn’t constitute recklessness towards Christiana. The recklessness count was bounced.

Fischer argued that the trespass count should be dismissed, because there was no allegation that he intended for the water to flow onto Christiana’s land. The Court disagreed with Fisher’s novel interpretation of trespass, holding that Fischer didn’t have to intend that the water trespass on Fischer’s land, just intend the act – that is, the diversion of the water – that resulted in the trespass. The distinction is subtle but crucial.

Thus, the trespass count remained, an important holding: the Court said in essence that without ever stepping foot on Christiana’s property, Fischer could have trespassed, just by being negligent in the way he altered water flow.

Christiana was upset because Fischer's retaining wall left his place a little soggier than it had been before ,,,

Christiana was upset because Fischer’s retaining wall left his place a little soggier than it had been before …

Christiana v. Fischer, 2007 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2660, 2007 WL 3173949 (Conn. Super.Ct., Oct. 17, 2007). Christiana sued Fischer after Fischer altered the slope of his land and built a retaining wall. Christiana sued for negligence, recklessness, nuisance, and trespass. Fischer moved to strike the recklessness and trespass counts as insufficient to state a cause of action.

Held: The court split its holding, striking the count for recklessness but not the trespass count. Recklessness is a state of consciousness with reference to the consequences of someone’s acts, more than negligence, more than gross negligence. While the actor’s state of mind amounting to recklessness may be inferred from conduct, there must be something more than a failure to exercise a reasonable degree of watchfulness to avoid danger to others or to take reasonable precautions to avoid injury to them. Reckless conduct tends to take on the aspect of highly unreasonable conduct, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent.

In Count 2, Christiana repeated his allegations of negligence and additionally alleged that Fischer rebuilt a driveway without a building permit and in violation of the town’s zoning regulations. Christiana, however, made no allegation that Fischer was made aware prior to completion of the alteration and construction work of any problems that he was causing that would drain water onto Christiana’s property. The Court found that the allegations failed to support a cause of action for recklessness.

As for the trespass count, Fischer argued that Christiana failed to allege any intentional conduct essential to state a cause of action for trespass, pointing out that there was no allegation that the defendants intended to direct water or other debris onto the plaintiffs’ property or that they acted with knowledge to a substantial certainty that the water or other debris would enter the plaintiffs’ property. But the Court held that to make out a trespass, a plaintiff had to have ownership or possessory interest in the land; there had to be an invasion, intrusion or entry by the defendant affecting the plaintiff’s exclusive possessory interest; the act had to be done intentionally; and the act had to cause direct injury.

Christiana alleged in his complaint that he had notified Fischer that he was having severe drainage problems as a result of the land alteration and construction on several occasions, and that Fischer failed to take corrective action. The Court found that Christiana’s allegations were sufficient to establish a cause of action for trespass.

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Thursday, March 19, 2020


Greed may be good ... but it doesn't get a lot of love from the court.

Greed may be good … but it doesn’t get a lot of love from the court.

Gloria Lane was a down-on-her-luck middle-aged woman who managed to just eke out an existence with her disabled brother in an old house. Their place was next to a rental property, a house equally as old, but owned by a corporate slumlord, W.J. Curry & Sons. You see where this one is going? Hard cases can make bad law. And even where the result isn’t necessarily wrong – and we’re not hard-hearted enough to criticize people who were too poor to afford to fix the bathroom – cases are fact-driven.

We can imagine the scenario: a faceless corporation rolling in dough, too chary to keep up its properties and too avaricious to pay damages inflicted on the impoverished neighbors. That, at least, is the innuendo.

The Curry property included three large, healthy oak trees near the boundary with the Lane homestead. The trees are much taller than the either of the houses, and featured limbs that protruded over Gloria Lane’s house and caused manifold problems. First, the court said, she had to replace her roof 15 years before the lawsuit “because the overhanging branches did not allow the roof to ever dry, causing it to rot.” She complained that prior to replacing the roof, “[e]very roof and wall in [her] house had turned brown and the ceiling was just falling down. We would be in bed at nighttime and the ceiling would just fall down and hit the floor.”

In 1997, one of the oaks shed a large limb, which fell through the Lanes’ roof, attic, and kitchen ceiling. Rain then ruined her ceilings, floor, and the stove in her kitchen. The Lanes were physically unable to cut the limbs back that were hanging over the house, and they couldn’t afford to hire it done. For that matter, Gloria couldn’t even afford to fix the hole in her roof.

flush151015If that weren’t enough, the oaks’ roots clogged the Lane’s sewer line, causing severe plumbing problems. Gloria tried to chop the encroaching roots away from the sewer over the years, but they kept growing back and causing more plumbing problems. At the time of the lawsuit, she hadn’t been able to use her toilet, bathtub, or sink in two years because of the clogs. Instead, she went to the neighbors’ house (presumably not the Curry rental) to use the toilet. Meanwhile, raw sewage was bubbling into her bathtub, and the bathroom floor has had to be replaced because of toilet back-ups and water spills onto the floor.

Gloria told the trial court that “everything is all messed up. I can’t bathe. I can’t cook. I don’t want people coming to my house because it has odors in it, fleas, flies, bugs. It’s just been awful for me.” Ms. Lane, already under a psychiatrist’s care, said she “just can’t take too much more.”

After the branch punched a hole in her roof, Gloria asked the owner of W.J. Curry – one Judith Harris, a corporate minion who was neither W.J. nor any of his sons – to do something. She had a tree service trim the lower branches, but not the ones that would have been more expensive to reach. This didn’t solve the problems. When Gloria complained again, Ms. Harris told Gloria that she was on her own.

Now, boys and girls, these are hard facts. We aren’t dealing with the Schwalbachs, who were perfectly fit and reasonably flush, complaining about a few twigs and leaves to an underfunded cemetery association. Here, we have a dramatis personae that includes – as protagonist – a pathos-inducing poor woman caring for an invalid sibling, and – as antagonist – a soulless corporation destroying her happy home, one dropped limb by one dropped limb by one rotten roof by one clogged sewer at a time. And we’ve got some real damages, too. You try knocking on the neighbor’s door eight times a day and night to use the ‘loo, and see how you feel. Did the Massachusetts Rule have any chance of survival in the face of this heart-wrenching tale?

punch151015Of course not. The evil slumlord defendant (and we don’t know that to be true, but the story has a life of its own) argued that Tennessee followed the Massachusetts Rule. After all, it pointed out, Gloria was free to fire up her Husqvarna and clamber out onto her roof herself to cut down the offending limbs. Tennessee law firmly established that her remedies were limited to Massachusetts-style “self help.” That means Gloria should get nothing for the hole in her roof, nothing for her falling plaster, nothing for her waterlogged stove, and nothing for the sewage bubbling in her bathtub.

The trial court agreed with W.J. Curry. It held that while it was “certainly a serious situation that the plaintiff has not been able to use her bathroom for two years … these three trees are alive and living and they do what trees normally do. They produce branches and grow and they produce a root system. And even though you trim the branches back or you trim the roots back, they are going to produce more branches and more roots.”

Spoken like a judge whose own toilet flushes just fine. The three-judge appellate panel – a trio of jurists who also were not worrying about the efficacy of their respective commodes – agreed. They observed that, after all, the trees were not “noxious” (which was a quaint notion championed by Smith v. Holt but since abandoned in Fancher v. Fagella).

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed, adopting the Hawaii Rule, holding that living trees and plants are ordinarily not nuisances, but can become so when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. When that happens, the Court said, the owner of the tree had some responsibility to clean up the mess. No doubt swayed by the extensive record of travail propounded by Ms. Lane, the Court held that W.J. Curry’s trees clearly satisfied the definition of a “private nuisance.” It sent the case back to the trial court for a remedy to be crafted, one that no doubt included money damages and probably an order that the landlord cut down the oversized trees.

Sure, Gloria ... get up there and trim those branches yourself.

Sure, Gloria … get up there and trim those branches yourself.

Lane v. W.J. Curry & Sons, 92 S.W.3d 355 (Tenn. 2002). The long-suffering Gloria Lane sued W.J. Curry and Sons, Inc. a landlord owning a rental property next to her house. Over the years, her roof was damaged by branches overhanging from oaks growing on the Curry property, a branch fell, smashing into the home and causing extensive damage, and the root system substantially damaged her sewer system, rendering her home almost uninhabitable.

Gloria sued, asserting that encroaching branches and roots from the Curry trees constituted a nuisance for which she was entitled to seek damages. W.J. Curry responded that Ms. Lane’s sole remedy was Massachusetts Rule-style self-help, and she could not recover for any harm caused by the trees.

The trial court and Court of Appeals agreed with W.J. Curry and Sons, holding that an adjoining landowner’s only remedy in a case like this one was self-help, and that a nuisance action could not be brought to recover for harm caused by encroaching tree branches and roots.

Ms. Lane appealed top the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Held: Self-help is not an adjoining landowner’s sole remedy when tree branches and roots encroach. A nuisance action may be brought when the encroaching branches and roots damage the neighboring landowner’s property.

The Supreme Court held that although encroaching trees and plants are not nuisances merely because they cast shade, drop leaves, flowers, or fruit, or just because they encroach upon adjoining property either above or below the ground, they 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.

Thumb's down to the Massachusetts Rule.

Thumb’s down to the Massachusetts Rule.

The Court engaged in a lengthy discussion of the various theories of liability adopted in various states, including the Massachusetts Rule, the Hawaii Rule, and the old, pre-Fancher Virginia Rule. The Court decided that the Hawaii Rule should be followed, because it “voices a rational and fair solution, permitting a landowner to grow and nurture trees and other plants on his land, balanced against the correlative duty of a landowner to ensure that the use of his property does not materially harm his neighbor,” while being “stringent enough to discourage trivial suits, but not so restrictive that it precludes a recovery where one is warranted.” The Court criticized the Massachusetts Rule, agreeing with the notion that limiting a plaintiff’s remedy to self-help encourages a “law of the jungle” mentality by replacing the law of orderly judicial process with the doctrine of “self-help.” Yet, the Court said, the Hawaii Rule was consistent with the principle of self-help Tennessee courts had previously enunciated.

The Court was careful to note that it was not altering existing Tennessee 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 potential harm to the adjoining property.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Wednesday, March 18, 2020


We had some great trees in our back yard when I was a kid. My parents let each of the four of us children “claim” one of the trees as our own, although I must now confess that the utility of doing so is no longer obvious to me. My sister staked out the sugar maple on the north side of the house, my brothers had a box elder and a red maple, respectively, and I got a magnolia that stood outside the kitchen window.

It’s not like we children had any responsibilities for our trees, either trimming them or raking up their leaves or even pulling suckers off their trunks. We had ownership but no responsibility, which is a great segue into today’s classic case from New Jersey.

I bring up our “claimed” trees because of the young rascal Rick, an ornery kid who lived next door. One warm rainy day in the spring, when intelligent people were inside to avoid getting wet (and you can see what that implies), young Rick was outside playing in the downpour. He somehow decided that conditions were perfect for climbing my magnolia. However, when his foot slipped on a wet branch, gravity ensued. Rick was treated to what would have been a jarring but harmless fall, except for his chin making rather sharp contact with the branch on the way down.

We were blissfully unaware of the life-and-death drama occurring beyond our kitchen window until the next day, when Rick – with chin stitched and bandaged – told my siblings and me what had happened. He matter-of-factly announced that because of the accident, “My Dad’s gonna sue your Dad!”

I recall being shocked that an injury so directly resulting from Rick’s own knuckleheadedness could somehow strip us of all possessions and leave us living in a cardboard refrigerator carton in the back lot of Brown & Miller’s Hardware. Of course, Rick’s appreciation for the finer points of tort law matched his understanding of gravity, and no suit ever resulted. But I found the idea alarming that merely owning a tree, and letting it be a tree, could make us liable for injury to others.

But notion is not so ridiculous that people aren’t still trying to sell it to trial courts. Today’s case resulted from a perfectly healthy tree falling from one property onto a garage on another property. The aggrieved property owner argued that the tree was a nuisance because it fell – for whatever reason – and because it was a nuisance, the tree’s owner was liable. When I read the case, I felt that alarm young Rick engendered in me all over again. Fortunately, the appellate court was not so cowed by the premise that it could not make short work of such a foolish claim.

So what is the standard to be applied to determine liability of a landowner for a tree which falls from his property onto his neighbor’s property for no apparent reason?

Burke v. Briggs, 571 A2d 296 (N.J. Super.Ct. 1990). Robert Briggs and the Burkes owned adjoining properties. One June evening, a large white oak tree growing on Bob’s property suddenly fell over onto the Burkes’ property, crushing their garage. The tree appeared to be perfectly healthy, and no one could assign a reason for its falling.

That hardly stopped the Burkes, who sued Bob for negligence but later added a count citing the elements of a nuisance. The Burkes argued Bob was “strictly liable” for the damages caused by the fallen tree because it amounted to a nuisance. Bob countered that liability should be determined on the basis of traditional negligence principles of tort liability. The trial judge agreed with the Burkes that reasoned the fallen tree constituted a “nuisance” because Bob had failed to use his property in a manner that did “not damage or unreasonably interfere with the use of an adjacent land owner’s property.” The judge said that a private nuisance “imposes a strict liability” on the responsible party, and summarily found for the Burkes without the need for a trial.

Bob appealed.

Held: A nuisance can only be created by unreasonable use of land, meaning that the trial court must look at the circumstances of the case to decide whether Bob was unreasonable in permitting the tree to grow as it did. Thus, the lower court was wrong to decide the matter without a trial.

The appellate court noted the distinction that had arisen in tree law over the years between conditions of land artificially created as opposed to those which come into existence naturally. Historically, if Bob’s tree had been growing there on its own, he would not have been liable for any damage it caused, but if he had planted it or nurtured it, he would be accountable. The appellate panel concluded that the natural-artificial distinction makes little sense in modern life.

The appellate court admitted that “there is perhaps no more impenetrable jungle in the entire law than that which surrounds the word ‘nuisance’,” but it nonetheless held that the law was clear enough that a private nuisance must based on the defendant’s interference with another’s use and enjoyment of his or her own land. The superior court fell back on the Restatement, Torts 2d for the general rule that

One is subject to liability for a private nuisance if, but only if, his conduct is a legal cause of an invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of land, and the invasion is either

(a) intentional and unreasonable, or

(b) unintentional and otherwise actionable under the rules controlling liability for negligent or reckless conduct, or for abnormally dangerous conditions or activities.

The appellate court held that liability without fault should not be imposed “whether that activity be classified as a nuisance or a trespass, absent intentional or hazardous activity requiring a higher standard of care or, as a result of some compelling policy reason.”

In other words, the appellate court said, regardless of whether the falling tree was a nuisance, trespass or negligence, “the issue here should logically depend on whether the offending landowner somehow has made a negligent or unreasonable use of his land when compared with the rights of the party injured on the adjoining lands.”

So, the court concluded, the focus in the case should be on whether Bob was negligent in some way. To figure this out, the trial court should have considered the nature of the incident, the danger presented by the presence of the tree, whether by making inspections, Bob could or should have known of the tree’s condition, and what steps Bob could have taken to prevent it from falling onto the Burke’s garage.

Tom Root


Case of the Day – Tuesday, March 17, 2020


love151014The other day, I had a faithful reader ask whether he could use the Massachusetts Rule to trim a neighbor’s pesky oak tree back to the property line. “Of course,” I said, with some important caveats.

The question got me thinking last night about the Massachusetts Rule, as I sat crying over the lack of madness this March. With no other sports available to watch, it’s good sport these days to criticize the Massachusetts Rule — that landowners are limited to trimming tree roots and branches back to the property as the exclusive remedy for encroachment by a neighbor’s tree — as being a relic of a time gone by, when everyone lived in a rural or semi-rural area and times were simpler. The more modern Hawaii Rule — that permits a landowner to sue for damages and injunctive relief when the encroachment causes “sensible harm” — makes more sense in urban environments and in our modern-day (and, dare we say, litigious) society.

The Virginia Supreme Court said as much in Fancher v. Fagella. And North Dakota weighed in with Herring v. Lisbon Partners Credit Fund. When it comes to the old Massachusetts Rule, it’s pretty much “you hold him down, and we’ll kick him.”

Call me an apostate, but I’m skeptical thats the Massachusetts Rule’s demise is such a good thing. So today, we’ll sing a love song to the Massachusetts Rule. And a reprise of Kentucky’s leading encroachment case provides the perfect illustration. Schwalbach’s neighbor, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, had trees that were dropping leaves and twigs that were as dead as the cemetery’s patrons. When Schwalbach sued, the Court held that the only remedy when branches behave like normal trees – specifically, by dropping twigs and leaves – is Massachusetts-style self-help.

Tennessee criticized the approach 17 years later as old fashioned in Lane v. W.J. Curry Sons, but the plain fact is that the Hawaii Rule would have had precisely the same outcome: under that rule, branches dropping a normal load of twigs and leaves were not causing actual, sensible harm. No court would have intervened to order any outcome other than the one found in the Schwalbach case.

apostate151014The case is a perfect example of how the facts of the case — be they extreme (such as in Virginia’s Fancher case or North Dakota’s Herring case) or slight annoyance (such as in today’s case) — drive the decisions. It’s not just that hard cases make bad law, as I pointed out yesterday: the law is always driven by the facts of the case. A careful comparison of the decisions establishing the Massachusetts Rule to the decisions favoring the Hawaii Rule suggests that the rules may not be very far apart at all.

Schwalbach v. Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 687 S.W.2d 551 (Ct.App.Ky. 1985). The Schwalbachs owned an apartment building located next to the Forest Lawn Cemetery. They bought the property in 1969. By 1972, they were whining that overhanging limbs from some of Forest Lawn’s trees dropped twigs and leaves and other detritus. What a shocking indignity.

Forest Lawn trimmed some of the branches, but the problem persisted. The Schwalbachs were more into brickbats than chainsaws. They never trimmed any of the overhanging branches themselves, but were content to let their mouthpiece do their work for the in court.

Forest Lawn will handle the dead people ... but the Schwalbachs are responsible for the dead leaves.

Forest Lawn will handle the dead people … but the Schwalbachs are responsible for the dead leaves.

The Schwalbachs replaced their flat roof with a pitched one, at the cost of $14,300, a result of damage done by an accumulation of leaves and twigs. The trial court found that the damages resulted from normal deadfall of leaves and small debris from the trees. It applied the Massachusetts Rule set forth in Michalson v. Nutting, concluding that the Schwalbachs should have removed the offending limbs back to the boundary line.

The Schwalbachs appealed.

Held: Kentucky follows the Massachusetts Rule. The Court rejected the Schwalbachs’ argument that Kentucky should follow the rule that every owner should be held responsible for private nuisances on real estate, essentially an ordinary negligence rule. The Court observed that “[i]mposing liability upon a landowner for damage resulting from the natural dropping of leaves and other ordinary debris would result in innumerable lawsuits and impose liability upon a landowner for the natural processes and cycles of trees.”

The Court did suggest that were the tree in question dead and likely to fall and cause serious injury, “[a] claim for damages or removal of such a tree might be based on the theory of negligence for damages or nuisance for removal.”

This decision was criticized by the Tennessee Supreme Court in Lane v. W.J. Curry & Sons, 92 S.W.3d 355 (Tenn., 2002) as among those antiquated cases that didn’t permit any remedy for encroaching branches and roots beyond self-help.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, March 16, 2020


It’s easy to dismiss the belly-aching of people who claim that their view of the ocean, the mountains, the lake, whatever, has been ruined by someone else’s construction, or even – as we have seen all too often – by trees that grow too tall. But it’s a different matter when your own 0x is the one being gored.

Thanks to the nosy people at Google Earth, we can clearly see the problem that resulted in today’s case from 435 miles out in space. The parties to the kerfuffle – the Ceynars and the Barths – are clearly more than one  missed paycheck away from a cardboard box. And for a lot of people, it’s hard to muster up a lot of sympathy for someone who claims a diminished view of the prairie reduced their home value by an amount that would buy more than half the average U.S. home.

Still, it’s easy enough to understand – if not to empathize – with the consternation you must feel when you spend a big chunk of money in expectation that you’re going to enjoy watching the sun set on the prairie while you sip Mai Tais, or whatever the 1% in North Dakota like to sip.

Clearly, the Ceynars were sufficiently exercised about this that they spent lavishly on lawyers, all the way through the North Dakota Supreme Court. It did not do them much good, because it turns out that a property owner’s right to perpetually enjoy the view that existed on his and her property on move-in day is simply too contingent, too mushy, too prone to generate litigation rather than progress, for any court  to infer its existence – at least absent a well-written easement signed by everyone involved that establishes the right.

Ceynar v. Barth, 904 N.W.2d 469 (N.D. 2017). The Ceynars and the Barths are neighbors at The Ridge at Hawktree, a Bismarck subdivision (that appears not to be Section 8 housing) near a golf course. Both families are members of the homeowners’ association. Before the Ceynars purchased their home, Mr. Barth won approval from the Association to build a “pool house” on his property, connected to his house with a breezeway. After the Ceynars occupied their place, the Barths commenced construction, whereupon the Ceynars complained to the Association. They claimed the pool house would block their view to the north and west toward the Hawktree Golf Club.

After the Association did nothing, the Ceynars sued the Barths and the Association, alleging breach of contract and nuisance. They claimed the pool house violated restrictive covenants and unreasonably interfered with the enjoyment of their property and diminished its value. Mr. Barth and the Association moved for summary judgment dismissing the action. The district court granted the motion, concluding the pool house did not violate any of the Association’s restrictive covenants. As well, the trial judge said, under N.D.C.C. § 42-01-01 “a nuisance consists in unlawfully doing an act or omitting to perform a duty,” and the Barths’ construction of the pool house was completely lawful.

The Ceynars appealed.

Held: It’s party time at the Barths’ pool house.

The Ceynars argued that the “pool house” violated the restrictive covenants governing the Hawktree development, because Section 4 of those rules – entitled Nuisances: Construction Activities, stated that “no other nuisance shall be permitted to exist or operate upon any Lot or other property so as to be offensive or detrimental to any other Lot in the vicinity thereof or to its occupants.” The Supreme Court, however, found that the restrictive covenant clearly related in context to construction activities “rather than the finished product.” At any rate, the Court said, the homeowners association has the authority in its sole discretion to determine whether a nuisance exists for purposes of the covenant. The Association approved the Barths’ construction plans and found no nuisance exists.

But, the Ceynars complained, there was an implied covenant that prohibited the pool house because it “destroys the open prairie look and overall theme of the community in the subdivision.” The Ceynars relied on a text message sent by, and deposition testimony of, the Association’s secretary indicating fences, outbuildings, and trees were not allowed in order to preserve an “open prairie look” in the subdivision, and on the Association president’s deposition testimony that the covenants require an “overall theme of the community.”

The Court made short work of that claim, holding that implied covenants are not favored by the courts and that, at any rate, the Ceynars could point to no evidence that these vague statements had anything to do with the plans of the developer or that the Barths were aware of a policy favoring the “open prairie look.” North Dakota precedent clearly holds that covenants will be given effect only “when clearly established,” and this implied covenant was as solid as Jello.

The meat of the Ceynars’ claim was that the district court erred in dismissing their statutory private nuisance claim against the Barths. Section 42-01-01, N.D.C.C., defines a nuisance as “unlawfully doing an act or omitting to perform a duty, which act or omission… annoys, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others; or in any way renders other persons insecure in life or in the use of property.” The Ceynars complained that before the pool house, “we enjoyed the open prairie look and feel. Not only have we also lost views of the Burnt Creek Valley and the golf course because of the pool house, the size and scope of the pool house and breezeway towers over our property, depriving us of anything that could be considered an open prairie look.” In fact, they presented an appraisal of their property indicating the obstructed view lowered its value by $140,000. They also presented photographs taken before and after construction of the pool house demonstrating their obstructed view.

The district court dismissed the statutory nuisance claim, reasoning that construction of the Barths’ pool house was lawful, so there could be no statutory nuisance. The Supreme Court agreed with the Ceynars that this holding was wrong, but any sense of victory they experienced was short-lived.

The Ceynars argued the district court failed to engage in the required balancing test, “a balancing of the utility of defendant’s conduct against the harm to the plaintiff, plaintiff’s attempts to accommodate defendant’s use before bringing the nuisance action, and plaintiff’s lack of diligence in seeking relief.” The Supreme Court acknowledged that while “scenic views may enhance the value of a tract of land… [and] such a benefit, while intangible may enhance market value, with buyers willing to pay extra for the view,” that did not translate to a legally protectable interest. “Traditional American property law fails to protect access to light over neighboring land,” the Court held, at least “in the absence of an express easement or covenant, advantageous views are unprotected.” Because a landowner has no right to an unobstructed view, the size and shape of a neighboring structure cannot be a nuisance even if it effects material reduction in market value.

This rule is necessary, the Court observed, because

extending the law of nuisance to encompass obstruction of view caused by lawful construction of a neighboring building would unduly restrict a landowner’s right to the free use of property, interfere with established zoning ordinances, and result in a flood of litigation. Because every new construction project is bound to block someone’s view of something, every landowner would be open to a claim of nuisance. If the first property owner on the block were given an enforceable right to unobstructed view over adjoining property, that person would fix the setback line for future neighbors, no matter what zoning ordinances provide. The practical implication of such a right would be the need of every ‘servient’ owner to obtain a waiver of the easement of view created in the “dominant” landowner. Such obstacles to land ownership and development, for the sake of a clear view, hardly commend themselves.”

Inasmuch as the Ceynars had no cognizable right to an unobstructed view from their property, the Barths’ construction of the pool house as a matter of law did not unreasonably interfere with the Ceynars’ use and enjoyment of their property.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Friday, March 13, 2020


Recently, we had a kerfluffle in our home county over pipeline company employees giving notice to people that they would be coming onto private land to survey for a new underground pipeline. The nature lovers on the left united with the libertarians and assorted wingnuts on the right to argue that the state could not let these pipeline renegades trespass on our sacred private homesteads in order to plan an environmentally cataclysmic pipeline. Think “pipeline construction equals K-T extinction event,” and you get the idea.

You may remember that famed anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy had a similar problem – government functionaries trespassing on his land just because he was letting his cattle trespass on government land. His approach was much more direct, employing caliber 5.56 and ending up with two criminal trials in two different federal courtrooms (and two “not guilty” verdicts, we hasten to add). Clive’s approach was every bit as effective as that of our home county protesters… which is to say “not very.”

Our ad hoc coalition of pipeline opponents lost, of course. They, like many landowners, were unhappily surprised to learn that state laws – written by state legislators, after all – permit state employees, agents, and even employees and agents of public utilities to come onto private land at any time to conduct surveys for public works projects.

That’s what happens when you get in the way of progress. You get both disappointment and a pipeline through your side yard. But sometimes, some landowners can bite back.

Ron and Maggie bit back, maybe not hard, perhaps just nipped back a little, when the Ohio Dept. of Transportation sent some local yokels onto their land to remove three trees believed to be in a highway right-of-way. But no one checked the R-O-W to be certain, and half of the three trees – yes, your math is right, 1.5 of the 3 trees – were not ODOT’s to cut. What’s more, the county boys seemed to have run bulldozer races through Ron’s and Maggie’s protected wetlands, laying waste to a fragile ecosystem, harming the habitat of the woolly salamander (or something like that), and pissing off the landowners.

Ron and Maggie demanded justice in the Ohio Court of Claims. By the time the Court was done whittling down their claims, they got their measure of justice – but it was a small measure, indeed.

Kerns v. Ohio Dept. of Transportation, 2017-Ohio-7154 (Ct. of Claims, July 25, 2017): Ronald Kerns and Margaret Ruth Leslie owned 18 acres of mostly wooded property, including federally protected wetland with vernal pools that provide a habitat for salamanders. When the State of Ohio had to replace a bridge on a road in front of the property, the State notified the owners that its representatives would be coming onto the land to survey, that they would use due care in doing so, but if there was any damage to the land, the State would pay for it. Like most states, Ohio had laws that authorized state employees to come onto private property for such purposes.

The day after Christmas 2014, crews from the Portage County Engineer’s Office came onto the property and laid waste, cutting down trees inside and outside of the state right-of-way, running heavy equipment across the property, dumping wood chips in the vernal pools (resulting in ecological damage to the wetlands on the property); and leaving large drag marks where larger trees were removed. Ron and Maggie asserted that trees and vegetation on their property were damaged or removed without either their permission or the permits required by the EPA.

The engineer testified he asked Portage County to remove a hickory tree that was larger than 18″ wide, a swamp white oak that was over 50” wide, and a dead tree trunk. He thought the three trees that he had marked to be removed were all within the right-of-way. When he learned that more than those three trees had been removed, he sent an assistant to check on the damage. The assistant found that heavy equipment had been on the property, that the wetland was disturbed, that wood chips had been cast into the vernal pools, that many more trees had been cut down, and that vegetation had been disturbed.

Jason Knowles, a certified arborist, used the Trunk Formula Method to calculate a core value for each type of tree. According to Knowles, Ohio has its own guide for what the value of a tree should be. Knowles examined the tree stumps to determine the species and size of the trees that were removed. Knowles determined that a total of 18 trees were removed, in an area that was 60 feet long by 60 feet wide. Although Knowles observed damage to the vernal pools from the wood chips, and damage to the soil due to the heavy machinery tracks, he did not determine a value for either soil compaction or vegetation that was removed. Knowles testified that the value of the trees that were removed totaled $18,200.

ODOT’s expert, Charles Flagg – a real estate appraiser – testified the damage to the plaintiffs’ property had no impact on its market value, in that the property was densely wooded, and the loss of trees was not substantial and had no effect on the market value of the property.

Held: The Court first concluded that the Portage County Engineer did not trespass on the property. A trespass occurs when a person, without authority or privilege to do so, physically invades or unlawfully enters the private premises of another. Because state law granted ODOT the privilege to cut, trim, or remove any grass, shrubs, trees, or weeds growing or being within the limits of a state highway, and enter private land to conduct a survey for plans and specifications for proposed projects, the agency and its representatives had a privilege to enter plaintiffs’ property and, therefore, did not commit a trespass.

Although ODOT could not be liable for cutting down vegetation within the right-of-way, the Court ruled, plaintiffs could prevail if they were to prove that ODOT removed trees outside of the right-of-way. Here, ODOT directed Portage County to remove three trees in what it assumed was the right-of-way. But the bitternut hickory was not within the right-of-way, and the swamp white oak straddled the right-of-way boundary. ODOT thus trespassed when its agents removed those trees. Accordingly, the magistrate recommends judgment in favor of plaintiffs on their claim of trespass with regard to the swamp white oak and the large bitternut hickory tree.

While Ron and Marge could not prove that ODOT was liable for treble damages under O.R.C. § 901.51 – because they could not prove ODOT was reckless – ODOT nevertheless was responsible for the removal of one and a half trees on plaintiffs’ property outside of the right-of-way (one of the trees straddled the right-of-way boundary line, although it is not clear how ODOT could have removed only its half). Still, the Court said, the removal of those trees “was not so extreme as to amount to a substantial deprivation of all of the rights of ownership of plaintiffs’ property” and thus did not rise to an unconstitutional “taking” of property in violation of the 5th and 14th Amendments.

What’s more, because ODOT only told the County to remove three trees, it ws not responsible for the additional trees, including two green ash trees, two, 12” wide bitternut hickory trees, and twelve saplings, that the County Engineer destroyed.

When a party trespasses and cuts trees that are part of a woodland mix and not unique, the ordinary measure of the harm is the difference in the fair market value before and after the cutting. However, the Court said, “there is an exception… in which restoration costs may be recovered in excess of diminution in fair market value when real estate is held for non-commercial use, when there are reasons personal to the owner for seeking restoration, and when the diminution in fair market value does not adequately compensate the owner for the harm done.” The Court held that “destruction of trees that form part of an ecological system of personal value to the owner justifies restoration cost as a measure of damages. In addition, in an action based on temporary injury to noncommercial real estate, a plaintiff need not prove diminution in the market value of the property in order to recover the reasonable costs of restoration, but either party may offer evidence of diminution of the market value of the property as a factor bearing on the reasonableness of the cost of restoration.” Diminution in value is a factor to be considered in determining whether restoration costs are reasonable, but it is not itself an element of damages that must be considered. Finally, in cases involving trespass that results in the removal of trees or other vegetation, “a landowner is entitled to recover reasonable restoration costs, plus the reasonable value of the lost use of the property between the time of the injury and the restoration.”

Plaintiffs’ expert arborist testified that the swamp white oak had an appraised value of $8,498.00, and that the large hickory tree had an appraised value of $4,345.00. The Court found that he Trunk Formula Method is an acceptable way of determining damages in the case.

The appraised value of the trees may not necessarily be the same as restoration cost, the Court said. While there was no change in the market value of plaintiffs’ property as a result of the tree cutting, certainly, the Court said, the three trees “had some value, especially the swamp white oak, in that it was located in a federally protected wetland on plaintiffs’ property, and plaintiffs testified credibly that the trees form part of an ecological system of personal value to them.” The Court found the plaintiffs were entitled to $12,843.00 in reasonable restoration costs and reasonable value of the lost use of the property between the time of injury and the restoration.

– Tom Root