Case of the Day – Tuesday, February 12, 2019

DAMNED IF YOU DO…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Held: Greg’s suit was reinstated.

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

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

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

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, February 11, 2019

HERE WE CUT DOWN THE MULBERRY BUSH…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, February 8, 2019

ONE STATE’S TREE IS ANOTHER STATE’S PEST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cottonwoods are known for their intricate and aggressive root systems

Cottonwoods have intricate and aggressive root systems …

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

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

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

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Thursday, February 7, 2019

ENCROACHMENT, NUISANCE … AND THE MARCH OF TIME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, February 6, 2019

YESTERDAY CHOCOLATE, TODAY VANILLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Tom Root

 TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, February 5, 2019

ENCROACHMENT – MASSACHUSETTS STYLE

The tree crew we hired seemed sort of smallish, but they had really cool trucks ...

The tree crew our neighbor hired seemed sort of smallish, but they were always smiling and had these really cool trucks …

We’ve got some new neighbors, nice folks who bought a house that, while substantial, has been badly neglected. Since moving in a few months ago, they’ve been working like beavers to fix the place up.

During the warm snap that followed last week’s frigid temps, they had a tree service cut down a number of trees, large and small. We have a couple of big pine trees – which I love but my wife doesn’t – that have branches overhanging the new neighbors’ back yard.

Our neighbor came over to inquire whether we minded that he trim some of the long, spindly branches encroaching over the stockade fence into his yard. We were surprised to be asked.

“But surely you know the Massachusetts Rule,” we said. “You don’t need permission to trim the oak branch back to the property line. That’s well settled law!” Our neighbor was pleased if a little skeptical. He was sure he couldn’t touch the branch – even though it extended well into his property – without our OK.

To assuage our neighbors’ concern (and that of their tree service), we provided the foreman with the web address of the most comprehensive tree law site in the entire solar system – this one. We confidently predicted that the site just happened to plan to cover encroachment issues the very next day.

Are we ever prescient! As it happens, today we are going to talk about encroachment… not the neutral-zone penalty that cost the Rams five yards last Sunday night. That’s for football season, now an interminable six months away. The encroachment we care about is different.

Beginning140714Encroachment is what happens when your neighbor’s tree roots break into your sewer system, when leaves and nuts are dumped into your gutters, or when the branches rain down on your car or lawn. The law that governs rights and responsibilities when a neighbor’s tree encroaches on your property only developed in the last 80 years. Before that time, a simpler time perhaps, people didn’t resort to the courts quite so much.

In the beginning, there was the “Massachusetts Rule.” That Rule, something we talk about so much you’d think everyone would have heard of it by now, arose in Michalson v. Nutting, 275 Mass. 232, 175 N.E. 490 (Sup.Jud.Ct. Mass. 1931). This is the granddaddy of all encroachment cases, the Queen Mother. The Massachusetts Rule is the self-help mantra of neighbors everywhere.

In Michalson, roots from a poplar growing on the Nuttings’ land had penetrated and damaged sewer and drain pipes at Michalson’s place. As well, the roots had grown under Michalson’s concrete cellar, causing cracking and threatening serious injury to the foundation. Michalson wanted the Nuttings to cut down the tree and remove the roots. They said “Nutting doing.”

Encroaching tree roots can sometimes be unsightly

Encroaching tree roots can sometimes be unsightly…

Michalson sued, asking the court to permanently enjoin the Nuttings from allowing the roots to encroach on his land. Besides an order that the Nuttings essentially stop the tree from growing, Michalson wanted money, too, to ease the pain of leaf raking and root cutting. The trial judge found the Nuttings were not liable merely because their tree was growing. He threw Michalson’s lawsuit out, and Michalson appealed.

Held: In what has become known as the “Massachusetts Rule,” the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that a property owner’s remedies are limited to “self help.” In other words, a suffering property owner may cut off boughs and roots of neighbor’s trees which intrude into another person’s land. But the law will not permit a plaintiff to recover damages for invasion of his property by roots of trees belonging to adjoining landowner. And a plaintiff cannot obtain equitable relief — that is, an injunction — to compel an adjoining landowner to remove roots of tree invading plaintiff’s property or to restrain such encroachment.

Our takeaway today, therefore, would be the two concepts embodied in the Massachusetts Rule. The first is that you, the neighbor, need no permission from the tree owner to trim away roots and branches that overhang your property. That rule survives to this day just about everywhere. The second – which has been questioned to a much greater extent – is that you can’t sue your neighbor for the effects of encroachment by one of his or her trees.

Hold those concepts close, because tomorrow, we’ll see how things work on the other end of the country – Hawaii – where the law developed somewhat differently. Some say that size matters. We’ll see how true that is when the tree is a little too much for the court to ignore.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, February 4, 2019

DRIVE-BY INSPECTIONS, FEDERAL STYLE

Delaware Water Gap National Park

Delaware Water Gap National Park

Friday, we looked at the Federal Tort Claims Act, the king’s way of saying, “Go ahead, sue me.”  Like it’s that easy…

In Friday’s case, the Forest Service evaded liability because how it followed the guidelines for maintaining a bike trial was considered to be a discretionary function. Today, we’re going to see how something so quotidian as tree inspection can be considered discretionary, too.

Ms. Merando and a friend had been enjoying the scenery of Delaware Water Gap National Park – a beautiful place – one summer day, when a tree (which had previously been topped) fell from an embankment and crushed the car, killing Ms. Merando and her young daughter, Kaylyn.

It was a tragedy, and sometimes tragedies drive the bereaved to push hard. That happened here, where Ms. Merando’s husband sued the National Park Service for not having removed this topped tree before it fell. The tree was a disaster waiting to happen, a dead, previously-butchered hulk leaning over the road like an ogre waiting to pounce.

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, as alert readers may recall from yesterday, you can’t sue the government if it failed to perform a discretionary act. Whether hazard tree removal is a discretionary function is at the heart of this case.

The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court, dismissing Mr. Merando’s case. The National Park Service, it appears, had written guidelines that essentially directed every park to adopt a hazard tree removal policy that makes sense for the individual park. The result is a patchwork of unwritten policies. That sounds like a prescription for chaos.

Actually, it’s a prescription to avoid liability. If the Service had a written hazard tree removal policy and the local rangers hadn’t adhered to it with the tree in questions, then liability on the part of the government would be pretty clear. But, as some sharp National Park Service lawyer undoubtedly figured out — and yes, even Smokey the Bear has his own mouthpiece — if you don’t write it down, it’s that much harder for a plaintiff to prove that you failed to follow it.

The Delaware Water Gap National Park had a rather amorphous “drive-by” inspection policy, and Mr. Merando was unable to demonstrate that anyone had violated it. The lesson seems to be that “the less you do, the safer you are.”

Some hazard trees are easier to spot than others ...

Some hazard trees are easier to spot than others …

Merando v. U.S., 517 F.3d 160 (3rd Cir., 2008). Janine Noyes, Kathleen Merando and Kathleen’ daughter, Kaylyn, were sightseeing in Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. While traveling in Ms. Noyes’s car along the New Jersey side of the Park, a large dead oak tree fell from an embankment and crushed the vehicle. Mrs. Merando and her daughter were killed instantly. The tree was approximately 27 feet in length, and had been had “topped” and delimbed, leaving it standing in a “Y” shape with no bark or branches and with the dead tree pole leaning toward the roadway.

The 63,000-acre Park lies along four miles of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It is mainly forested land, and is accessed by approximately 169 miles of roadways, 68 miles of trails, and several streams. As with other national parks throughout the country, the National Park Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, is responsible for maintaining the Park, including the area where the accident in question occurred. The Government took title to the land where the oak tree was situated in 1969 and to the roadway itself in 1996.

Plaintiff, as administrator of the estates of Ms. Merando and her daughter, sued the Government for negligence, alleging that the Government negligently pruned the tree causing it to die and eventually collapse, and that the tree constituted a hazardous and extremely dangerous condition of which the Government knew or should have known and that it negligently failed to act to remove the tree. The Government moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis of the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Government also argued that the New Jersey Landowners Liability Act barred the action. The trial court dismissed on the basis that the FTCA stripped the court of jurisdiction to hear the case. Mr. Merando appealed.

Held: The district court’s dismissal was affirmed. The federal, as a sovereign, is immune from suit unless it consents to be sued. That consent, and the extent of the consent, is set out in the Federal Tort Claims Act, and it is a plaintiff’ burden to prove that the FTCA has waived the immunity. Generally, the government is immune from a suit claiming negligence in the discharge of a discretionary function.

The purpose of the discretionary function exception is to prevent judicial second-guessing of legislative and administrative decisions grounded in social, economic, and political policy. In determining whether the discretionary function exception applies in any particular case, a court must first determine whether the act giving rise to the alleged injury involves an element of judgment or choice. The requirement of judgment or choice is not satisfied if the law, a regulation, or policy specifically prescribes a course of action for an employee to follow, because the employee has no rightful option but to adhere to the directive. – But even if the challenged government conduct involves an element of judgment, the court must determine whether that judgment is of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield. The focus of the inquiry is on the nature of the actions taken and on whether they are susceptible to policy analysis.

In this case, determining whether the discretionary function exception applied to a tort action arising when the dead tree fell on the passing car, the relevant conduct was not the National Park Service’s alleged violation of its mandatory policy not to “top” trees, because there was no evidence that the Government was involved in or consent to the topping of the tree. Instead, the relevant conduct was the Service’s decisions that comprised its hazardous tree management plan and its execution of that plan. The issue was whether the controlling statutes, regulations, and administrative policies required the Park Service to locate and manage hazardous trees in any specific manner. The Court concluded that the Service’s unwritten tree management plan did not mandate any particular methods of hazardous tree management, and its choice to use “windshield inspections” in low usage areas of the park was a discretionary decision — driven by limited resources — not to individually inspect every potentially hazardous tree in the park.

– Tom Root

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