Case of the Day – Friday, January 25, 2019

FORCE MAJEURE

Does anyone remember Hurricane Katrina? Who could forget the immensity of the storm, the devastation, the lives lost, the agony?

Ms. Title spent a lot of money in court defending herself against the Hoerners ... but she won this chic tote bag. She should read its message ... every day.

Ms. Title spent a lot of money in court defending herself against the Hoerners … but she won this chic tote bag. She should read its message … every day.

Doctor and Mrs. Hoerner, that’s who. These folks – Big Easy residents for 25 years – sued their neighbor, Beulah Title, under the Louisiana Civil Code article that governed negligence. It seems Ms. Title’s trees were kind of bushy, and the neighbors were always cutting them back. Ms. Title, a better neighbor to the Hoerners than they were to her, always let them trim the trees and even cut down an oak once when the Hoerners asked her to. She was a very a nice neighbor … a kindly lady who learned the hard way that Oscar Wilde was right: no good deed goes unpunished.

When the big blow came, it took down a couple of Ms. Title’s pine trees, damaging the Hoerners’ brick wall, patio and pool. And probably spilled their pitcher of martinis. Imagine the horror! We bet those poor folks in the Lower Ninth Ward didn’t have it any worse than the Hoerners. But the Hoerners had something those victims in the Crescent City’s worst neighborhood didn’t have: a lawyer. He sued Ms. Title, arguing that because she knew the trees were overgrowing the Hoerners and needed trimming, that she was liable for the damage caused when they toppled.

The courts made pretty short work of this. Rather patiently, we think, the Court of Appeals explained to the clueless (or avaricious, take your pick) Hoerners that the trees didn’t fall because of the overhanging branches. They fell because of this Cat 5 hurricane that hit the city, the one the Hoerners must have overlooked.

The Court held that even the branches had been the cause, Ms. Title could avail herself of the force majeure defense, specifically that even if she had exercised reasonable care, the injury couldn’t have been avoided because of the intervention of a greater force unforeseen by the parties.

Hoerner v. Title, 968 So.2d 217 (La.App. 4 Cir., Sept. 26, 2007). Be warned: Beulah Title is a person, not a title insurance company. Beulah Title the person had property right behind the home of Linda and Harry Hoerner. The Hoerners complained that that they had had problems with Ms. Title’s pine trees and other foliage along their brick wall since 1991. Yet, every time Dr. Hoerner sought permission to trim the trees and shrubs back to the property line, Ms. Title allowed him to do so. On many occasions, the Hoerners removed branches from Ms. Title’s trees that were hanging over the brick wall. On one occasion, Ms. Title removed an oak tree from her backyard at the Hoerners’ request. The Hoerners did not allege that the trees in question were defective, just that they were bushy.

During Hurricane Katrina, the trunks of Ms. Title’s trees were blown, damaging the Hoerner’s brick wall, patio, pool and landscaping. The damage was not caused by branches hanging over the wall, and the trees did not fall due to lack of maintenance or improper trimming. Nevertheless, the Hoerners sued Ms. Title for repairs to their property, alleging that she was strictly liable under Article 2317.1 of the Louisiana Civil Code. That provision directed that the owner of a thing (like a tree) was liable for damage occasioned by its defect upon a showing that she knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that she failed to exercise such reasonable care. Ms. Title argued that the trees were not defective and she is entitled to the defense of force majeure. The trial court agreed with Ms. Title, and the Hoerners appealed.

Force majuere - not a French superhero group - rather, a rational legal concept.

Force majeure – not a French superhero group – rather, a rational legal concept.

Held: Ms. Title was not liable. Under Article 2317.1, in order to establish liability a plaintiff must demonstrate that the owner of the thing knew, or should have known, in the exercise of reasonable care of the defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that the owner failed to exercise such reasonable care. Here, the Hoerners admitted that the trees were healthy, but they complained they were defective because they were neglected and overgrown and placed too close to the brick wall. The Hoerners cited a case where lack of tree maintenance was considered in finding that the owner had knowledge, but the Court observed that case involved a diseased tree. Ms. Title’s trees, on the other hand, were healthy.

Based on the evidence, the Court said, it did not find that Ms. Title’s trees were defective for lack of maintenance or location. While the Hoerners had shown Ms. Title’s trees had plenty of overgrowth into their yard, the evidence showed that the trees themselves were blown over and into the brick wall, causing all of the damage to the Hoerners’ property. It was not the overgrowth that did the damage. Additionally, Ms. Title was entitled to the defense of force majeure. The Court observed that the winds of Hurricane Katrina caused trees to fall and damage property regardless of maintenance or location all over the Greater New Orleans area. Thus, she could not be liable for the fallen trees under any circumstances.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, January 24, 2019

THAT’S PERSONAL

Reader Paul D. sent a comment yesterday:

Figuring damages for tree loss… I don’t understand why you would use diminution of property value… Unless you were going to soon sell the property or you had a business on the property or your property generated some kind of income. But if the trees were for a personal reason, such as shade or privacy, wouldn’t the better way of proving damages be the current value of trees removed or at least restoration costs?

I think placing a diminution price on a residential property can often be very subjective and inaccurate, especially compared to having a qualified arborist make a value assessment .

Paul asks a good question. Why would anyone prefer diminution in property value over restoration costs or stumpage value?

Here’s a prime example of someone who might: A few years ago, a tree service company sent a crew to an address in Grove City, Ohio, to remove a maple on the front lawn. Instead of going to 1553 Main Street, the crew mistakenly went to 1533 Main Street. That house, coincidentally, also had a maple tree in its front lawn, a magnificent and healthy specimen that the homeowner loved very much.

You can guess what happened. While the homeowner was obliviously toiling in his office 10 miles away, the tree cutting crew made short work of the beautiful maple. When the owner arrived home that evening, his arboreal pride and joy was nothing but a stump and some sawdust.

There was no question about liability: the tree service company goofed. But how much to pay for the tree? Stumpage value makes no sense. The homeowner wasn’t raising the tree to sell the timber. Replacement cost for the tree might be a fairer measure. However, the largest tree that could be planted for the homeowner – with costs of a few thousand dollars – will not begin to replace the lost tree.

In our homeowner’s case, the measure of damages we finally settled on was a real estate appraisal that concluded that the value of the home had been lessened by about $17,000 by the removal of the mature tree.

Today’s case considers what might happen if the removal of the trees does not diminish the value of the property. A man named Chung bought a parcel of land for a home. When he had a tree cutting service clear the land for construction, the cutters crossed the line onto Rora Park’s land, and removed about 560 trees. The decision only implies this, but it appears that the “accident” might not have been accidental at all. Rather, Chung may have steered the cutters in the wrong direction in order to improve the view from his land.

Whatever the reason, the liability was certain. The problem arose because removing 560 trees didn’t really decrease the value of Rora Park’s land at all. Hard to believe, but then, Alaska is a pretty big place. So Ms. Park demanded restoration damages, payment of the cost of restor-ing the property by planting new trees. That would have been about $400,000. The trial court granted damages equal to the cost of replanting 50 trees, but the Alaskan Supreme Court reversed.

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

       Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

It seems that if the wronged property owner doesn’t have a “reason personal to the land-owner for restoring the trees,” an Alaskan court won’t use that measure of damages. In this case, Ms. Park waxed eloquent about how that she had once had cancer, and “this natural beauty of my yard is [a] healing spot for me, and . . . after work I come by, see my property and see the natural beauty and the trees and all that[. W]hen I [saw] that all cut out it just [made] me very – [it] just [broke] my heart, and then very angry . . .” Unfortunately for her, she later tried to downplay how often she visited the property.

The trial court wouldn’t let her have it both ways, and found that she hadn’t justified restoration damages. But, apparently troubled by Ms. Parks’ neighbor getting away with a fast one, the trial court nevertheless awarded her restoration damages anyway. It may have seemed like justice, but it wasn’t the law.

The Alaskan Supreme Court said that restoration damages could be awarded only if Park had a “reason personal” for restoring her property. Because she failed to prove she had such a reason, she ended up being entitled to pretty much nothing.

There’s something not right about letting a slippery character like Chung pull a fast one, cut down 50 of the neighbor’s trees for a better view, and not have to pay damages for it. But that’s the system for you. It reminds one of a quotation attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr: “This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.”

Chung v. Park, 339 P.3d (Sup.Ct. Alaska, 2014). Landowner Rora Park sued her neighbor Christopher Chung for trespass, alleging that he cleared about 50 trees from her property without permission. The trial court found that the tree cutting did not diminish the property value and that there was no reason personal to the landowner for restoring the trees. But the trial judge nevertheless awarded damages equal to the cost of restoring 50 trees on the property.

Ordinarily, a landowner damaged by a trespass may recover either the loss in property value or reasonable restoration costs. But restoration costs are inappropriate if they are disproportionate to the loss in property value, unless there is a reason personal to the landowner for restoring the land. We thus conclude that we must vacate this award.

Chung hired a company to build the foundation of his new house. As part of that project, the contractor agreed to clear trees and other vegetation from the lot. Aerial photographs indicate that some trees were removed from Park’s property near the border of Chung’s lot between August 2008 and the end of September 2008, and more trees were removed between 2008 and 2009. The trees appear to have been removed more or less directly behind the house built on Chung’s property. Timber debris, presumably from the cleared trees, was also discovered buried on Park’s property. An expert witness hired by Park estimated that 562 trees were cleared from about a third of an acre of Park’s property. He calculated that it would cost over $400,000 to restore the property to its former condition. But Chung’s expert witness testified that the market value of Park’s property was likely not affected by the removal of trees.

trespasstimber150126The trial court found Chung liable for the trees removed from Park’s property. Although the court acknowledged that Park had not proved that the tree cutting reduced the value of her property and found that Park had no reason personal for replacing the trees, it nevertheless concluded that “it would be reasonable both aesthetically and legally to award damages that would permit replacement of trees on that first portion of the lot that can be clearly shown to have been scraped clean as of September 27th, 2008.” The court therefore awarded Park the cost of replacing 50 trees, $23,500. Because the court found that Chung’s trespass was intentional, it awarded treble damages under AS 09.45.730.

Chung appealed.

Held: The Alaska Supreme Court vacated the damage award. It held that a party who is injured by an invasion of his property not totally destroying its value may choose as damages either the loss in value or reasonable restoration costs. But reasonable restoration costs are an inappropriate measure of damages when those costs are disproportionately larger than the diminution in the value of the land and there is no reason personal to the owner for restoring the land to its original condition. A reason personal is one that is “peculiar or special to the owner.” The Court said “We require the landowner to demonstrate a reason personal because we believe it indicates circumstances where the owner holds property primarily for use rather than for sale and where the owner is likely to make repairs with the restoration costs award rather than to pocket the funds and enjoy a windfall.”

meditation160218

     Ms. Park tried to sell the court that the trees were her “personal healing spot.” New wave … or just trying to pump up her damages?

During trial in this case, Park tried to establish a reason personal  for replacing the trees that Chung had allegedly removed. She talked about having had cancer, and relying on her property as a “healing spot for me.” But later in the trial, she downplayed her visits to the property. As a result, the court found that Park had not established a reason personal for restoring her property.

According to the unrebutted testimony of Chung’s expert witness, the removal of trees from Park’s property did not appreciably affect the value of her property. The trial court accepted that testimony in its findings of fact. Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded, the damages the trial court awarded – $23,500 before trebling – were disproportionate to the diminution of the property value. The Court said that the trial court could award restoration damages only if it found that Park had a reason personal for restoring her property. Because it did not, the trial court’s award of compensatory damages that exceeded the diminution in the market value of Park’s property was not appropriate.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, January 23, 2019

TOPPER

We have seen our share of “obstructed view” cases, in which landowners were not liable because their vegetation obscured traffic signs.

But what if the landowner does something to the tree or vegetation to exacerbate the situation? Is that even possible? More to the point for a negligence calculus, does a landowner owe a duty to motorists?

Today’s case asks just that question. A utility company that took the easy way out, and simply topped a pine tree standing under one of its lines. Topping is a lousy way to trim a tree. No self-respecting arborist would have anything to do with it. And, it turns out, that topping did not stop the tree from growing. It simply forced the tree to grow out instead of up.

Iglehart v. Bd. of County Comm’rs, 60 P.3d 497 (Supreme Ct. Okla. 2002). Brenda Iglehart failed to stop at a county road intersection where crossing traffic had the right-of-way. She was broadsided. She sued everyone she could think of, including the Board of County Commissioners for maintenance of the road, and – relevant to this appeal – Verdigris Valley Electric Cooperative. She alleged Verdigris, which owned an easement alongside the road, contending it negligently maintained a white pine tree by “topping” it in order to keep the tree limbs from interfering with electric lines. By so doing, Brenda said, Verdigras caused the tree to grow laterally and more densely, obscuring the stop sign. According to plaintiffs, Verdigras owes a duty of care to motorists traveling on the adjoining roadway, or at least a duty to warn of a hazardous condition within its control, and that its breach of this duty directly caused Brenda’s injuries.

The trial court granted summary judgment to Verdigras and the Commissioners). The Court of Civil Appeals reversed the summary judgment for Board, but upheld summary judgment in favor of Verdigras. The appellate court held that a utility company does not owe a duty of care to travelers on roads adjacent to its power lines which are under its maintenance.

Brenda appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Held: A utility company owes a duty of care to traveling motorists on adjoining roads when its substandard maintenance of trees could foreseeably cause danger to the public.

The Court observed that to establish negligence liability for an injury, Brenda must prove that (1) Verdigras owed her a duty to protect her from injury, (2) Verdigras breached that duty, and (3) its breach was a proximate cause of Brenda’s injuries. The burden is not cast upon Brenda to establish that Verdigras was negligent in order to escape its motion for summary judgment. Rather, to avoid trial for negligence, Verdigras must establish through unchallenged evidentiary materials that, even when viewed in a light most favorable to Brenda, no disputed material facts exist as to any material issues and that the law favors Verdigras.

Verdigras contends that (1) no duty existed and that (2) if a duty existed, the company did not breach it, and that (3) its actions were not a proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries.

The threshold question for negligence suits is whether a defendant owes a plaintiff a duty of care. “We recognize,” the Court said, “the traditional common-law rule that whenever one person is by circumstances placed in such a position with regard to another, that, if he (she) did not use ordinary care and skill in his (her) own conduct, he would cause danger of injury to the person or property of the other, a duty arises to use ordinary care and skill to avoid such danger.” Among a number of factors used to determine the existence of a duty of care, the most important consideration is foreseeability. Generally a defendant owes a duty of care to all persons who are foreseeably endangered by his conduct with respect to all risks which make the conduct unreasonably dangerous. Foreseeability establishes a “zone of risk,” which is to say that it forms a basis for assessing whether the conduct creates a generalized and foreseeable risk of harming others.

The question of whether a duty is owed by a defendant is one of law; a breach of that duty is a question of fact for the trier. Here, the Court held that a utility company indeed owes a duty of care to traveling motorists on adjoining roads when its substandard maintenance of trees could foreseeably cause danger to the public. Citing the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision in Slogowski v. Lyness, the Court ruled it was potentially foreseeable to a utility company that a tree it maintained could cause a hazardous condition to motorists on an adjacent roadway. Once having undertaken the task of trimming and inspecting trees within its easement, a party must act reasonably in the exercise of that task.

In this case, the Court said, Brenda has raised a disputed issue of fact as to the foreseeability of the injuries she suffered, sufficient to avoid summary process. According to the affidavit of her expert witness, James R. Morgan, the white pine tree in question had been “topped.” The main tree trunk has been cut off in the upper quadrant of the tree. Once this occurs, the upward growth is halted, and the tree instead increases density and limb growth. These results, the affidavit stated, are particularly true for the type of pine tree on question, and is common knowledge among those who cut trees.

Verdigras challenged the certainty with which the expert made his determination, but at this stage of summary process review, the Court said, “we must view facts in the light most favorable to plaintiff. Mindful of this rule, we hold that – given the proximity of the tree to the stop sign and the common-sense notion that without a visible stop sign, an intersection, such as that here in question, poses an obvious hazard” Brenda had raised a disputed issue of material fact as to the foreseeability of the accident arising from the action of Verdigras. “Foreseeability must hence be left for a jury evaluation.”

– Tom Root

 TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, January 22, 2019

THE CONTRACT SAYS WHAT?

springsnow160321For the first time in 20 years, my snowdrops poked their little green shoots through the cold soil in late December. But with the arrival of Winter Storm Paul Newman this past weekend, they are buried under 8 inches of snow. Which is good, because they are not usually seen until the second week of February, here in the Great Lakes Basin just 30 miles south of the Canadian border.

My wonder dog Winnie found yesterday morning’s walk, at -7 degrees, a little nippy, but today will be about 40 degrees warmer. She’ll find it more to her liking, unlike a dog who was walked on a cold spring day six years years ago in Utah.

Landscaper Superior Property Management Services, Inc., had been hired by the Waterbury Homeowners Association to landscape and maintain the grounds at beautiful Shanty Acres. The parties had a standard contract, one that – among other things – called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season.” Elsewhere, the contract directs the landscapers to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees.

The contract was just a formality. Superior has been in business since the sequoias were seedlings, and its crews knew what needed to be done. They often went beyond the literal terms of the contract, which – as was typical for landscaping contracts – were not especially detailed. Over the seasons, Superior maintained Shanty Acres very well, and the contract was repeatedly renewed. The Happy Homeowners Association was indeed happy.

Then one cold, spring day, condominium resident Colleen Hill ventured outside to walk her dog. When she followed the cavorting canine onto the lawn, she tripped over a basal shoot growing from a tree root, fell, and hurt herself. She sued both Superior and the Association, claiming that Superior owed her a duty of care because of what it agreed to do in the contract. Superior, she alleged, was negligent in not trimming the basal shoots.

But how could Superior owe Colleen Hill a duty? Its contract was with the Association, and the Association thought Superior had done a fine job. True, Superior prided itself on doing more than the contract called for, but that was what a good landscaper did. Thus, Superior’s crews normally trimmed basal roots … but if Colleen’s complaint was to be believed, it appears Superior’s workers may have overlooked the shoots that proved a snare to her feet.

Superior should have trimmed the exposed roots, Colleen said, whether the contract said it should or not ...

Superior should have trimmed the exposed roots, Colleen said, whether the contract said it should or not …

The courts finally concluded that Superior owed Colleen no duty. Its obligations were to the Association, and those obligations were those spelled out in the contract, not what additional services Superior might gratuitously provide. The landscaper won in the end, but only after four years of expensive litigation.

So what does the professional arborist or landscaper learn from Superior’s legal travails? The first lesson is to read the contract form he or she is using. Does it adequately define the services being provided? If the arborist will be performing more services than those described in the contract, those probably should be described in the contract.

At minimum, the contract should clearly provide that any services provided beyond those required by the contract are being provided as a courtesy only, and that the contract does not establish a duty between the arborist and anyone other than the client.

Will this be enough to save the arborist from frivolous lawsuits? Probably not in this society. But an ounce of careful contract drafting now may be worth a pound of lawyers later.

Hill v. Superior Property Management, Inc., Case No. 20120428 (Utah Supreme Ct., 2013). Superior Property Management had held the contract to maintain premises for the Waterbury Homeowners Association for years. The form contract called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season” and to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees. After resident Colleen Hill, while walking her dog one early spring day, tripped on a growth from a tree root, she sued Superior for negligence because it had not trimmed the root.

Held: The landscaper didn’t owe Colleen a duty of care. As the Supreme Court of Utah observed, the “law draws a critical distinction between affirmative acts and omissions. As a general rule, we all have a duty to act reasonably in our affirmative acts; but no such duty attaches with regard to omissions except in cases of a special relationship.”

The Court agreed that sometimes, such a special relationship might be rooted in a contract. But it held that neither specific obligation in the contract – the obligation to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season,” or the obligation to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees – created a duty flowing from the landscaping company and the injured property owner.

Lesson: No contract is the ultimate contract, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try for comprehensiveness in drafting ...

Lesson: No contract can plan for every contingency, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try for comprehensiveness in drafting whenever possible …

The Court noted that “in the first place, it is not at all clear that mere failure to perform would sustain liability in tort. A breach of contract, after all, typically gives rise to liability in contract … Even assuming that Superior’s maintenance contract could sustain a tort duty, moreover, there is still no basis for liability here, as neither of the provisions required Superior to perform the acts it is now charged with omitting.” The Justices analyzed the contract provisions, pointing out that the accident happened in early spring, outside of the “normal growing season.” What’s more, the dictionary definition of “branch” is “a stem growing from the trunk or from a limb of a tree” or a “shoot or secondary stem growing from the main stem.” Therefore, the Court reasoned, “the ‘branches’ to be trimmed under Superior’s maintenance contract are protrusions from the main trunk only, not separate shoots stemming from the tree’s roots. Superior could not be in breach for failing to trim back those shoots.”

Maybe so, argued the homeowner, but regardless of what the contract may have said, the landscaper’s obligations “were not comprehensively detailed in its maintenance contract, but encompassed acts that it habitually engaged in over time.” The Court rejected this dangerous notion, declaring that there “is no room in our law for a tort duty arising from course-of-performance acts that are nowhere provided by contract.” The Justices reasoned that “where a duty is rooted in the express language of a written contract, the parties are on notice of their obligations, and are in a good position to plan their activities around them. That is not at all true for … extracontractual, course-of-performance acts relied on” by Ms. Hill. “If we were to impose a duty in connection with those acts,” the Court said, “we would establish a troubling perverse incentive. A party facing a tort duty in connection with any undertaking not required by contract would be discouraged from such undertaking. And a disincentive for gratuitous service benefiting another is not the sort of conduct that our tort law ought to countenance. In any event, to the extent injuries ensue from negligence in the performance of such activities, liability would properly be governed by a different branch of our tort law – by the standards governing liability for a voluntary undertaking, a theory we … find unavailing.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, January 18, 2019

SO WHAT IF YOUR NEIGHBOR BUGS YOU?

You remember that neighbor kid when you were young, the one who was always threatening to tattle to his mother or father about your alleged misdeeds?

All right, you never committed misdeeds. I did, however, and I remember my neighbor Rick, who would run to his parents at the drop of a hat. One July 4th, he told them I was responsible for some shenanigans that resulted in his burning his eyebrows off – I won’t go into details – and I was only saved because I happened to be 500 miles away at summer camp at the time.

Even then, his parents blamed me.

Some people never grow out of that urge to tattle and whine. When they become adults, they like to call the police, complain to the zoning people, and even sue. Many times, they complain about conduct that is legal (or nearly so), but merely bothersome: the neighbor puts her garbage out early, or shovels his walks late or not at all, or never weeds the garden, or parks his truck on the street, or his boat in the yard…

Nuisance is the legal doctrine that lets you bend your neighbor’s conduct to your whims. It is not easy to prove a nuisance, nor should it be. It must be an unreasonable, unwarranted or unlawful use of one’s property, and even then, the use has to annoy, inconvenience or disturb you enough that the law will presume damage.

In today’s case, the neighbor’s stand of trees bugged Chuck Merriam – literally. But swarms of disgusting insects was not enough to convince the court to boss around Chuck’s neighbor for his benefit.

Merriam v. McConnell, 31 Ill.App.2d 241 (Ct.App. Illinois 1961). Charles Merriam and next-door neighbor Jean McConnell lived in a well-populated residential area of Northfield. Jean was growing a large number of box elder trees on her property. As part of the box elder ecosystem, Jean played host to box elder bugs – ugly, black and red, three-quarter inch long insects – that infest the box elders every summer. Swarms of the bugs migrated from the trees to Chuck’s house and yard, endangering his “comfortable and peaceable use and enjoyment” of his residence, impairing the value of his property, and “embarrassing and distressing” his guests. The bugs invade Chuck’s residence and mess the furniture and draperies, which are expensive and time consuming to clean.

Chuck complained to Jean repeatedly, but she was powerless to keep the bugs out unless she cut down the trees, which she was not about to do. Chuck asked for $150.00 in damage (this being 1961) and for an injunction to get rid of the trees.

The trial court dismissed Chuck’s complaint, and he appealed.

Held: Jean’s box elders were not a nuisance, and Chuck had no basis for an injunction against her maintenance and growing of box elder trees or, alternatively, the control of the box elder bugs.

Chuck’s complaint was based on the theory of private nuisance. In general, a private nuisance is an individual wrong arising from an unreasonable, unwarrantable or unlawful use of one’s property producing so much annoyance, inconvenience, discomfort or hurt that the law will presume a consequent damage.

This means that the complaint, in order to be successful, ought to allege facts that justify the inference that the defendants are using their property in an unreasonable, unwarrantable or unlawful way.

The Court cited Michalson v. Nutting for the notion that “an owner of land is at liberty to use his land, and all of it, to grow trees. Their growth naturally and reasonably will be accompanied by the extension of boughs and penetration of roots overhead and into adjoining property of others.” The Michalson court thought it “wiser” to adopt the common law practice of leaving the neighbor to his own protection “if harm results to him from this exercise of another’s right to use his property in a reasonable way, than to subject that other to the annoyance, and the public to the burden of actions at law, which would be likely to be innumerable and, in many instances, purely vexatious.”

The Court noted that no Illinois precedent enjoined the operation of natural forces. Instead, only where “a human agency has intervened in a negligent, careless or willful way to turn the natural creation into a nuisance, as for instance, where cities have polluted natural water courses, or an individual has done so.” The court said

a nuisance cannot arise from the neglect of one to remove that which exists or arises from purely natural causes. But, when the result is traceable to artificial causes, or where the hand of man has, in any essential measure, contributed thereto, the person committing the wrongful act cannot excuse himself from liability upon the ground that natural causes conspired with his act to produce the ill results.

The Court observed that Chuck asked that Jean be forced to take “necessary steps” to limit the bugs to her property. “On its face,” the Court said, “this prayer is obviously impossible. Plaintiff does not suggest how the defendant could limit the bugs to her property. He asks that defendant be restrained from growing box elder trees upon her property. There is nothing unlawful about growing of box elder trees: Jean may grow trees to whatever extent she wishes on her own property. “The fact that box elder bugs may annually infest the trees, in our opinion, does not make the trees a private nuisance nor does the conjunction of the bugs and the trees constitute a private nuisance.”

The law requires that Jean would have to be guilty of some carelessness, negligence or willfulness in bringing, or helping to bring, about a harmful condition in order to entitle Chuck to the relief he sought in his complaint.

The Court concluded:

When a person moves to a wooded suburban area he should know that he is going to a place where nature abounds; where trees add to the pleasure of suburban life; and where the shade of trees, leaves, overreaching branches, roots, squirrels, birds, insects and the countless species of nature tend to disregard property lines. The effects of nature are incidents of suburban living…

We think that reversing the decree before us would probably expose property owners, especially in wooded suburban areas, to much vexation. And, it might result in adding the weight of “clothes-line” disputes, which ought to be settled amicably by neighbors, to the mounting burden of law suits now impeding the administration of justice… Equity should not lend its jurisdiction to the control or abatement of natural forces as though they were nuisances.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Thursday, January 17, 2019

SITTING ON YOUR RIGHTS

Equity is a beautiful thing.

There was a time, back in merry olde England, went the courts of law had gotten so hidebound and formalistic that your average aggrieved peasant couldn’t catch a break. So people who needed something more than what the law could provide would petition the Lord Chancellor.

Thus began the courts of chancery, known more commonly as courts of equity. A court of equity is authorized to apply principles of equity, as opposed to those of law, to cases brought before it.

Equity courts hear lawsuits and petitions requesting remedies other than damages, such as writs, injunctions, and specific performance. Most equity courts were eventually merged with courts of law, but some American states, including Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Tennessee, preserve the distinctions between law and equity and between courts of law and courts of equity.

Today’s case, being from Tennessee, started with a Chancellor (something like this fellow), because what the plaintiffs really wanted was an injunction, a court order that the owner of the hedge trim it. But it ended up in Tennessee Supreme Court.

At its root, equity is nothing more than fairness. Note how equity creeps into this case, not only in the application of the Massachusetts Rule – and how much a creature of equity is that? – but in the observation at the end of the decision that laches should prevent Bill Granberry from getting any relief from his claim.

Bill sat on his rights. If he had sued Penelope when the hedge was still short and young, the outcome might have been different.

Granberry v. Jones, 188 Tenn. 51, 216 S.W.2d 721 (Supreme Ct. Tenn. 1949): Bill Granberry and Penelope Jones each owned a residence on adjoining lots in Tullahoma. Due to the narrow frontage, Bill’s residence is a little less than five feet from the boundary line between the properties.

Penny planted an evergreen shrubbery hedge entirely on her side and within a few inches of the boundary line. The hedge has grown to a height of about twenty feet and its branches and foliage have grown over the boundary line and over Bill’s property to the extent that they rub the side of his house and enter his open windows.

Bill sued for an injunction that would require Penny to trim the hedge back to the boundary line. For good measure, he also asked for decree requiring her to move the hedge entirely or at least to cut it down to a height of not more than 24 inches and to keep it that way, and for damages.

Penny demurred (which is legalese for saying to the court “even if everything he says is true, Bill’s got nothing coming). Penny argued that she had the legal right to grow the shrubbery on her own property to any height she desired, and if any of the branches or foliage protruded onto Bill’s land, his remedy was only to cut the hedge to the extent of the protrusion. The trial court overruled her demurrer, and Penny appealed.

Held: Penny’s demurrer was correct: Bill’s remedy was limited to self-help.

The court reversed the lower court’s decree which had overruled defendants’ demurrer to the complainant’s bill, seeking inter alia to enjoin defendants from permitting their hedge to extend onto his land. The court dismissed the bill.

Noting that it could “find no Tennessee case where resort to a Court of equity has been attempted on the facts alleged by this bill,” the Supremes ruled that every owner of land has dominion of the soil, and above and below to any extent he or she may choose to occupy it. As against adjoining property owners, the owner of a lot may plant shade trees or cover it with a thick forest, and the injury done to them by the mere shade of the trees is damnum absque injuria.

No landowner has a cause of action from the mere fact that the branches of an innocuous tree belonging to an adjoining landowner overhang his or her premises. The afflicted owner’s right to cut off the overhanging branches back to the property line is considered a sufficient remedy, the Court said, citing the Massachusetts Rule.

The principle, the Court said, is that an owner of land is at liberty to use his land, and all of it, to grow trees. Their growth naturally and reasonably will be accompanied by the extension of boughs and the penetration of roots over and into adjoining property of others.

Bill argued that the overhanging branches and foliage had caused the outside wall of his home to rot and decay, and the sills and woodwork have been caused to rot to such an extent that they will have to be replaced by reason of the constant leaning against them of the hedge.

The Court was a mite troubled that it obviously had taken many years for the hedge had grown to its current size. Bill could have taken action when the hedge was much smaller, and the damage to him and burden to Penny – were she to be required to cut the hedge – would have been much less. “The long acquiescence and laches upon the part of [Bill] without any notice to [Penny] and with no attempt to aid himself,” the Court wrote, “is clearly the cause of the damage for which he seeks equitable relief. Of course, the Courts are open to [Bill] if in legally aiding himself he is improperly interfered with by [Penny] or her brother. Our conclusion, also, is without prejudice to whatever rights, if any, [Bill] may have for recovery of the expense to which he may be put now or hereafter in cutting the overhanging branches or foliage.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Wednesday, January 16, 2019

THERE ARE LEGAL COSTS, AND THEN THERE ARE LEGAL COSTS

fees160104Let nothing come between a lawyer and his fee.

You might be cynical, and see today’s case as nothing more than a lawyer worried about collecting a large and unwarranted fee. But the case is much more than that.

The facts are rather prosaic. Some landowners failed to carefully mark the common boundary with their neighbor before setting a timber company loose on the property. Sure enough, the cutters harvested some of the neighbor’s trees. That much wasn’t an issue.

When Valarie Garvey sued the Chaceys for timber tress, property damage and a collection of related causes of action, the Chaceys hired some aggressive litigators. Their lawyers knew that the best trial defense often is a good pretrial offense. They fought tooth-and-nail before trial, gaining their best tactical high ground when Valerie’s lawyer inexplicably didn’t identify the plaintiff’s timber expert by the pretrial deadlines.

The expert was crucial, because he was going to testify as to the value of the timber that had been wrongfully cut. But once the expert established the value of the missing trees, Section 55-332 of the Virginia Code would let Valerie Garvey collect three times the value of the wrongly-cut timber, plus reforestation costs, plus other damages to the property (such as the private road the timber harvesters ripped up) plus “legal costs directly related to the trespass.” In short, it looked like a big payday for Valerie Garvey. She just had to do one thing. She had to prove the value of the stolen timber.

Alas, she screwed it up. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say her lawyer screwed it up. Without the expert, Valerie had no way to get the value of the timber into evidence. When the jury decided the case, it was able to award her the princely sum of $15,135.00 (only a fraction of the reforestation costs she estimated to be $ 78,000.)

expert160104Valerie’s lawyer, trying to save a case that was going south pretty fast, successfully convinced the trial court that the “directly associated legal costs incurred by the owner of the timber as a result of the trespass” included attorneys’ fees. Valerie claimed she had spent over $135,000 in legal fees, and the trial court awarded even more than that – $165,000 – in fees.

I doubt that Valerie’s lawyer was going to get all of that pile of cash. In fact, Val had every right to be as mad as a wet hen over counsel’s missing the expert witness deadline. I suspect that the lawyer and client had made a deal to salvage something out of the case, and counsel would had ended up with little more than cabfare (but no malpractice claims). Unfortunately, we’ll never know, because on appeal, the Chaceys convinced the Virginia Supreme Court that whatever “directly associated legal costs” might be, they are not “attorneys fees.” The Supreme Court was impressed that wherever the legislature intended to authorize the award of attorneys fees – in over 200 statutes in the Code – it was able to clearly say so.

The Chaceys – not satisfied with hitting a triple – swung for the fence. They asked the Supreme Court to rule that where a plaintiff claiming timber trespass did not prove the value of the missing timber, the case should be thrown out. The Supreme Court disagreed. Proving a timber trespass does not require that one prove the value of the purloined pines. Of course, not doing so cuts the plaintiff out of a lot of damages, but the offense does not depend on proven damages. It just requires that a trespass to timber occur, whether the tree is worth anything or not.

As for Valerie’s attorney, I suspect he marched straight from the courtroom to his malpractice carrier’s office.

reforest160104Chacey v. Garvey, 295 Va. 1, 781 S.E.2d 357 (Supreme Court of Virginia, 2015). In 1995, Valerie Garvey bought 50 acres of land from Allan and Susan Chacey. The Chaceys retained ownership of adjacent property, and they reserved to themselves an easement over Garvey’s property as a means for ingress and egress to their property.

At the end of 2012, Garvey sued the Chaceys and Blue Ridge Forestry Consultants, Inc., alleging timber theft and trespass. Garvey said the Chaceys had hired a logging company a few years previously to remove some timber located on their property, and that the company had trespassed on her property and removed timber without her permission. She alleged that she was entitled to damages for timber theft at three times the value of the timber on the stump, as well as reforestation costs not to exceed $450 an acre, the costs of ascertaining the value of the timber, and her attorney’s fees. She also asked for $30,000 for damages to her property caused by the trespass, including damage to the road, fencing, and the stone bridge.

Prior to trial, Garvey attempted to designate an expert witness for the purpose of establishing the monetary value of the timber on the stump at issue in the complaint. However, she did so too late, and trial court refused to let her expert testify during the three-day jury trial.

While she was testifying at trial, Garvey was asked by her attorney whether she had incurred legal costs in connection with the trespass. The Chaceys objected, but the trial court ruled that legal costs included attorney’s fees. Garvey told the jury that she had incurred more than $135,000 in legal costs, including attorney’s fees, which she claimed were all directly associated with the trespass. She also testified that she had negotiated with Bartlett Tree Services for the restoration of the trees, and she had paid a deposit of $440 towards that work, against a total price of $78,000.

The trial court ruled that Garvey could not recover treble damages since her expert evidence regarding the value of the timber on the stump had been excluded. However, the case could still go to the jury for consideration of damages for reforestation and legal costs.

The Chaceys argued that attorneys’ fees are not recoverable by a prevailing party in an action for timber theft pursuant to the Virginia Code § 55-331. They also contended that Garvey’s timber trespass claim should not have been submitted to the jury, because she had failed to provide any evidence related to the value of the alleged damaged timber. However, the jury found for Garvey on her claims of timber theft, trespass, and property damage. On the timber theft claim, the jury awarded Garvey $135.00 in reforestation costs. The jury also awarded her legal costs. On the trespass count, the jury awarded Garvey $15,000 in damages. The trial court held that Garvey was entitled to $165,135 in “directly associated legal costs incurred by Plaintiff as a result of the trespass, including attorney’s fees, in the amount of $150,000 …”

The Chaceys appealed.

needlawyer160104Held: The Virginia Supreme Court split the ticket. It observed that although Virginia Code § 55-331 permits any victim of timber trespass to collect “directly associated legal costs incurred by the owner of the timber as a result of the trespass,” whether Garvey was entitled to attorney’s fees depends upon the meaning of “costs.” Garvey argued that her attorney’s fees are legal costs directly associated with the trespass. The Chaceys argued that Garvey is merely entitled to the costs necessary for the prosecution of her suit.

Tracing the definition of “costs” in other proceedings, the Court held that “the term ‘costs’ is limited to the costs necessary for the prosecution of a suit, and does not include attorney’s fees. The Code of Virginia contains more than 200 instances where the General Assembly has determined a successful litigant is entitled to ‘attorney’s fees and costs’ or ‘costs and attorney’s fees’ … However, the General Assembly did not include the right to recover attorney’s fees in this statute, something it has done in more than 200 other separate instances.”

The Court disagreed with the Chaceys, however, about the timber trespass claim. The Chaceys, no doubt wanting to capitalize on their pretrial success in keeping Garvey’s expert off the stand, argued that the trial court erred in permitting Garvey’s timber trespass claim to proceed to the jury because Garvey failed to provide any evidence related to the value of the alleged damaged timber. Essentially, the Chaceys were contending that evidence related to the value of the damaged timber is a prerequisite to awarding any of the additional damages provided for under Code § 55-332(B).

Virginia Code § 55-332(B) holds that any person who removes timber from the land of another without permission is liable to the rightful owner for “three times the value of the timber on the stump and shall pay to the rightful owner of the property the reforestation costs incurred not to exceed $450 per acre, the costs of ascertaining the value of the timber, and any directly associated legal costs incurred by the owner of the timber as a result of the trespass.” The Court held that there was nothing in the statute that stated that an owner is only entitled to reforestation costs, legal costs, or the costs of ascertaining the value of the timber after he or she had first established the value of the timber that was improperly taken. Instead, the Court said, the statute made clear that the person who removed the timber “shall be liable to pay” all of these damages to the owner. The fact that Garvey was unable to prove the value of the timber on the stump in this case did not preclude her from being able to recover the other damages she was entitled to under Code § 55-332(B).

– Tom Root

TNLBGray