Case of the Day – Tuesday, December 4, 2018


I admit to being old enough to remember the Bamboo Curtain, the Cold War political demarcation between the Communist states of East Asia – particularly the People’s Republic of China – and the capitalist and non-Communist states of East, South and Southeast Asia.

As the passing of President George H.W. Bush – the man on whose watch many of those kinds of “curtains” fell – has reminded us, the Iron Curtain, Cactus Curtain, Bamboo Curtain and others of that ilk are now relics of unpleasant history.

But “bamboo curtains,” and literal ones at that, are still with us. Every so often, I am reminded of that when I come across a case involving a stand of bamboo, encroachment that usually started when some well-meaning homeowner (who maybe anticipates an attack of hungry pandas) plants a little stand of bamboo in his back yard.

The problem is that the owner has a “little stand of bamboo” only for a minute or so. The stuff is pernicious and fecund. Bamboo, which is a giant grass and not a tree, has fairly been called one of the world’s most invasive plants. Once established, it is next to impossible to control. The sprouts that shoot up from the ground each spring can grow 12 inches a day. The underground roots of common running “fishpole” bamboo, which can easily reach 15 feet tall, can travel as far as 20 feet or more from the original clump. The experts suggest you control it by digging a two-foot deep trench and lining it with aluminum. Or lead. Or titanium. Or concrete. But whatever you use, leave a portion of it sticking up above ground, because bamboo roots can jump barriers like Superman leaps buildings.

Bamboo: the Asian carp of grasses. As one homeowner site puts it: When you need a concrete bunker to contain a plant, you know you’re in trouble.

Bamboo is not a very good idea. Unless, of course, you’re like Mike and Roberta Komaromi, who simply did not give a rip that their bamboo stand was galloping across neighbor Caryn Rickel’s lot. Usually, we complain about people foolish enough to represent themselves, but here, we grudgingly admit that pro se litigant Caryn was holding her own.

The Komaromis were smug, arguing that they had no duty to corral the bamboo. Well, as is usually the case when hard facts collide with justice, courts find a way to recompense the victim. So it did here, ruling (and right on the Bay State’s south border, too) that the Massachusetts Rule cut no ice in Connecticut.

Rickel v. Komaromi, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 5254 (Superior Ct. Conn., July 13, 2011): Caryn Rickel, bringing her case without a lawyer, complained that her neighbors Mike and Roberta Komaromi planted bamboo in their yard without any plan for containment. As a result, her back yard has been overrun by invasive bamboo.

Mike and Bobbi, who did hire a lawyer, filed a motion to strike the complaint as legally insufficient. That is to say, they claimed that if everything Caryn said in the complaint were true, she still was entitled to no relief.

Here Mike and Bobbi complained that Caryn has not alleged that they had any legal duty to her.

Held: Connecticut would follow the Hawaii Rule, and under that Rule, Caryn had adequately claimed her neighbors had a duty to her which they violated with the bamboo. “The essential elements of a cause of action in negligence are well established,” the Court said, “duty; breach of that duty; causation; and actual injury.” There can be no negligence without there first being a cognizable duty of care.

The test for the existence of a legal duty of care, the Court said, entails (1) a determination of whether an ordinary person in the defendant’s position, knowing what the defendant knew or should have known, would anticipate that harm of the general nature of that suffered was likely to result, and (2) a determination, on the basis of a public policy analysis, of whether the defendant’s responsibility for its negligent conduct should extend to the particular consequences or particular plaintiff in the case.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.

So how did Caryn do? First, she alleged the Komaromis planted bamboo without any plan for containment and watched while the non-native plant fully invaded Caryn’s back yard. She also alleged the Komaromis failed to take action to alleviate the situation even though the bamboo growth was readily visible. This, the Court ruled, sufficiently alleged that the damage to Caryn’s property was reasonably foreseeable to the Komaromis.

Second, the Court held, the Komaromis’ responsibility for their negligent conduct should extend to the Caryn on public policy grounds. The Court looked at (1) the normal expectations of the participants in the activity under review; (2) the public policy of encouraging participation in the activity, while weighing the safety of the participants; (3) the avoidance of increased litigation; and (4) the decisions of other jurisdictions. Consideration of these four factors, the Court said, “supports the conclusion that the court should impose a duty on a property owner to refrain from planting bamboo without a containment plan in order to avoid harming an adjacent property.”

First, property owners are normally expected to refrain from engaging in conduct that would cause damage to an adjacent property. Although landowners may reasonably expect some level of discomfort from having adjacent property owners, it does not mean that property owners should reasonably expect bamboo belonging to an adjacent landowner to fully invade their property.

For the second factor, as a matter of public policy, it is desirable to promote property ownership, and the ability to live free of concern of encroaching vegetation from adjacent properties directly impacts this goal. Allowing a landowner to cultivate his or her land “should be fairly balanced against the rights of adjacent landowners, and imposing a duty on the cultivating landowner whose vegetation harmfully invades another’s property would be in accord with public policy.”

Turning to the third factor, it is true that imposing a duty like this one could encourage other property owners suffering from the same problem to bring similar actions. On the other hand, however, establishing such an affirmative duty may deter potential defendants from engaging in this type of activity.

Finally, the Court rejected the Massachusetts Rule. That rule provides that a defendant has no duty to prevent his trees from causing damage to his or her neighbor’s property and 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.” The Hawaii Rule, by contrast, grants the landowner a remedy for damages caused by the encroaching vegetation of an adjacent property owner.

The Court adopted the Hawaii Rule, it said, for two main reasons. First, the Rule serves as a gatekeeping mechanism in that it imposes a requirement of actual harm to the property, discouraging trivial suits while simultaneously providing a cause of action for deserving plaintiffs. The Massachusetts Rule, by comparison, “deprives deserving plaintiffs of any meaningful redress when their property is damaged.” Second, the Massachusetts Rule is not “realistic and fair… Because the owner of the tree’s trunk is the owner of the tree,” the Court opined, “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.”

In addition, the Court said, Caryn had linked the breach of the Komaromis’ duty, the damages she suffered and the causation between the breach and the damages suffered. She alleged that the Komaromis planted the bamboo and that their subsequent inaction as to the bamboo growth “directly caused the harmful condition and continual damage” to her property. Accordingly, the Court said, Caryn has successfully set forth a cause of action in negligence.

So does Caryn win an injunction to get the bamboo eradicated? Stay tuned tomorrow…

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, December 3, 2018


treelawn150217No issue of property ownership may be more misunderstood than the question of who owns the tree lawn, sometimes called the boulevard lawn, that strip of land between your front sidewalk and the street.

The confusion was illustrated recently by our reader Joel, who wanted the city to remove a dead tree on his tree lawn. He had always just understood that the tree lawn wasn’t his, and that he couldn’t cut or trim the trees growing there. We straightened him out, but a lot of uncertainty remains.

In today’s case, homeowners Gene and Joan Foote knew the tree lawn was theirs, but their failure to appreciate the limits of their rights led to a suit against the city. It seems that the city was improving the street, and its plan included the removal of four trees from the Foote’s tree lawn. The homeowners demanded compensation, arguing that the city’s removal of the beautiful trees amounts to a “taking” of property under the 5th Amendment, a “taking” for which they must be paid. A trial court agreed with them.

The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the decision. It explained that the Footes, like any owner, was entitled to use all of his or her property right to the centerline of the street. However, the property was owned subject to a public easement (that’s why a deed always says “subject to all legal highways, easements and other restrictions of record”). In other words, the owner’s use of the land had to yield to the public easement of the highway.

Here, the city was merely using more of its highway right-of-way by expanding the street. As long as it remained within the bounds of its easement — which usually extends beyond pavement for a distance — the city could remove trees and other of the owner’s property to the extent needed for the public’s enjoyment of the easement. The removal of the trees let the public enjoy the easement, and no money was due the property owner because of it.

Some road-widening projects can get quite close to buildings. Be sure to check on the width of the highway easement before you build.

Some road-widening projects can get quite close to buildings. Be sure to check on the width of the highway easement before you build.

How wide is the right-of-way? It depends on the state you live in and size of the street. If you have questions, you could check with your local government’s engineering department. Or your lawyer.

Lawyers love to answer questions. Usually for a fee.

Foote v. City of Crosby, 306 N.W.2d 883 (Sup.Ct. Minn. 1981). Gene and Joan Foote owned a home in the City of Crosby. The platted right-of-way of the street in front of the home, Cross Avenue, was 80 feet wide and extended to approximately 6 inches from the front steps of the house.

The center 32 feet of the right-of-way was paved. Next to the pavement is a 10-foot wide grassy boulevard, and then a 4-foot sidewalk. On the boulevard were four large healthy elm trees which had been maintained by the Footes. Although the trees had cracked and heaved the sidewalk, there had been no complaints that the trees impeded foot travel, nor had the trees interfered with motorized travel.

The city began an extensive municipal improvement project prompted by the need for storm sewers, including a new lateral line under Cross Avenue. To provide proper grade for drainage, Cross Avenue would be torn up entirely, a plan which called for removal of the four trees, because root cutting necessary to accommodate them to the change in grade and repositioning of the curb and sidewalk would likely kill them. The Footes sued for an injunction, arguing the city couldn’t cut the trees without paying them compensation. The district court granted the injunction, and the city appealed.

sign150217Held: The injunction was dissolved. The Court observed that the owner of property abutting a right-of-way for public travel had the right to use his one half of roadway in any manner compatible with use by public of its easement. Any encroachment on the public right-of-way must be clearly obstruction to public easement before municipality may remove it without an adjudication that it was in fact an obstruction.

The Footes were not entitled to compensation for removal of trees within public right-of-way, the Court ruled, although they had a property right in the trees, because the taking was pursuant to a project which was a proper exercise of police power and encompassed a public purpose, and removal of trees was necessary to implementation of the project. After all, the Court said, the removal of the boulevard trees within the platted right-of-way was necessary to the street improvement project, and if not removed, the trees would clearly obstruct the public’s easement of travel.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Friday, November 30, 2018


There is a wonderful doctrine in the law – and the law is a place where we do not really expect to find anything wonderful – that is known as the rule of de minimis.

Mentioning de minimis gives me an excuse for another shout-out to my sainted Latin teacher from days of yore, Emily Bernges (who instilled in me a love of, if not fluency in, that grand Mother of Languages). But more to the point, the de minimis rule is a necessity: if it didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. Simply put, the rule of de minimis holds that some wrongs we suffer are so slight to be unworthy of recompense.

De minimis is the shortened form of “de minimis non curat lex,” which Emily would have told us means that “the law does not concern itself with trifles.” Queen Christina of Sweden, who occupied the throne in the mid 17th century – and who may have studied under Emily, too, for all we know – favored the more colorful adage, “aquila non captat muscas,” that is, “the eagle does not catch flies.”

We sometimes think too many plaintiffs want to sue over trifles. The plaintiffs in today’s case, the Bandys, sure did. The neighbors’ trees dropped sap and leaves on their property, and their roots clogged a sewer line. The Bandys did not find that dandy, and so they sued.

The court was aghast. A tree dropping leaves and sap! Who had ever heard of such a thing?

Besides everyone, that is. Trees drip sap and drop leaves and grow roots all the time. It’s just what trees do. Once the law starts making tree owners pay for that, there will be no end to the litigation.

The neighbor’s leaves fell in your yard? Here’s a rake. Deal with it.

Bandy v. Bosie (1985), 132 Ill. App. 3d 832, 477 N.E.2d 840. Edith and Chuck Bandy sued their neighbors, Jim and Becky Bosie, complaining that the Bosies’ maple and elm trees dropped sap and leaves on the Bandy’s property, and roots from the trees had damaged the Bosies’ sewer line, causing water to back up in their basement.

The Bosies moved for dismissal, arguing that the Bandys had no cause of action. The court agreed, and dismissed the complaint.

The Bandys appealed.

Held: The Bandy complaint failed to allege a nuisance. The court found the Bosies were entitled to grow trees on any or all of their land and their natural growth reasonably resulted in extension of roots and branches into adjoining property.

The Bandys argued first that the Bosies should be made to cut down the trees, because there was no adequate remedy at law, and the trees were a nuisance. Bosies rejoined that the trees did not constitute a nuisance and that, in any event, the Bandys were not entitled to equitable relief.

Illinois courts have previously held in Merriam v. McConnell (1961), 31 Ill. App. 2d 241, 175 N.E.2d 293, that equity could not be used to control or abate natural forces as if they were a nuisance. Illinois follows the Massachusetts Rule, and holds that an owner is entitled to grow trees on any or all of the land, and their natural growth reasonably will result in extension of roots and branches into adjoining property. The effects of nature such as the growth of tree roots cannot be held within boundaries, the risk of damage from roots on other lots is inherent in suburban living, and to allow such lawsuits as this one would create litigation over matters that should be worked out between the lot owners.

But in another Illinois decision, In Mahurin v. Lockhart (1979), 71 Ill. App. 3d 691, 390 N.E.2d 523, the plaintiff sued an adjoining lot owner for damages resulting from a dead limb falling from the defendant’s tree onto plaintiff’s property, injuring the plaintiff. The defendant contended she had no liability for damages occurring off of her land resulting from the existence of natural conditions on her land. The appellate court rejected that view, holding that defendant’s theory arose in an era when most land was heavily wooded and sparsely settled, and when the burden of inspecting those larger properties for natural defects would have been unreasonable. In a more modern urban setting, the court considered, the burden of inspecting for unsound trees which might injure persons off of the owners’ property to be reasonable.

Here, the complaint is silent as to when and how the trees gained life. That is one reason, the Court said, why the complaint failed to allege a nuisance.

In addition, the Court said, even if counts I and II had stated that defendant had planted the trees, the counts would still have failed to state a cause of action for injunctive relief. The Court said, “We do not consider trees that drop leaves on neighboring lands or trees that send out roots that migrate to neighboring lands and obstruct drainage to necessarily constitute a nuisance. We recognize that some decisions in other States are to the contrary. We agree with the Merriam court that, under the circumstances here, to permit the falling of leaves or the migration of the roots to give rise to injunctive relief would unduly promote litigation over relatively minor matters. Usually, the damage from the offending leaves would be minimal, and the accurate locating of the source of the offending roots would be difficult and expensive.”

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Thursday, November 29, 2018


lemonsup160302Lemon and Curington were neighbors. Things were neighborly when Curington planted a pair of poplar trees — fairly fast growing and tall things — near the property line.

Over the years, things became less so, as several legally significant events occurred. First, the trees got big. As they did, the trunks ended up crossing the boundary line so that the trees were growing on both Curington’s and Lemon’s land. Second, the root systems expanded and began putting the squeeze on Lemon’s foundation. Third, Lemon discovered that if he used self-help, trimming back the roots and topping off the trees, he would make them unstable, turning the poplars into topplers. So Lemon — who was completely soured on the trees by this point — sued Curington, asking that the trees be declared nuisances and that Curington be made to remove them.

Life had given Curington a Lemon, but he tried to make lemonade. He argued that the Massachusetts Rule gave Lemon no aid, and that he was limited to self-help. However, the court relied on the Idaho nuisance statute (noting in passing that the Massachusetts Rule didn’t really apply to a tree growing in both properties at once, a fascinating observation we wish it had explained a bit better), ruling that the trees were nuisances for having damaged Lemon’s foundation. It also seemed important to the Court that Lemon couldn’t trim the tree and roots himself without making the poplar a “danger” tree that was likely to fall.

founda160302This case is a gallimaufry of issues — the interplay of nuisance statutes with common law and the interplay of boundary trees with encroachment — as well a rather poorly-thought out dismissal of the Massachusetts Rule for reasons that were unnecessary. After all, the Massachusetts Rule was specific in its limitation to non-nuisance encroachment, twigs and leaves and that sort of thing. The Lemon decision, remarkably similar to the Hawaii Rule (but decided 14 years before the Hawaii Rule was adopted), is also quite similar in its fact pattern to Fancher v. Fagella, a 2007 Virginia Supreme Court decision. In fact, a real argument can be made that this Idaho case was entirely unnecessary in its treatment of the venerable Massachusetts Rule.  Michalson v. Nutting, in our view, is a “big tent” with enough room for all of the poplars, sweet gums and banyan trees that followed.

Lemon v. Curington, 78 Idaho 522, 306 P.2d 1091 (1957). Lemon and Curington owned adjoining land with a common boundary, on which two poplar trees had been planted over 50 years ago. The trees had grown to approximately four to five feet in diameter at the base, and the trunks and branches extended across the boundary line. The roots were surface feeders and, in one case, extended from the boundary line to and against the foundation of Lemon’s house, cracking the house’s foundation. pushing the wall of plaintiffs’ house inward.

lemondown160302If Lemon topped the trees and cut the roots extending onto his land, the trees are likely to fall over. Lemon sued, alleging the trees to be a nuisance, and asked authority to remove the offending trees.

The trial court authorized the destruction of the tree damaging the foundation, but held the other tree was healthy and mature, and thus not a nuisance. Curington appealed, arguing that the Massachusetts Rule limited Lemon’s remedies to self-help, that is, to lemon’s trimming the tree and roots himself.

Held: The tree is a nuisance, and the Court may order Curington to remove it. The Supreme Court held that the Massachusetts Rule was not dispositive where a nuisance had been shown to exist.

roots160302The Court said “[w]e think the condition here shown to exist constitutes a nuisance under the provisions of Idaho Code § 52-101.”  That statute defined a nuisance to be “[a]nything which is injurious to health … or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.” Here, not only had the tree made a mess of Lemon’s foundation, but the evidence showed that if Lemon cut the roots and topped the tree, the whole thing was likely to fall over. The Court said that statute authorized an action by any person “whose property is injuriously affected or whose personal enjoyment is lessened by the maintaining of a nuisance to have it abated.”

Without explaining its reasoning very far, the Court also said that the fact the tree was a boundary tree, on the properties of both parties, made the Massachusetts Rule inapplicable. So while Lemon reserved the right of self-help, the courts were also available to him to abate the nuisance tree.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Wednesday, November 28, 2018


Oldsters with droopy pants - not pleasant to contemplate.

Oldsters with droopy pants – not pleasant to contemplate.

A county park had a contract with Green View — a nonprofit company that had the laudable goal of putting our shiftless senior citizens to work cleaning up parks — to maintain the grounds. This is a good thing. Otherwise, retirees with their pants drooping to show their underwear and their “tatts” and funny flat-brimmed baseball caps worn sideways on their heads, just hang around and ride their little electric carts up and down streets and… you know what trouble they can be.

Green View’s people were busy staying out of trouble when a tree branch broke off a tree and struck a park patron during a summer storm. Being aware that a branch certainly would never break off in the middle of a storm unless someone was negligent, the injured woman sued the county and, for good measure, went after the old people, too. She argued that the elderly working for Green Tree had a duty to inspect the park for branches that might fall off in storms, and they had been too preoccupied with talking about their regularity to carry out their obligations.

In depositions, the Green View people admitted that they had looked for dead trees, but they explained that the county employees were responsible for removal of hazards like that. At least one deponent might have even denounced the plaintiff as a “young whippersnapper.”

whip150213The young whippersnapper was, to use a legal term, whippersnapped. The court ruled that neither Green View’s contract with the county nor the job descriptions for its workers included any duty to inspect the trees or warn of their dangers. The county employees — who were immune from suit (just in case you are wondering why the old folks at Green View were being picked on to begin with) — all agreed that it was the county’s duty to inspect trees and warn of dangers.

The injured plaintiff couldn’t find any duty that Green View or its senior-citizen workers owed her. Without the duty, there could be no negligence.

Senior citizens humor aside, it is this kind of litigation — and the legal fees Green View undoubtedly had to shoulder to defend an action for which there was no factual basis — that drives beneficial programs like this one (intended to provide meaningful work and activity for seniors) out of business. While an injury like the one the plaintiff suffered was lamentable, the reason branches fall in summer storms is fairly well understood.

Sometimes stuff happens, and suing anyone who happened to be nearby seldom makes it better.

stuff150213Rolfhus v. County of Wright, 2001 Minn. App. LEXIS 319, 2001 WL 290525 (Minn.App. 2001). Dawn Rolfhus was seriously injured at a Wright County park in 1997 after a tree branch broke and struck her head during a summer storm. She and her husband sued the county and respondent Green View, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides senior citizens with maintenance and custodial work at state and county parks. Green View had a contract with the county to maintain the park at which Rolfhus was injured.

The county park manager testified that the Green View employees, without discussion, undertook to remove the tree that had fallen on Ms. Rolfhus. Harold Johnson, a Green View employee, admitted to looking for dead trees in the park, but stated that it “isn’t our job to chop down trees or anything like that.” Another employee, Frank Duncan, conceded that he never saw any county employees in the park inspect trees, but that he “knew they did it.” The county employees all testified that it was the county’s duty to inspect trees and warn of dangers, and the Green View employees all testified that it was not their duty to inspect trees or warn of their dangers. The district court granted summary judgment to the county based on immunity, and to Green View based on a determination that Green View had no duty to inspect trees or warn park patrons of dangerous trees. Rolfhus appealed the grant of summary judgment to Green View.

brokenbranch150213Held: The grant of summary judgment was upheld. The elements of a negligence claim include a duty, a breach of that duty, proximate cause, and injury in fact. Even where no duty otherwise exists, a person who voluntarily assumes a duty may be liable for failing to exercise reasonable care in performing the duty. One who assumes to act, even though gratuitously, may thereby become subject to the duty of acting carefully, if he acts at all.

The Court ruled that neither the language of the contract between the county and Green View nor the pertinent job descriptions created a duty for Green View employees to inspect trees or warn of their dangers. Furthermore, the county employees all testified that it was the county’s duty to inspect trees and warn of dangers, and the Green View employees all testified that it was not their duty to inspect trees or warn of their dangers. There was no issue of fact remaining, and judgment was appropriately entered for Green View.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Tuesday, November 27, 2018


Kee Nee Moo Sha, Inc., had a tract of wooded land on a lake, next to a Bible camp owned by the Baptist Church. What could be wrong with that? No loud music, no dancing all hours of the night, no boozing or riotous living… right?

The minister in charge of the Bible camp knew where the boundaries between the Baptists’ and the company’s lands lay. But he had a problem. How could he build more cabins for the pittance that had appeared in his collection plate? The Lord turned seven small loaves and a few fishes into a feast for 4,000 people. But the preacher, a lesser mortal, couldn’t stretch what little he had into more lodging.

And verily, he began to covet his neighbor’s trees.

The minister had a logger cut down about a hundred of Kee Nee Moo Sha’s pine trees. Surely this was manna from heaven — free timber! Except it wasn’t free, as the Baptists soon found out.

Kee Nee Moo Sha reacted much like a modern, more restrained version of the angry vineyard owner.  It sued. The Baptists failed to heed the Lord’s admonition to make peace with the plaintiff before you get to court. Too bad, too. The court found that the minister’s trespass was willful, and in fact, it appeared to be rather irked with the fact that – once on the witness stand – the man of the cloth wasn’t very familiar with the 9th Commandment, you know, the one about bearing false witness and all.

Kee Nee Moo Sha wanted the Baptists to pay for the enhanced value of the timber — that is, the value of the timber after being milled — and the court agreed that measure of damages is acceptable where the trespass is willful. But the court can’t guess at what that value might be, and where Kee Nee Moo Sha failed to introduce any evidence on the enhanced value, it missed its opportunity.

The Baptists introduced evidence of the stumpage value of the timber, that is, the value at the point it had been cut down, but before it was hauled and milled. Stumpage value is always lower, because the owner of the timber has to deliver it to the sawmill and pay for the milling before having a product to sell. Because the stumpage value was the best evidence of value in the record, the Baptists were charged for the lower figure.

The trial court assessed punitive damages against the church camp instead of the treble damages for wrongful cutting which statute permits. The Court of Appeals noted that this was entirely permissible, because sometimes trebling the damages just isn’t good enough to deter such conduct. Where the trespass is wanton but the damage only amounts to $100, $300 might just not get an errant preacher’s attention nearly so effectively as a whopping punitive award. The Court said that either trebling or punitive damages may be applied, at the trial court’s discretion.

covet150212And thus, the Baptists rendered unto Kee Nee Moo Sha …

Kee Nee Moo Sha, Inc., v. Baptist Missions of Minnesota-Plymouth Point Bible Camp, Not Reported in N.W.2d, 1990 WL 212222 (Minn.App. 1990). Kee Nee Moo Sha, Inc., is a family-owned corporation organized for the purpose of holding more than 100 acres of forested land near Hackensack, with a resort on the southern end of the property. The resort belongs to the Baptist Church.

In late 1976, in connection with the transfer of the Baptist’s church property to another church unit, a surveyor was hired to survey and mark the boundary between the Baptists’ land and the Kee Nee Moo Sha property. Shortly after the survey was completed, and while the brush was all cleared and orange flags marked the line, the surveyor walked the boundary line with one of the church’s pastors, pointing out in detail the location of the boundary.

About four years later, the pastor wanted to build more camp buildings as cheaply as possible. Looking for some do-it-yourself financing, he arranged for a local logger to cut about 100 pine trees in and near the main camp buildings. While most of the timber was cut on church property, 26 pines were cut on Kee Nee Moo Sha land. In addition, the pastor had the logger clear cut nearly 100 birch and aspen from the same area of the Kee Nee Moo Sha property, along with 1,600 cubic yards of sand which was used in a drain field near the Baptist building project. Kee Nee Moo Sha was unamused.

A lawsuit inevitably followed. The trial court granted Kee Nee Moo Sha damages for trespass and an injunction against further trespass by the Baptists. Unhappy with the paltry damages awarded, Kee Nee Moo Sha appealed, seeking higher measure of compensation, a more extensive permanent injunction, and costs, disbursements and attorney fees.

Held: The appellate court upheld the trial court decision.

The Court observed that there were several possible measures of damages which could be used when trespass to property involves the taking of timber. One of the oldest is the “enhanced value” of the timber after being sawed and transported to the place of sale or transfer, to be used when the trespass is willful. The presumption in trespass cases where timber is cut is that the trespass is willful, and the burden of proof falls to the trespasser to show otherwise.

Here, the trial court found it couldn’t use the “enhanced value” measure, because no evidence was introduced to permit the Court to determine the value of the processed lumber. Consequently, the trial court used the stumpage value presented by the Baptists to set compensatory damages, and awarded punitive damages in addition to arrive at a fair number. The trial court, passing up treble damages that were authorized but not required by statute, awarded punitive damages instead. The trial court found that “even an award of treble damages for that taking would not adequately punish [the Baptists] or compensate [Kee Nee Moo Sha] for the willful trespass which has occurred.”

The Court agreed that the trial judge’s approach was justifiable under Rector v. C.S. McCrossan, Inc., and the treble damage statute. It observed that Rector, while referring to various measures of damages, does not refer directly to punitive damages. Punitive damages may be awarded, however, when “the acts of the defendant show a willful indifference to the rights or safety of others.” The trial court found that the Baptists’ behavior was willful, and the evidence supported it.

ba150212Minnesota law provides that any award of punitive damages will be “measured by those factors which justly bear upon the purpose of punitive damages, including… the profitability of the misconduct to the defendant… the attitude and conduct of the defendant upon discovery of the misconduct… and the total effect of other punishment likely to be imposed upon the defendant as a result of the misconduct, including compensatory and punitive damage awards.” In this case, the Court didn’t think much of the Baptists’ attitude. First, the defendant cut the timber and removed the sand in order to line its own pocket, that is, to obtain cheap building materials for the camp. Second, the pastor continued to deny any willful misconduct throughout the trial, a denial that flew in the face of proof to the contrary and his own admission that he had been shown a clearly marked boundary prior to these takings. The appellate court dryly called the jury’s awarding compensatory and punitive damages a “just” result.

Kee Nee Moo Sha argued for use of the “replacement value” measure of damages also authorized by Rector, but the Court noted that in instances where the cost of replacement is unreasonable or excessive in relation to the damage to the land itself, the trial court may, in its discretion, allow the jury to consider more than one measure of damages in order to permit flexibility and achieve a just and reasonable result.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, November 26, 2018


It’s a great old saw, but as logicians like to point out, “every rule has an exception” is a logical fallacy. As if anyone could possibly know every rule, so that he or she could be sure that every rule had an exception (sort of like the people who claim no two snowflakes are alike: how could they possibly know that?).

But beyond that, if every rule has an exception, then the rule that every rule has an exception itself has no exception, in which case every rule does not have an exception. It’s enough to make your head throb.

But all we care about here are rules in tree law. If there is any rule that seems immutable, it is the rule that a boundary tree belongs to the owners of both properties on which it is growing. No owner can do anything to trim or kill the tree without permission of the other owner. Boundary Tree Law 101 right?

Well, yes, but for the exception. In today’s case, one property owner ignores the warnings of the other, and excavates for a basement, only to sever the roots of the big, beautiful boundary oak tree. The court agreed with the aggrieved plaintiffs all the way, except at the end, where the Supreme Court said, “Sure, that’s the rule… but there’s an exception.”

The exception is that if an owner harms or kills the tree while using his property in a reasonable way, the other owner is without recourse.

Does that tiny little exception look big enough to drive a truck through?

Amazingly enough, this decision remains good law in Oklahoma.

Higdon v. Henderson, 304 P.2d 1001 (Supreme Ct. Okla, 1956). The Higdons filed their petition seeking damages for destruction of a shade tree they said was located on the lot line between their property and that of John Henderson. They said it had been a large towering oak tree which was a valuable shade tree for both lots. They claimed John had been building his house when, over their objections, he excavated a basement, cutting the tree’s roots and killing it.

John argued the Higdons could not recover, because their complaint did not say to whom the tree belonged, and at any rate, they did not state a claim on which they could collect. The trial court agreed, and the case ended up in the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Held: Identifying the tree as a boundary tree was good enough, but the Higdons could not collect for Henderson’s killing of the tree.

The Court acknowledged the general proposition that “trees whose trunks stand partly on the land of two or more coterminous owners belong to them in common.” The Higdons’ complaint referred to the tree as a boundary tree, and that was quite adequate to identify common ownership of it by John and the Higdons. The Court acknowledged the general proposition that “trees whose trunks stand partly on the land of two or more coterminous owners belong to them in common.” The complaint referred to the tree as a boundary tree, and that was quite adequate to identify common ownership of it by John and the Higdons.

The Supreme Court also agreed with the Higdons that because the tree was standing on the boundary line, it was the common property of both owners, so that neither had the right to damage or destroy the tree without the consent or permission of the other. But, the Court said, that rule is “qualified by the right of an abutting owner to use his property in a reasonable way and conversely, not in an unreasonable way.”

Here, the Higdons complained that John was building a house. This is not an unreasonable use of the property, the Court ruled. Therefore, the resulting incidental injury to the tree did not give the Higdons a right to recover damages.

– Tom Root