Case of the Day – Monday, May 21, 2018

RECREATIONAL USE STATUTE AND NATURAL DEFECTS

It's hard to enjoy an idyllic sunset when you can't get to the lakeshore.

It’s hard to enjoy an idyllic sunset when you can’t get to the lakeshore. Recreational use statutes make it easier.

A landowner really has no natural incentive to let people freely enjoy his or her land. You have a nice pond and woods, and, being as you’re a nice person, you let the birdwatchers’ society wander around looking for the white-throated needletail. Next thing you know, one of them steps into a prairie dog hole, and you’re being sued.

But public policy is strongly in favor of getting people out to enjoy nature’s bounty. For that reason, virtually all states have passed some version of a recreational use statute. These statutes hold generally that a landowner only has a duty not to be grossly negligent to people using his or her unimproved land without charge for recreational activities. They are intended to encourage the opening of private land – unspoiled natural areas – for free recreational use by shielding landowners from liability for the most common forms of negligence.

Today’s case raises an interesting question under the Texas recreational use statute. In this case, the City of Waco had a park that included limestone cliffs. A boy was sitting on the cliffs when a portion collapsed, causing him to fall to his death.

A user might anticipate he could fall off a cliff – but not that it would give way.

A user might anticipate he could fall off a cliff – but not that it would give way.

The City argued it couldn’t be held liable under the statute, because it did nothing to cause the defect in the cliffs. The Court of Appeals agreed with the boy’s mother, however, that it wasn’t necessary for the landowner to cause the defect, if the defect was so latent, that is, hidden, that the recreational user would not reasonably be aware of it. That one might accidentally fall off a cliff was foreseeable, the court admitted. But it wasn’t open and obvious that the cliff one was sitting on would suddenly give way.

Because the defect wasn’t obvious, all the boy’s mother had to do was advance in her pleading some allegation of gross negligence. In her complaint, she argued that the City was aware others had been hurt by falling rocks, and it had reports warning of the danger of collapsing cliffs. Those reports recommended the City post warning signs, but it didn’t do so. The court said that those allegations were good enough to make out a claim under the recreational use statute.

Kirwan v. City of Waco, 249 S.W.3d 544 (Tex.App 2008). Debra Kirwan’s son, Brad McGehee, was sitting on the edge of Circle Point Cliff in Cameron Park, a park owned and operated by the City of Waco, when the ground beneath him gave way and he fell about 60 feet to his death. Kirwan brought a wrongful death suit against the City, alleging a premises defect.

A firefighter who responded to the scene of Brad’s fall testified that an average person would “probably not understand that the ground could give way underneath them.” The trial court threw out the suit, holding that Kirwan had not: (1) “alleged that the Defendant was grossly negligent in creating a condition that a recreational user would not reasonably expect to encounter in Cameron Park in the course of permitted use;” or (2) “raised a genuine issue of material fact.” Kirwan appealed.

Held: The suit was reinstated and sent back for trial. Kirwan challenged whether Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code § 75.002(c)the state recreational use statute – requires that all premises defect claims be based on a condition created by the defendant, thus barring any claim based on the existence of a natural condition that the defendant happened to know about. Under the recreational use statute – intended to encourage landowners to open their property to the public for recreational purposes – a landowner’s duty to a user is no greater than that owed to a trespasser, the very limited duty to not injure anyone willfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence.

A few signs like this one might have saved the City of Waco a lawsuit – and spared a boy's life.

A few signs like this one might have saved the City of Waco a lawsuit – and spared a boy’s life.

The law is clear that a landowner has no duty to warn or protect trespassers from obvious defects or conditions. Thus, an owner may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river, or even a concealed rattlesnake. But the appeals court held that the recreational use statute permits claims based on natural conditions as long as the condition is not open and obvious, and the plaintiff furnishes evidence of the defendant’s alleged gross negligence. Here, the court said, the crumbling rocks and cracks on the cliff that gave way did not conclusively prove that the danger of the unstable cliff rock was open and obvious. Crumbling rock may alert the average person to the risk of slipping and falling, but certainly not that the ground will simply fall apart beneath him. The court ruled that unstable cliff rock is not necessarily an open and obvious condition that a person might reasonably expect to encounter.

To state a claim under the Texas recreational use statute, Kirwan had to allege sufficient facts to show that the City of Waco was grossly negligent. The pleadings need only provide a plain and concise statement of the cause of action sufficient to give the defendant fair notice of the claim involved. In her pleading, Kirwan alleged that the City was actually aware of the dangerous condition on the cliff, that other park patrons had died or been seriously injured by the condition of the cliffs, that the City received a report from its own expert warning of dangerous rock falls and advising the City to post signs warning of potentially fatal rock falls, and the City’s failure to do so, in fact, to warn or guard against this danger at all amounted to gross negligence.

The court agreed that Kirwan plainly alleged the City’s conduct amounted to gross negligence. The City’s complaint that the pleading didn’t allege that the City had created the condition was meritless: where a claim is based on hidden natural conditions, such as the structurally unstable cliff rock in this case, a plaintiff need not plead that the City was grossly negligent in creating a condition.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, May 18, 2018

THE RV LIFE

Fun ... but not that sturdy ...

Fun … but not that sturdy …

Carefree RV living. Groovin’ on the high life in your boyfriend’s parents’ backyard, roughing it in a Coleman camper… what fun!

At least it’s fun until an unexpected storm blows through, and a devastating derecho lays waste to your suburban Buffalo neighborhood (I’m guessing this was the well-documented Labor Day 1998 Derecho event). A branch broke off a tree in during the blow, and it fell on the camper, injuring Mary Simet and apparently writing the final chapter of her relationship with beau Randy Newman (no, not that Randy Newman).

Mary sued Coleman. Its flimsy camper couldn’t absorb the impact of a massive tree branch in a windstorm, imagine that! And for good measure, Mary named her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend and his parents, claiming that the branch was rotten and they should have cut it off, or not put the camper there, or warned her, or prevented the storm, or… or something. You know the drill. I’ve been injured. Therefore, someone’s gotta pay! And that’s when your lawyers start looking around for defendants who have insurance.

dumped140404

It’s worse than that, Bucko – she sued you, too. Relationships often end badly, but seldom this badly.

After the storm, of course, the Lehmans and their neighbors cleaned up. Mary’s alert and well-read lawyer complained that the cleanup wasn’t done because waste had been laid to the neighborhood or any reason so pedestrian as that. Instead, he bloviated, the cleanup was a grand conspiracy to destroy evidence his client needed for her lawsuit, a disreputable legal maneuver known as “spoliation of evidence.” The trial court, amazingly enough, agreed, but nevertheless concluded that because the evidence that had not been spoliated showed that any rot on the limb was not clearly observable, the Lehmans (and the broken-hearted Randy) were off the hook. And the whole derecho event was an act of God for which the Lehmans ­– including the Facebook-relationship-status “single” Randy – could not be blamed.

Wow. Sued by your own girlfriend. Now that’s what I call getting dumped.

Simet v. Coleman Co., Inc., 839 N.Y.S.2d 667 (N.Y.A.D. 4 Dept. 2007). Mary Simet suffered catastrophic injuries during a severe storm, when a tree limb blew onto the camper in which she was sleeping with her boyfriend at that time, Randy Newman.

The camper was owned by Linda (Randy’s mother) and her husband, David, and was located in their back yard. The limb, located approximately 30 feet from the camper, broke during an unusually intense storm with high winds, known as a “derecho.” Mary and Randy were unaware of the approaching severe storms when they retired to the camper and, indeed, the first severe storm warning wasn’t issued until after the storms had passed through the area.

The Lehmans had no notice that the tree from which the limb broke was decayed or defective. Mary’s expert opined that, regardless of whether the tree appeared to be healthy, the Lehmans would have been advised by an arborist to secure the limb if they had retained an arborist to inspect their trees.

On the advice of their insurance carrier and as part of a neighborhood cleanup after the storm, the Lehmans removed the branch and the camper remains, after photographic evidence was collected.

Mary sued Randy and his parents, and then she moved to strike their answer based on their alleged spoliation of that evidence. The trial court struck the Lehman’s answer because of the spoliation, but then granted summary judgment for them anyway, and threw out Mary’s case.

Mary appealed, and so did the Lehmans.

A radar plot of the Syracuse-Buffalo derecho of September 7, 1998.

A radar plot of the Syracuse-Buffalo derecho of September 7, 1998. “Derecho” is a term derived from Spanish for “straight,” and is characterized by intense straight-line winds.

Held: The Court of Appeals held that striking the Lehmans’ answer based on spoliation was not warranted, that the Lehmans were entitled to summary judgment, and the limb falling was an act of God that precluded Randy’s liability.

The Court found that the Lehmans removed the limb and camper not to frustrate the plaintiff’s but only after their insurer gave permission and as part of a neighborhood effort. They had carefully photographed it before disposing of it. At most, the spoliation of the evidence was negligent, and the remedy striking a pleading for negligent spoliation is a drastic sanction that is appropriate only where the missing evidence deprives the moving party of the ability to establish his or her case. That wasn’t the situation here.

Furthermore, the Lehmans weren’t liable to Mary Simet. The Court held that they did not create the dangerous condition with respect to her presence in the camper, and did not have constructive notice that the tree from which the limb broke was decayed or defective. No one was on notice a storm was coming. The fact that an arborist, if one had been hired, might have advised the Lehmans to secure the limb is irrelevant. New York law requires that the manifestation of tree decay must be readily observable in order to require a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent harm.

Finally, the falling of the tree limb during the storm was an act of God that precluded Randy’s liability, with whom Mary was staying in camper at the time.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, May 17, 2018

MR. NATURAL

Do you remember the 60s? If so, you weren’t really there. Still, you may know someone whose brain was not so addled by the Summer of Love that he or she has forgotten Robert Crumb’s famous counter-culture cartoon character, Mr. Natural. Mr. N was a bearded mystic guru who spouted aphorisms on the evils of the modern world, his most famously puzzling one probably being “Keep on Truckin’.”

Contrary to the cachet that Mr. Natural gave the notion, there was never that much virtue in being natural. That certainly has been true in the development of modern arboriculture law. There was a time when the common law made a substantial distinction between the natural and the, dare we say, artificial. If you had a tree on your land that had sprouted and was nurtured without your help, like the dozens of volunteer maple tree sprouts we yank out of our daylilies every year, the tree could do as it wished – grow, shed branches, attack the neighbor’s sewer lines with its roots, even decay and fall on the neighbor’s car – while you were exonerated of any responsibility. On the other hand, if your great-grandpa had planted the elm tree out back a century ago on returning home from the Great War, and it has become diseased and rotted (as trees are wont to do), the common law made you responsible for whatever damage its decay may cause.

You can imagine the furball this rule has caused. Who could tell whether your great grandfather planted that tree before catching influenza and cashing in? And for that matter, what possible should the agency by which the seed got into the ground have on whether a property owner ought to shoulder some duty to third parties for the condition of his or her property?

As society changed, population shifted to urban and suburban living, more often than ever courts have had the opportunity to question the rationale for the natural/artificial dichotomy. Today’s case is an excellent example of how appellate courts found themselves grappling with the issue.

One note: Despite the fact that overwhelming reason for the damage to the Rowes’ house was that the McGees shirked their responsibility for the diseased tree, the Court found that the victims themselves had a very small role in the overall negligence. Under the old tort law doctrine of contributory negligence, if a defendant were 99% negligent, a the plaintiff was only 1% negligent – contributorily negligent, we used to say – the plaintiff collected nothing. Zero. Nada. Zip. Bupkis.

The pernicious “contributory negligence” doctrine gave way in the late 20th century to “comparative negligence,” a much more sensible approach in which the percentage of negligence is weighed by the jury. If a defendant is 70% negligent and the plaintiff 30% negligent for the plaintiff’s injuries, the damage award is cut by 30%. Much more rational.

Rowe v. McGee, 5 N.C.App. 60, 168 S.E.2d 77 (N.C.App. 1969). Noah and Jeanette McGee sold a tract of land to Chuck, who built a house on it and promptly sold it to Ed and Josie Rowe. The McGees held on to a second tract of land which adjoined the Rowes’ new premises.

An oak tree stood on the McGees’ land, a towering old thing that was hollow and partially rotten, and leaning in a manner that suggested sooner or later it would fall. The tree was completely natual: no evidence suggested any landowner had planted or nurtured it. The oak was in this decrepit condition when Chuck bought the neighboring plot. Part of the McGees’ deal with Chuck was that he would remove the tree, but he did not. Instead, he completed the house and sold to the Rowes, with the tree still leaning toward the new house.

The Rowes found it hard to enjoy their spanking-new throughly-modern luxury home with this next-door Sword of Damocles looming outside their living room window, so they demanded that the McGees eliminate the hazard. The McGees told the Rowes that it they wanted the great oak reduced to sawdust, they would have to do it themselves. The Rowes agreed to take it down.

Sadly, as of the night of April 22, 1967, they had not yet done so. That night, Mother Nature resolved the problem, blowing the decayed oak right onto the Rowes’ living room davenport and new RCA color TV.

The Rowes sued the McGees for damages. The trial court agreed the McGees had a duty to remove the tree, and were responsible to the Rowes for damages. However, because the Rowes told the McGees they would remove the tree and did not, they were found to be contributorily negligent, so they were awarded nothing. The Rowes appealed.

Held: Because the McGees knew that their oak tree was decayed and liable to fall and to damage Ed and Josie’s house, the McGees had a duty to eliminate the danger, and could not with impunity place the burden to remove the tree on the Rowes.

The Court of Appeals admitted that there were no North Carolina cases on the precise issue, and the state of the law – as reflected in The Restatement of the Law of Torts – was that “where a natural condition of land causes an invasion of another’s interest in the use and enjoyment of other land, the possessor of the land containing the natural condition is not liable for such invasion.” Thus, the Court said, at least historically, the law relieved the McGees of any obligation for mischief caused by the old oak.

The term “’natural condition’ comprehends trees which are the result of a natural condition,” the Court said, “not trees which have been planted by man.” But, as the Court conceded, it often was difficult to determine whether the tree’s origin was natural or artificial.

Ironically, in concluding that the natural-artificial distinction no longer mattered, the Court found direction in a case from Massachusetts, that flinty home of the self-reliant Massachusetts Rule. It cited a Bay State case in which a defendant owned a vacant lot with a large, dead elm tree. When a branch from the tree fell across the property line and hit a neighbor, the Massachusetts Court held that keeping such a tree near a property line constituted a private nuisance, observing that

public policy in a civilized community requires that there be someone to be held responsible for a private nuisance on each piece of real estate, and, particularly in an urban area, that there be no oases of nonliability where a private nuisance may be maintained with impunity.

In the Rowes’ row with the McGees, our North Carolina Court concluded that the greater probability of injury to other people or their property imposes a higher degree of care upon the owner of the tree or structure. In this case, the Court said, “where the defendants knew that the tree on their property was decayed and liable to fall and to damage the property of Edward and Josephine, we think and hold that the defendants were under a duty to eliminate the danger and could not with impunity place such burden to remove the tree on Edward and Josephine.”

But, the Court said, the trial judge was right to give the contributory negligence instruction due to the Rowes’ misleading the McGees about the tree’s removal, so the Rowes still took nothing.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A PRESCRIPTION FOR TROUBLE

We all know about adverse possession, that peculiar legal doctrine that holds in essence that if you’re brazen enough to trespass on someone else’s land continuously for a period prescribed by statute, the property becomes yours. In most places, such as Pennsylvania, the period is 21 years long. So for 20 years, 11 months and 31 days, you’re a squatter. The next day, you’re landed gentry.

It seemed to me like judicially-sanctioned theft when I learned about it in law school (so long ago that twice the statutory period has passed since I walked those hallowed halls). The theory, my property professor droned, was that public policy favored productive use of the land, and taking over a piece of land from an owner careless enough to let you take it over put it to a more productive use, and thus should reward the taker. So if I like my piece of country property as a preserve for the birdies and little critters, and you want to bulldoze it for a new Starbucks, you win. The whole notion seems as cockeyed to me now as it did when I was a well-scrubbed and wide-eyed first-year law students back in the halcyon days of the 1970s.

To claim adverse possession, you have to show that your occupation of the land was open, notorious, hostile and adverse to the interest of the owner a continuous period of whatever the statute prescribes, say 21 years as an example. Some might say that if you built your Starbucks on my forest plot, and I did nothing about it for that long, I deserved to lose my land. To which I might reply that the law does not seem to offer much protection to someone when his or her property can be lost to another person simply because the thief gets away with it for long enough.

But if I thought adverse possession was screwy, I was hardly prepared for its little brother, a  prescriptive easement. Adverse possession is occupation of the land. A prescriptive easement is a mere use of someone else’s land without exclusive occupation. My kids cut through the neighbor’s side yard for years as a shortcut to the church. I still do it when I’m running late. If now, 25 years after the neighbor’s house was built, he put up a fence to stop us, should we be able to claim a right to have the fence removed so that we can continue to save five minutes getting to worship? What we would have, we could argue, was a prescriptive easement.

I once had a client who was about to build a garage on a piece of his land. The power company sued, because lines that went behind his property for years had been slightly rerouted so that they crossed a corner of his place. The electric company said it had moved the lines a convenient 23 years before, and now it had a prescriptive easement, which limited my client’s use of a quarter of his property to a vegetable garden.

We stared down Reddy Kilowatt in that case, because we located an aerial photo of the town from 20 years before that showed the electric company was bluffing, and the lines had not been moved as of that date. My client sold the electric company an easement over 50 feet of back yard for about $30,000. Happy ending.

As much as I dislike the whole notion of prescriptive easements, I admire creativity. I always thought of such easements as being created by the deliberate actions of humans. My kids cut across the neighbor’s lawn. The power company restrung its lines. But the plaintiffs in today’s case showed creativity I lack. Here, they claim a prescriptive easement not because of what they did, but because of what their tree did. Because the limbs and roots of a tree they owned grew into a neighboring property and remained there for more than 21 years, they argued, they had thus obtained a prescriptive easement that would prevent the neighbor from doing anything to the tree. It’s as if the Massachusetts Rule had an expiration date.

At first blush, it seems to ring all the prescriptive easement bells, and seemed pretty doggone clever. But after thinking about the whole notion for long enough, the appeals court wisely said it simply did not make sense.

Koresko v. Farley, 844 A.2d 607 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2004). The Koreskos bought property with a line of trees on one boundary, all of which had been there more than 21 years, which hang over the boundary with the neighboring property containing a house, owned by M.J. Farley Development Co. Inc. Farley had submitted a subdivision plan seeking to divide the property into two plots, and to build a second residence on the newly-formed plot. 

The subdivision plan proposed to place a water line and driveway near the boundary trees. Upon learning of the proposal, the Koreskos sued in equity seeking injunctive relief and, of course, money damages. In their complaint, the Koreskos claimed the driveway and trench would damage the root systems of the boundary trees. Among their claims, the Koreskos alleged unreasonable interference with their prescriptive easement. They claimed that because their trees’ roots and branches encroached on the subdivided property for over 21 years, a prescriptive easement existed for the tree roots and branches, and that development of the property would unreasonably interfere with that easement; and

After the trial court held that “Pennsylvania does not and will not recognize an easement for tree roots or overhanging branches,” the Koreskos appealed.

Held: Pennsylvania will not recognize a prescriptive easement created by the growth of a tree.

A prescriptive easement is a right to use another’s property which is not inconsistent with the owner’s rights and which is acquired by a use that is open, notorious, and uninterrupted for a period of 21 years. A prescriptive easement, once acquired, may not be restricted unreasonably by the possessor of the land subject to the easement.

The law holds that overhanging tree branches are a trespass. In Pennsylvania, a landowner has the right either to compel removal of overhanging branches or to engage in self-help. However, the Restatement notes that a continuing trespass is not a trespass at all if the actor causing the trespass has obtained an easement by adverse possession, and ponders openly whether the continued presence of encroaching tree branches, held openly, notoriously, hostilely, and continually for 21 years would create a prescriptive easement in the airspace which they hang.

If this were the case, the Court said – noting it could find no Pennsylvania law which would indicate that a prescriptive easement was not available in this situation – a landowner who suffers actual harm for the first time during the tree owner’s 22nd year of hostile ownership would be precluded from seeking any remedy whatsoever, even self-help. However, the Court said, if an action is available without a showing of damage – and a trespass action assumes damages, so it can be brought whether the trespasser has actually injured the victim’s property or not – the landowner has no reason to complain if a neighbor’s tree causes damage after the prescriptive period has run, because he or she could have sued at any time during the 21-year period.

The Court held the Koreskos failed to state a claim for prescriptive easement as a matter of law. No Pennsylvania case has held such easements are cognizable, the Court said, and other jurisdictions have reasoned that such should not be recognized. Finally, the potential of widespread uncertainty occasioned by such easements convinced the Court that they should not be recognized as a matter of public policy.

The Restatement holds that, to be adverse, a use must be open and notorious is for the protection of those against whom it is claimed to be adverse. It enables them to protect themselves against the effect of the use by preventing its continuance. This requirement may be satisfied by a showing that either the land owner against whom the use is claimed has actual knowledge of the use or has had a reasonable opportunity to learn of its existence.

Encroaching tree parts, the Court held, by themselves do not establish “open and notorious” use of the land. Neither roots below the ground nor branches above the ground fairly notify an owner of a neighbor’s claim for use at the surface. In the absence of additional circumstances, roots and branches alone do not alert an owner that his or her exclusive dominion of the ground is challenged. This is no different from prior legal decisions that already held that the known presence of windows near a lot line does not create a prescriptive easement for light and air.

In a Kansas decision, an appeals court in the Sunflower State held that an easement by prescription cannot be acquired by overhanging tree branches, said:

The result reached here will be distasteful to all who treasure trees. The philosophy of the law is simply that whenever neighbors cannot agree, the law will protect each owner’s rights insofar as that is possible. Any other result would cause landowners to seek self-help or to litigate each time a piece of vegetation starts to overhang their property for fear of losing the use or partial use of their property as the vegetation grows.

The Koresko Court said, “We agree with this reasoning and holding… and we expressly adopt it in Pennsylvania.”

Finally, the Court considered the consequences of the holding urged by Koreskos. Trees growing over property boundaries and streets, around utility lines, and under sidewalks are common in Pennsylvania. “A decision suggesting that the prolonged presence of these tree parts assures their unreduced continuation could cause uncertainty,” the Court held. “Both the extent of the prescriptive easement and its effect on public and private use are problematic. As a matter of sound public policy, we decline to recognize a new estate which offers uncertainty and invites clarification through litigation.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Monday, May 14, 2018

MILLION DOLLAR BABY

I’ll tell you where the real money is in litigation. It’s not the guy who walks into the lawyer’s office with a tale of woe at the hands of some big, faceless, loaded corporation. It’s not the guy who was busted for pot, and he bonded out on Friday but they didn’t release him until Monday.

It’s here: if I had a nickel for every would-be client who ever asked me to take a case on contingent fee, because they were sure to get beaucoup bucks in the end with an outraged jury handed them millions in punitive damages for a fender-bender, or a sharp-tongued government clerk, or a badly-written newspaper story, or whatever the injury du jour might be. Total up my nickels, and I ought to be sitting on the veranda of my Caribbean beachfront mansion writing this right now.

Few would-be litigants really appreciate that punitive damages, also called exemplary damages, are damages awarded by a jury to punish a defendant for some terrible conduct, because, after all, it’s a civil action, and you can’t throw the malefactors in jail. But contrary to legend, punitive damages have to be tied to some actual harm.

In today’s case, some junior leasing agent for a billboard company got too enthusiastic in clearing the view for the billboard, and when the dust settled, some of the trees that had been felled belonged to the neighbor of the guy who had leased space for the billboard (now there’s someone who should be locked up). The leasing agent was sloppy, careless even, perhaps – dare we say? – reckless.

The jury found that the neighbors were harmed in an amount of about $32,000. But it added to that figure an eye-popping $2 million in punitive damages. That was too much for the trial judge, who tried to get the farmer to accept a remittitur, that is, settle for a paltry $550,000. The farmer wouldn’t do it, so the court ordered a new trial. The farmer appealed.

All of $32,000 in damage, and a cool half mil on top of it? Farmer Blust was the living embodiment of the aphorism, “Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered.”

Blust v. Lamar Advertising Company, 157 Ohio App.3d 787 (Ct.App. Montgomery Co., 2004). A Lamar leasing agent signed up Jim Weber in September 1998, leasing a small piece of Jim’s farmland near the property line between his farm and the Blust farm for a billboard. The two farms were separated by an old wire fence that was largely concealed amid dense brush, vines, and trees. Because Lamar planned to erect its billboard near the tree line and  undergrowth separating the two farms, it hired Woody’s Tree Medics to remove some of the trees and vegetation from Jim’s property.

A Woody’s work crew entered the Blust property and cut down 34 trees, 17 of which were more than three inches in diameter. At trial, a jury found Lamar liable in tort for trespassing and removing the trees without permission, and awarded the Blusts compensatory damages of $32,000 and punitive damages of $2.2 million. The trial court denied Lamar’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the punitive damages award but indicated that it would grant a new trial on all issues, including liability, unless the Blusts accepted remittitur, that is, a reduction, of the punitive damages award to $550,000.00, with half of that amount going to a nonprofit nature conservancy. The Blusts rejected remittitur, and the trial court ordered a new trial.

The Blusts appealed, challenging the trial court’s holding that the punitive damages verdict was excessive and its decision to grant a new trial on all issues. 

Held: The Court held that the Blusts were entitled to punitive damages, but the award was excessive. Thus, the trial court did not err in ordering a new trial, limited how much should be awarded in punitives.

In order to recover punitive damages, the Blusts had to show that Lamar acted with “actual malice.” Actual malice, the Court said, is a state of mind under which a person’s conduct is characterized either by ill will or by such a conscious disregard for the rights and safety of other persons that its conduct is very likely to cause substantial harm.

The Blusts argued that Lamar’s act of directing their trees to be cut constituted a conscious disregard for their rights that had a great probability of causing them substantial harm. The Court agreed, finding substantial evidence in the record that Lamar’s agent consciously disregarded the Blusts’ property rights by ordering the cutting of trees on their property. Jim Weber told Lamar’s agent about where the property line fell, and told her to follow the farm fence as a guide. After the cutting began, a friend of the Blusts appeared at the site to tell the Woody’s crew that it was cutting trees on the wrong property. The Blusts’ tenant farmer, Ted Eby, saw workers clearing trees from the Blusts’ property, and he  spoke to Woody’s crew and the agent, and told them they were cutting the Blusts’ trees.

Despite all of these warnings, the agent told Woody’s workers to keep the saws humming. A reasonable juror, the appeals court said, could find that Lamar consciously disregarded the Blusts’ property rights.

A closer question, the Court observed, is whether Lamar’s agent was aware that having the Blusts’ trees cut carried with it a great probability of causing substantial harm. “We harbor no doubt,” the Court said, “that clearing the trees had a great probability of causing some harm. Indeed, removing the trees was absolutely certain to cause harm to the extent that the Blusts lost their trees. The crucial issue on appeal is whether the agent knew that this loss of the trees had a great probability of resulting in substantial harm to the Blusts, or more specifically, whether reasonable minds could differ on this issue.”

The Court said “substantial” means “major, or real importance, of great significance, not trifling or small.” Here, the “harm” was obvious: it was the loss of the Blusts’ trees. But in order to determine whether this harm was “substantial,” it was necessary to assign some measure of value to the trees. The Blusts said that someday, they might divide a portion of the farmland into residential plots, and the absence of trees would harm the value of the plots. The Blusts’ expert testified that the trees’ loss would diminish the fair market value of the subdivided property by $51,600.

The Blusts also argued that they hoped to sell the wood from three wild walnut trees someday for veneer. What’s more, the Blusts presented testimony that it would cost $40,566 to purchase and replant all of the trees or $24,335 to replant 11 of the larger trees. Lamar argued, on the other hand, that the stumpage or firewood value of the timber was only $105. Lamar also presented expert testimony that removal of the trees may have caused the Blusts’ property value to decline by at most one percent, or $3,870.

The Court held that most of the measures of damage could be characterized as “substantial.” But the record contained no evidence that Lamar’s agent knew the Blusts might subdivide their farm for residential purposes. The record also contained nothing to indicate that the agent knew of any plans to sell the walnut trees for veneer. Likewise, the agent did not know that the Blusts – who did not live on the parcel – would ever want to replace some or all of the trees. Thus, the agent could not have known that cutting the trees would harm the future value of the land as subdivided plots, frustrate the prospects of marketing veneer, or even just lead to $25,000 – $40,000 replacement costs.

However, fair market value is a different story. Even Lamar admitted that the cutting may have reduced the Blusts’ property value $3,870. “A reasonable juror,” the Court said, “could find that a loss of this size qualifies as substantial harm and not a trivial loss.” A decline in property value because of losing trees is a “typical measure of the harm, and it is entirely predictable.”

When a verdict is influenced by passion or prejudice, the Court held, a trial court must order a new trial. However, when a verdict is merely excessive, but not influenced by passion or prejudice, a trial court must offer the plaintiff a choice between remittitur or a new trial. If the plaintiff rejects remittitur, a new trial must be ordered.

The Court agreed that the Blusts’ punitive damages award was grossly excessive under constitutional standards, and had to be set aside. Therefore, the judge properly directed the Blusts to choose remittitur or a new trial. However, the only issue tainted by error was the jury’s punitive damages award. The Blusts should not have been required to place in jeopardy their compensatory damages award or the jury’s determination that some punitive damages are warranted by undergoing a new trial on those issues.

The case was sent back to the trial court for a new calculation of punitive damages.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Friday, May 11, 2018

BATTLING INSURERS


flo161221It’s an awful thing to see two insurance companies, toe to toe, fighting each other to the death. Imagine Flo stomping on the GEICO Gecko…

Well, maybe “awful” is an overstatement, but today’s case does pit two insurance companies against each other. One insured an engineering firm against professional negligence (malpractice), while the other that insured the company against everything else. And you can bet that they were arguing over who would get the honor of picking up the check.

Compare it to a doctor’s office: if you doctor cuts off your ear when he or she was supposed to be curing your eczema, that would be covered by the professional insurer (assuming a jury thought it might be malpractice). If after you get the ear cut off, you slip and fall on a wet floor while paying, the doctor’s general insurer would cover your sore tush (financially, of course).

The engineering firm, an outfit named Czop/Specter, Inc. (pronounced “czop-specter”), had a contract with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to inspect its highways, and — when it found a dangerous condition — to schedule crews to fix it. Czop/Specter had an employee whose credentials were approved by PennDOT, who took special training in highway standards, and then performed the inspections. When poor Mr. Cuthbertson (just your average motorist) was hurt by some driver who blew through a stop sign, his lawyer — who had no interest in committing legal malpractice — sued everybody. Claiming that the driver who hit his client couldn’t see a stop sign obscured by trees and foliage, Cuthbertson included the engineering firm Czop/Specter as a defendant in the suit, claiming that Czop/Specter should have identified the obscured sign and had the trees trimmed. Czop/Specter’s insurance companies were fighting over whether the negligence that the plaintiff alleged was covered by the professional liability policy (the cut off ear) or the general policy (a slip on the wet floor).

The insurers sued in federal court, asking it for a declaratory judgment – simply an order from the court determining whether any damages that might be awarded because of any negligence should be paid by the professional liability insurer or general insurer. The professional liability insurance company claimed that the allegedly negligent inspection wasn’t a professional service, but instead could have been performed by anyone. The general insurer argued the liability wouldn’t belong to it, because its policy specifically excluded inspections from covered acts. The court said that the employee who performed the inspections had to be approved beforehand by PennDOT, had to complete special training and — although not an engineer himself — had other specialized education in herbicide application which was necessary for the position. The court’s conclusion: you don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer to provide professional services.

obscure151106Is there a lessons here? The court seemed to suggest that because the claimed negligence didn’t fall under one policy, it necessarily had to fall under the other. But that ain’t necessarily so. It’s entirely possible that Czop/Specter could have found itself being sued for negligence on a matter that no one ever contemplated — a passenger in a car hit because of an obscured sign because of an untrimmed tree because of a negligent inspection — one that was covered by neither policy. A lesson for arborists and tree specialists. You’d be wise to carefully read those boring, tedious, incomprehensible policies.

Lumbermens Mut. Cas. Co. v. Erie Ins. Co., 2007 WL 2916172 (E.D.Pa., Oct. 21, 2007). Donald Cuthbertson, Jr. was injured in an auto accident when another driver drove through a stop sign and collided with the car in which Cuthbertson was riding. Cuthbertson sued in state court, alleged among other things that the accident occurred because the driver did not see “an obscured and otherwise difficult to observe stop sign … due to a combination of factors, including tree branches, vegetation, bushes, brush and grass which obstructed visibility of eastbound drivers west of the stop sign.”

Czop/Specter, Inc., held a contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to perform inspections on the highway and to schedule any work required as a result of the discovery of hazardous road conditions resulting from overgrown vegetation. The inspection and scheduling services were performed by Czop’s employee, David Riley. In his complaint, Cuthbertson asserted that Czop was negligent in the performance of the contract.

Lumbermens Insurance provided a defense to Czop under the terms of an Architects and Engineers Professional Liability Policy that covered claims “arising out of a wrongful act in the performance of ‘professional services’.” Professional services were defined as “those services that the insured is legally qualified to perform for others in the insured’s capacity as an architect, engineer, land surveyor, landscape architect, construction manager or as defined by endorsement to the policy.” Lumbermens claimed that Erie Insurance Exchange — which insured Czop against general claims — had the obligation to defend, because the inspection services weren’t “professional services.” Erie’s policy contains an endorsement excluding from coverage “damages due to any services of a professional nature, including but not limited to: … supervisory, inspection, or engineering services.” Erie argued that the services performed by Czop through Riley constituted supervisory and inspection services and, therefore, the claim is excluded from coverage under the Erie policy. The battling insurers asked a federal district court to settle the dispute between them.

The plaintiff argued that the engineering firm inspector had ignored the risk ...

The plaintiff argued that the engineering firm inspector had ignored the risk …

Held: Lumbermens must defend Czop from the lawsuit, because the services were professional in nature. Under the law, a ‘professional’ act or service is one arising out of a vocation, calling, occupation, or employment involving specialized knowledge, labor, or skill, and the labor or skill involved is predominantly mental or intellectual, rather than physical or manual.

In determining whether a particular act is of a professional nature or a ‘professional service’ a court must look not to the title or character of the party performing the act, but to the act itself. Riley’s services under the Engineering Agreement were “services of a professional nature” because the job entailed Riley’s inspection and supervisory services, which could not have been performed by just “anyone” and which were expressly excluded from coverage under the Erie policy. The Engineering Agreement required Czop to submit Riley’s credentials for approval by PennDOT for the position of “Roadside Development Consultant.” Riley was then trained by a PennDOT employee, and he attended mandatory seminars that prioritized needed work and roadside vegetation control. Upon completing his training, Riley conducted inspections in order to identify hazards, scheduled roadside work to be performed by others in accordance with PennDOT’s standards, and supervised the contractors performing the work.

The Court found that Riley could not have performed the job without the specialized training he received from PennDoT. Riley did not hold an engineering degree, although Czop is an engineering firm. Riley did, however, have specialized herbicide training which he used in connection with his inspection responsibilities under the Engineering Agreement. One need not be a doctor or a lawyer to render professional services. The job that Czop was paid for was the inspection and supervisory services performed by Riley. His failure to inspect and supervise the trimming of the vegetation that obscured the stop sign — if it happened — would constitute a “wrongful act in the performance of professional services” as that term was defined in the Lumbermens policy.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Thursday, May 10, 2018

INJUNCTION JUNCTION

To a nonlawyer, nothing sounds as enticing as running to a judge who will immediately express shock and dismay at a plaintiff’s shoddy treatment by issuing a thundering injunction to stop the defendants in their tracks.

OK, we’re wrong. To a nonlawyer, a lot of things sound more enticing… a cold beer after a long, hot day of work, the only winning ticket in a $140 million Powerball drawing, watching your neighbor wrap his new Porsche – a car you lust after but could never afford – around a utility pole.

But when a person feels wronged, the urge to have his or her lawyer blast the defendants with both barrels right out of the gate is almost irresistible. So let’s get a temporary restraining order, followed by a preliminary injunction, followed by a first-class trial and a hanging.

But getting a preliminary injunction is not all that easy a thing. First, you have to show that without it, you will be irreparably harmed. That’s not easy, because almost any harm can be repaired, usually by a liberal application of money. Then, you have to show that you’re “likely to succeed on the merits,” a fancy term for proving that you’re going to win when you go to trial. Inasmuch as a trial is when you put on all of your evidence, winning a preliminary injunction means you have to try the case twice, and at the injunction stage, you have not had the benefit of perusing your opponent’s files and harassing him or her in a deposition.

Finally, you have to show that equity is on your side. That’s a fairly squishy concept, but generally, it measures how big a pain it’s going to be for the other party if the injunction is granted. If the injunction is, for example, do not cut down my trees in your easement before we work out whether you have the right to do so, that’s not tough. The cost to the other guy of not cutting them down is not that great, and the cost to you if he does certainly is great, probably irreparable harm.

On the other hand, if – like plaintiff John Haverland in today’s case – you want a mandatory injunction, one which does not prevent something from happening but instead orders that the other guy do something, that’s a much taller order.

Two things to remember: First, getting a preliminary injunction does not mean that you’re going to win the case. We have no idea how John Haverland made out after the trial, or even if there was a trial. Second, because this is New York State, where everything is upside down, the “Supreme Court” is a trial court. New York’s highest court is the New York Court of Appeals.

Go figure.

Haverland v. Lawrence, 800 N.Y.S.2d 347 (Sup.Ct. Suffolk Co., Dec. 1, 2004): Mike Haverland sued his neighbor, Guy Lawrence, and his landscaper, because Guy had the landscaper plant an 80-foot line of 13’ tall pine trees along the boundary between the two homes. Mike said the trees were so close to the boundary line that, although their trunks did not cross the line, the root balls (which of course were well buried) did.

Mike complained that, besides the root balls, the trees had been staked, and some of the stakes were in his yard. He said Guy’s contractor crossed onto his land while planting the trees and knocked down five of his oak trees and construction stakes marking the site of his new house. Finally, he argued that the pine trees changed the grade slightly, so that water accumulates and floods in a 22-foot strip of his property after a hard rain. This, Mike said, would result in a foot of standing water, making this part of his land unusable.

Mike’s real complaint was that that this flooding and the fast-growing roots of the trees would undermine the integrity of foundation of his house, which had not yet been built. He asked for a preliminary injunction directing that Guy Lawrence and East Hampton Bayberry, Inc., his contractor, remove the pine trees, rootballs and stakes from his land, and restore the previous natural grade and surface water flow on Mike’s property.

Mike’s surveyor, David L. Saskas, said he had placed surveyor stakes on Mike’s property to enable Mike’s general contractor to place stakes marking the location of the foundation of Mike’s new house. In the course of this survey, Mr. he determined that ten large evergreen trees had been planted very near the boundary line with Mike’s property. The trunks of five of these trees were within six inches of the line. and the holes and root balls for these trees extended up to 2½ feet onto Mike’s land. Only two of these ten trees were planted entirely on Guy’s property. The metal stakes and guy wires for the trees extended as much as four feet into Mike’s property. Finally, David said, the planting of the new trees created a small berm which raised the grade of the land extending into Mike’s yard. David offered his opinion that the change of grade altered the run-off pattern of surface water and “contributed” to the flooding on the Mike’s land.

Mike’s first cause of action in the complaint was for trespass and the second alleged commission of a nuisance based on a violation of the East Hampton Town Code Section 255-10-50. Mike also wanted a permanent injunction forcing Guy to restore the old grade so as to return the runoff to its prior state, and to remove all trees, stakes and rootballs that were encroaching on his land.

Guy’s contractor argued there was no trespass because Mike’s own surveys showed that all of the tree trunks were on Guy’s land. The contractor said it was conjectural to believe that the tree roots would someday undermine the foundation of Mike’s house. The contractor said any flooding that might occur did not constitute irreparable injury. Instead, the condition was minor and easily remedied.

Guy agreed that the tree trunks did not encroach, and argued Mike was just guessing as to the size of the buried rootballs. He said Mike’s claims of flooding were exaggerated, and Mike had no proof that the newly-planted trees were responsible for it. He also argued that Mike failed to show how any of the East Hampton Town Code had been violated, and that equity is not balanced in Mike’s favor “since removal of the trees and re-grading of the land is a drastic remedy and there are other and less drastic remedies available.” Guy alleged that Mike never said anything about the grade or flooding, but only brought it up after he hired an attorney.

Mike responded that this is a case where the planting of the trees, as opposed to their natural growth, caused the encroachment. Self-help is not an appropriate remedy, Mike argued, because trimming the encroaching part of the trees would kill them. He said it was hardly unfair to make Guy and his contractor “pay for what they would have had to pay originally but for their illegal trespass.”

Held: The Court denied Mike his preliminary injunction.

For a preliminary injunction, Mike had to show (1) a likelihood of ultimate success on the merits; (2) irreparable injury unless the preliminary injunction was granted; and (3) that a balancing of equities favors Mike’s position.” Preliminary injunctive relief is a drastic remedy which will not be granted unless a clear right to the injunction is established under the law and the undisputed facts. The burden to show that undisputed right rests upon the movant.

The Court held that Mike’s allegation that Guy’s contractor drove across his yard, tore out construction stakes and killed five oaks was enough to show he was likely to prevail on a trespass action. Any unauthorized entry upon the land of another constitutes trespass. The Court said that Mike, to the extent he has alleged – and Guy admitted he had told the contractor to drive over Mike’s land – that the contractor drove over Mike’s land and destroyed property, “has established the likelihood of success on the merits. However, as to the remainder of the complaint, defendants’ submissions in opposition to the application raise numerous and significant triable issues of fact which preclude such a finding.”

Mike’s real problem, the Court ruled, was that he had not shown that he would suffer an irreparable injury if the preliminary injunction was not granted. Mike’s claim that the newly-planted trees have fast growing roots that will undermine the foundation, “lacks specific evidentiary support and is merely speculative and conclusory.” His claim that the foundation will suffer irreparable damage should the flooding continue is con by contradicted by his admission that the integrity of that foundation will be gradually undermined. The fact that Mike claimed he was temporarily deprived of the use of part of his property because of flooding after a heavy rain was not an irreparable injury. Anyway, the Court said, “there is also a sharp factual dispute with regard to the cause of the flooding as well as the frequency and extent of the flooding.”

Finally, the Court held, Mike did not show that equity was on his side. First, the Court said, Mike was seeking a preliminary injunction directing not that Guy abstain from some conduct, but rather that he and his contractor actively do something: remove planted trees and re-grade Mike’s property to restore the previous pattern of surface water runoff. As a general rule, the Court observed, “mandatory injunctions are not favored and will be granted in only the most extraordinary circumstances.” This is especially so where, as here, Mike sought to get the same injunctive relief he sought in the final, permanent injunction. In such a case, “a preliminary injunction will not be granted unless the plaintiff demonstrates, upon clear and undisputed facts, that such relief is imperative and because without it, a trial would be futile.”

The Court weighed the drastic nature of the relief sought against Mike’s conjecture that the tree roots might eventually reach his foundation, as well as the “sharply disputed claim” that Guys’ planting of the trees and re-grading of his property caused extensive flooding, is not enough to prove the existence of the “extraordinary circumstances which would tip the balance of equity in his favor.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray