Case of the Day – Monday, September 18, 2017


crazy160718Summertime has run away from us like the sands of an hourglass. We are mere hours from the autumnal equinox (happens this Friday at 4:02 p.m. EDT, so be prepared to balance your egg and to be disappointed), but the hot weather is hanging on. 
We’re still stopping by the old swimming hole, and reflecting on the sad fact that summer is not so far gone that tragic things cannot happen.

We must make extra effort to be caerfull careful. This might be a good time to consider due care, that is, our duty of care to others.

In a negligence action, a plaintiff generally has to show that (1) the defendant had a duty of care in relation to the plaintiff, (2) the defendant failed to conform its conduct to the requisite standard of care; and (3) an injury to the plaintiff was proximately caused by the failure.

Do you really want to be eating food that's staring back at you?

That’s what “fisheye” is all about: Do you really want to be eating food that’s staring back at you?

The duty of care is a moving target, depending to a large extent on the relationship of a defendant to the plaintiff. If someone delivering your double-anchovy pizza and atomic wings falls into an open hole in your front yard, the law treats your liability a whole lot differently than if, say, a thief sneaking around at night trying to steal your garden troll statue falls into the same hole. (But even if the law doesn’t wonder, we’re puzzled that you’d order a double-anchovy pizza).

No-DivingIn today’s case, a young man was paralyzed for life when he dove into the lake at his parents’ house. He had made the same dive countless times before, but the defendant in the case — the non-profit corporation that owned the lake — had recently installed a dredge pipe underwater near the shore. The pipe apparently was just below the surface of the lake.

The lake’s owner argued that the young man was merely a licensee, not an invitee. The difference was crucial, because a licensee pretty much takes the property in the condition he or she finds it. The trial court agreed that the plaintiff was much more than that, and after a jury trial, the young man was awarded $1 million.

The appellate court looked at the corporate purpose of the non-profit lake owner, as well as the terms under which it acquired the lake from the public utility that had owned it previously. Both required that the lake be maintained for public purposes, despite being ringed with private homes, and that evidence convinced the Court of Appeals that the young man wasn’t just someone who was using the lake with the permission of the defendant non-profit corporation. Instead, he was an invitee, someone to whom an invitation had been extended to enter or remain on land for a purpose for which the land was being held open to the public. As such, the landowner had a much higher duty of care to the young swimmer, a duty it violated by not being more careful in installing and marking the dredge pipe.

Not all shallow water is so well labeled.

Not all shallow water is so well labeled.

Shafer & Freeman Lakes Environmental Conservation Corp. v. Stichnoth, 877 N.E.2d 475 (Ct.App.Ind., 2007). Twenty-six year old Justin Stichnoth was visiting his parents at their house located on Lake Shafer. During a conversation that day, Justin’s father, Kerry, told Justin about a dredge pipe that Shafer & Freeman had installed in the channel near their dock. Kerry explained that recently he had gotten his boat “hung up” on the dredge pipe. Shortly thereafter, Justin took a running dive off of his parents’ dock into the channel, something he had done often over the years. Justin struck his head on the dredge pipe, which was located on the channel floor about 17 feet from the dock. Justin was left a paraplegic. He sued Shafer & Freeman, alleging that the firm’s negligence caused his injuries because it didn’t warn that there was a pipe underwater, it didn’t mark the pipe so that it would be visible to users of the lake, and it didn’t use reasonable care in dredging the lake.

Shafer & Freeman denied the allegations of negligence. Later, it filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of whether Justin was a licensee of Shafer & Freeman. The trial court denied it, and a jury found it liable to Justin, awarding $1 million to the injured plaintiff. Shafer & Freeman appealed.

Be careful when diving into unfamiliar water.

Be careful when diving into unfamiliar water.

Held: Justin was an invitee. Indiana law holds that a person entering upon the land of another comes upon the land either as an invitee, licensee or trespasser. The person’s status on the land defines the nature of the duty owed by the landowner to the visitor. Licensees have a license to use the land and are privileged to enter or remain on the land by virtue of the permission of the owner or occupier, but they take the premises as they find them. Invitees, on the other hand, are owed a much higher duty of care. The decisive factor with regard to whether a landowner has extended an “invitation” or “permission” is the interpretation that a reasonable man would put upon the owner’s words and actions, given all of the surrounding circumstances. Here, the Court found, the lake was held open to the public, even though it was surrounded by private property, and thus Justin — who dove off a dock and struck his head on a dredge pipe located on channel floor — was an invitee rather than a licensee for purposes of personal injury action. The Court held that the articles of incorporation of Shafer & Freeman, the non-profit corporation that owned the lake, provided that the corporation would protect and enhance the water quality of lake in order to facilitate public recreational use and ensure continued public access.

What’s more, the Court said, the agreement by which Shafer & Freeman acquired the title from the electrical utility, provided that Shafer & Freeman would hold the lake for public, charitable, recreational, conservation and environmental purposes. It is not enough, to hold land open to the public, that the public at large is permitted to enter at will upon the land for their own purposes. As in other instances of invitation, the Court said, there must be some inducement or encouragement to enter, some conduct indicating that the premises are provided and intended for public entry and use, and that the public will not merely be tolerated, but is expected and desired to come. When a landowner lets local boys play basketball on his vacant lot they are licensees only. If he installs playground equipment and posts a sign saying that the lot is open free to all children, there is then a public invitation, and those who enter in response to it are invitees.

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Friday, September 15, 2017


Doug Van Dyne had big plans for getting folks back to nature. He wanted to build a nature trail along a ravine that split his property and that of his waffling neighbor, Eunice North. People could enjoy the birds, the babbling brook, the scent of pine… that kind of thing.

If you ever wonder whether it’s a good idea to get agreements in writing, Doug’s $70,000 mistake will settle that question for you. Because Doug’s nature path would meander a bit onto Eunice’s side of the ravine, he told her about his plans for the trail. Eunice, who admitted that she really had no idea what Doug was talking about, said she just “shrugged my shoulders” and replied that “I guess it would be okay.”

To Doug, that was like the green flag at Indy.  But little did he know that Eunice promptly began to fret about her confused acquiescence. She had trouble sleeping for her worry, and finally asked a friend about the plan. Her friend told Eunice the trail idea was a mistake. Armed with this advice, Eunice said, she reneged. She claimed she told Doug that she didn’t want him around.

“No probalo,” Doug, who had no intention at all of honoring Eunice’s ukase, allegedly said. Regardless of his actual intentions, Doug promised Eunice that he “would go to a different plan.”

That different plan seems to have involved having his contractor run the bulldozers at full throttle instead of half throttle. By the time the diesel fumes cleared, 20 of Eunice’s trees had been ground under Caterpillar treads and the trail encroached on her land.

Eunice sued Doug for trespass, loss of lateral support, and loss of trees. The jury awarded Eunice $50,000 on the trespass and lateral support claims and $20,100 in treble damages on the loss-of-tree claim. It mattered little that Doug and the contractor both told a different story, the bulldozer operator testifying that Eunice had agreed to Doug’s plan. The jury believed Eunice.

Juries do that, often buying one side of the story and not the other, many times against common sense. We don’t know that that happened here, but it sure did not help Doug that he had not bothered to have the property boundaries surveyed before the ‘dozers started dozing.

Much of Doug’s appeal focused on damages. The jury agreed that Doug’s dozing had made Eunice’s side of the ravine unstable. Eunice’s expert testified that there were three ways to repair the damage, but none of the tree would restore the ravine to its pristine state. Doug argued that said because the land could not be repaired to the way it was before the bulldozers rolled through, then the diminution of the fair market value of the ravine was all that matters.

Not so, the court said. The law does not require that the evidence show that the damage can be repaired so as to make the property as good as new. While it is a general rule of Iowa law that the cost to repair property is the fair and reasonable cost of repair not to exceed the value of the property immediately prior to the loss or damage, all Eunice was required to do was to establish a fair and reasonable cost to fix things up in order to arrest further deterioration and make the place as good as it can be made. In this case, Eunice showed that she had three means of stabilizing the steep bank after Doug’s earth-moving frolic, and only one of those made any sense. She established the cost of that repair, and the value of the property before the damage.

Because the damages did not exceed her expert’s $129,000 repair price tag, it was clear the jury fulfilled its function in weighing the evidence.

Next time, Doug, get the landowner’s OK in writing. Call a surveyor. Stake the property boundaries. Surely that’s cheaper than $71,000.

North v. Van Dyne, Case No. 16-0165 (Ct.App. Iowa, Sept. 13, 2017). Douglas Van Dyke hired Heck’s Dozer, Inc., to build a trail along a ravine between his property and adjacent land owned by Eunice North. Twenty of North’s trees were removed during the trail’s construction, and a portion of the completed trail encroached upon North’s property. Doug said Eunice gave him permission. Eunice said she initially sort of equivocated, but later told Doug in no uncertain terms that he was to stay off her land.

Doug said he would do so, but he never had the land surveyed or staked, and his guess as to the location of the property line was by guess and by gosh. Doug’s contractor said he met with Eunice, and she approved the plans. Eunice said she had never met the contractor.

Eunice testified that after she told Doug to steer clear of her property, she heard a “‘loud commotion.’ Standing on her deck, she saw ‘two pieces of heavy equipment’ below and ‘trees… flying.’ She decided not to go into the ravine to check on the commotion because she was ‘afraid’ she would get ‘hit with something,’ and she had physical difficulties getting ‘down there.’ Suspicious of an encroachment on her land, she commissioned a survey. The surveyor confirmed her fears.”

Eunice sued Doug for trespass, loss of lateral support, and loss of trees. The jury awarded her damages of $50,000 on the trespass and lateral support claims and $20,100 in treble damages on the loss-of-tree claim, Doug appealed.

Held: Eunice amply proved that Doug should pay treble damages under Iowa Code § 658.4 (2013). The statute requires the damage to trees be committed willfully or without reasonable excuse.” The term “willfully” has been characterized as an intentional and deliberate act without regard to the rights of others. Here, the Court of Appeals said, a reasonable juror could have believed that Eunice said “no” the jurors could have found Van Dyke “acted… without reasonable excuse.”

The jury additionally could have found that Doug’s failure to commission a survey before building the trail denied him any reasonable excuse for the trespass. The testimony established that Doug relied on an “old fence,” “old posts,” a “shed,” and a “roofline” to gauge the boundary.

The measure of damages is the cost of repair, as long as that cost does not exceed the value of the property prior to the damage. Doug complained that because Eunice’s expert testified only that the continued deterioration of the property could be stopped by stabilizing the steep bank, she was not able to show that the property could be repaired to its original state.

The Court of Appeals held that nothing requires that the repair estimate be enough to restore the land to its state before the damage. As long as Eunice provided evidence of the fair market value of the land before and after the damage, and a repair cost that is less than the value of the place before the damage – which she did – she met her obligation. Here, the damages awarded by the jury were higher than Doug’s estimate of $2,500.00 to fix it, but well below Eunice’s estimate of $127,000. Plus, the jury’s $50,000 award for trespass and lateral support was well below Eunice’s evidence that the land was worth $250,000.

The damage to the trees was assessed separately, with the value of the lost timber found to be $6,700, trebled to $20,100.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Thursday, September 14, 2017


A eucalyptus tree, similar to the one that offended Ms. Cannon

A eucalyptus tree, similar to the one that offended Ms. Cannon.

There was a time, back when people of grit populated the land, that a landowner only had one choice when his neighbor’s trees encroached – to cut ‘em back. The Massachusetts Rule was the coin of the realm: if you didn’t like your neighbor’s tree overhanging your eaves, or its roots wrapping around your sewer line, you only had one option. The courts didn’t want to hear about it. Self-reliance was what it was all about.

Then along came the Hawaii Rule, which suggested that a naturally growing tree could be or could become a nuisance, and that an aggrieved landowner could sue for an order requiring its removal. One rule does not necessarily negate the other. So when does one oil up the chainsaw, and when does one fire up the word processor?

The Massachusetts Rule is, generally speaking, a blunt instrument. It’s one thing to cut away branches that pose a threat (or even an inconvenience) to your property. But what if cutting a limb back to the property line leaves a 15-foot leafless stub extending from the branch to the boundary. That’s not necessarily according to ANSI Standard A-300, but on the other hand, you don’t have the right to trim it properly unless your neighbor consents to you coming onto his or her land to do so.

Or, more dangerously, what if you cut back roots to the extent that the tree loses too much subsurface support, and falls on your neighbor’s new Bugatti Chiron? Are you liable? After all, you did no more than what the Massachusetts Rule permitted you to do.

The Hawaii Rule, on the other hand, is Doug Lewellyn’s dream. What an All-American solution – let’s sue! When is harm sensible? When your foundation walls collapse? When a dead branch falls on your Bugatti? When leaves clog the filter on your swimming pool? How much harm is enough?

Joan Cannon lived next to Lamar Dunn. Joan was unhappy with the roots from the Dunns’ eucalyptus tree, which were encroaching underground onto her land, as roots are wont to do. After all, a tree will quite often send roots out 35 feet or more from the base of the trunk, and the root system has little regard for some lines drawn on a recorder’s map.

We’re not sure why Joan was so exercised. Maybe she was naturally crotchety. Perhaps she was unusually territorial. Maybe her neighbor had a nice Bugatti, while Joan drove a Yugo. What we can be sure of is that the eucalyptus roots weren’t really causing any harm.


Sometimes encroaching roots can be an inconvenience.

That didn’t stop Joan from suing the Dunns.  The trial court denied an award of any damages and refused to order Lamar the appellee to remove the offending roots and tree. Joan appealed.

The Court of Appeals considered the classic Restatement of the Law trespass approach, which held simply that if a neighbor owns something that trespasses, he or she has to remove it if there is a duty to remove it, regardless of whether it causes harm or not. That’s the rub, the court said. When does such a duty arise?

The court found guidance in the Restatement on nuisance, and held that a duty to remove offending branches or roots arose when some actual and sensible or substantial damage has been sustained. Joan’s general objection to the unseen eucalyptus roots did not equate to harm. Thus, the roots could remain.

Cannon v. Dunn, 145 Ariz. 115, 700 P.2d 502 (Ariz.App. Div. 2 1985). This case involves the liability of Lamar Dunn, an adjoining landowner, for roots from a eucalyptus tree which invaded the subsurface of land belonging to his neighbor, Joan Cannon. The trial court found that the roots had caused no actual damage, and denied an award ordering the Dunns to remove the offending roots and tree.

Joan appealed.

Held: Dunn did not have to remove the roots. The Court of Appeals rejected Cannon’s argument that it should apply the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 158 (1965), which stated that “one is subject to liability to another for trespass, irrespective of whether he thereby causes harm to any legally protected interest of the other, if he intentionally… fails to remove from the land a thing which he is under a duty to remove.”

The Court said that it was “obvious that one must first determine whether there is a duty to remove the object and that in this case § 158(c) really begs the question.” More to the point, the Court observed, was the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 840 (on nuisances), which held that a possessor of land is not liable to his adjoining landowner for a nuisance resulting solely from a natural condition of the land.

Ms. Cannon could not prove any damages flowing from the alleged encroachment ... unlike this guy.

Ms. Cannon could not prove any damages flowing from the alleged encroachment … unlike this guy.

The Court paid lip service to the Massachusetts Rule, noting that Arizona law permitted a “landowner who sustains injury by the branches or roots of a tree or plant on adjoining land intruding into his domain, regardless of their non-poisonous character may, without notice, cut off the offending branches or roots at the property line.” At injured landowner’s expense, of course.

But when some actual and sensible or substantial damage has been sustained, the Court said, the injured landowner may maintain a nuisance action for abatement of the nuisance, and compel the removal of the branches or roots at the tree owner’s expense. However, where no injury has been sustained, no lawsuit be brought for either an injunction or damages.

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 13, 2017


Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave the past few years knows that sunny California has been just a little too sunny . The state and local governments have begged, pleaded and cajoled homeowners to save water. Some rather severe measures were  implemented.

Maybe so, but you're not the only people around with a law degree. Some folks at the gas company have them, too.

Maybe so, but you’re not the only people around with a law degree. Some folks at the gas company have them, too.

Then, the story broke that the California rich – like the rich everywhere – aren’t exactly like you and me. At least, not like me. Sure there’s a severe shortage. And sure people should cut back. But not rich people. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” one uber-wealthy property owner complained to the Washington Post. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

Ah, yes, we know what entitlement must feel like. It’s sort of like how the Andrewses, high-powered and sophisticated lawyers both, must have felt when they bought their house. You see, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews weren’t your typical blundering homebuyers. He was a tax attorney – the high priests of the legal profession – and she was an appellate specialist. So when they settled on a beautiful homestead in the Ohio countryside next to a hillside covered with pine trees, they figured that they understood all those ‘thences’, distances and bearings to PK nailsets, and ‘principal places of beginning’, you know, the stuff other lesser lawyers put in deeds. So how could they have missed the easement that the prior owner had granted to the gas company for two pretty big gas transmission lines buried on the place?

We’re sure they must have read it. But these legal beagles apparently never dreamed the easement meant what it said.

About four years after they moved in, the gas company came along and said the pine trees on the hill were encroaching on the easement and had to go. Being frugal as well as sharp, the Andrewses sued in local court, acting as their own attorneys. They argued the gas company was stuck with the trees because it had let them grow there in the first place, and anyway, it hardly needed to clear-cut a swath 80 feet wide (25 feet on either side of the two pipelines and 30 feet in the middle).

FoolOl’ Abe Lincoln was right: the Andrews had a pair of fools for clients.

As it turned out, Columbia Gas had a few lawyers, too, and these guys knew easements like Mr. Andrews knew tax. Maybe even better. The gas company removed the case to federal court, where after a trial, the Andrewses had their heads handed to them. The Court of Appeals affirmed the defeat.

The court held that Columbia Gas hadn’t acquiesced to the trees, because they weren’t any there when the pipeline was built (but were planted by a later homeowner). The fact that the gas company hadn’t cut a swath of trees from the easement in 55 years didn’t matter, nor did it matter that the gas company was cutting such a wide right-of-way on neighboring easements. The court gave credence to the Columbia Gas and state utilities commission witnesses, who carried the day by carefully explaining all of the safety, economic and reasons for the gas company to want the trees removed.

The Court ruled that absent evidence to the contrary, a judge should presume that the parties contemplated that normal development would result in some changes in the use of the easement, even if it is unlikely that the parties anticipated specific developmental changes. New technology permitting aerial inspection, new federal regulations on pipeline safety and security, and new techniques of internal pipeline inspection, were all such “developmental changes,” arguing for the gas company to take a heightened interest in keeping its easement clear.

Andrews v. Columbia Gas Transmission Corporation, 544 F.3d 618 (6th Cir., 2008). In 1947, Ruby W. Davies owned the piece of land in Licking County, Ohio, where the Andrews family now lives. She granted The Ohio Fuel Gas Company an easement to build and maintain a pipeline and to “lay, maintain, operate, repair, replace and remove other lines of pipe at any points on said premises upon the payment of like consideration” and the right of “ingress and egress to and from the same” over and across the property. Ohio Fuel agreed to “pay any damages which may arise to crops and fences from the laying, maintaining, operating and final removal of said pipe line.” The agreement did not specify the width of the easement.

pipe2Pursuant to the agreement, Ohio Fuel installed two large high-pressure underground natural gas transmission pipelines through the property. The first, Line K-170, is 16 inches wide and was installed in 1947. The second, Line K-205, is 24 inches wide and was installed in 1957. The two pipelines run parallel to each other about 30 feet apart. Columbia Gas succeeded to Ohio Fuel’s interest in the right of way and still operates and maintains the pipelines. The property changed hands several times over the past 50 years. In the late 1960s, the owner built a house on it and planted pine trees on the hillside behind the house for aesthetics and erosion control. The owner was unaware that he had planted the trees within 25 feet of Line K-170.

In March 2000, the Andrews bought the property with notice of the 1947 right of way agreement. By then, the pine trees had matured. The Andrews’ decision to purchase the property was motivated in large part by the rural setting and the hillside landscaping.

Columbia Gas made no efforts to clear a right of way around the pipelines until 2004, when a work crew told the Andrews that the location of the pipeline required them to remove the stand of pine trees. Columbia Gas claimed the right to remove the trees and to maintain a right of way totaling approximately 80 feet, 25 feet on each side of the two pipelines and the 30 feet between the two pipelines. The Andrews sued Columbia Gas, seeking an injunction and asking for damages if the trees were cut. After trial, the court entered judgment in favor of Columbia Gas, relying on the testimony of Timothy Seibert, a long-time Columbia Gas employee responsible for overseeing the inspection and maintenance of the pipelines running through Andrews’ property, and Paul Hollinger, an investigator for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the state agency responsible for overseeing natural gas transmission lines. Based on their testimony, the Court concluded that a 50-foot right of way for each pipeline was “necessary and convenient and consistent with the language of the 1947 Davies easement.” The court declined to apply the doctrines of laches, estoppel, or waiver, noting that those doctrines do not apply to expressly granted easements under Ohio law. Finally, the Andrews were not entitled to compensation for removal of the trees because the right of way agreement only provided recovery for damage to crops and fences. The Andrews appealed.

NHE-16006_300Held: Columbia Gas was entitled to the 80’ wide right-of-way, and the Andrews were not entitled to damages for the lost trees. Under Ohio law, an easement is an interest in the land of another, created by prescription or express or implied grant, that entitles the owner of the easement to a limited use of the land in which the interest exists. The owner of the land subject to an easement has the right to use the land in any manner not inconsistent with the easement, but has no right to interfere with or obstruct the reasonable and proper use of the easement. The owner of an easement has the right to remove objects within it that unreasonably interfere with or obstruct its reasonable and proper use.

Where the terms of an expressly granted easement are ambiguous, the Court held, a judge must determine its scope from the language of the grant, the circumstances surrounding the transaction, and what is reasonably necessary and convenient to serve the purposes for which the easement was granted. Absent contrary evidence, a judge should presume that the parties contemplated that normal development would result in some changes in the use of the easement, even if it is unlikely that the parties anticipated specific developmental changes. Acquiescence for a long time in a certain construction of a grant of an easement, estops the assertion of a different construction.

EasementsThe Andrews argued that Columbia Gas never cleared any area within its claimed right of way, and never objected when the prior owner planted the pine trees in the late 1960s. But lack of action prior to this time did not stop the gas company from asserting its rights now. If Columbia Gas had consistently cleared only 10 feet on each side of its pipelines, the Court said, the Andrews’ argument would have more force. But the fact that the company did nothing is not fatal to its claim. Besides, the Court said, Columbia Gas did not acquiesce to the trees. No trees were growing there in 1947, making it reasonable for the trial court to conclude that the conduct of Columbia Gas after the trees were planted did not evidence the original intent of the parties.

The Andrews also argued that Columbia Gas acquiesced by allowing trees near its pipelines on other properties. But the original intent of the parties is the primary inquiry, and only the conduct of the parties regarding the particular property at issue is relevant. The fact that the gas company may or may not have enforced its easement to its fullest width elsewhere has absolutely no bearing at all on whether it may enforce its easement to its fullest width on the Andrews property.

Capt. Picard may well have landed at the plaintiff's table in this case ...

Capt. Picard may well have landed at the plaintiff’s table in this case …

Relying on testimony by expert witnesses, the lower court ultimately concluded that a 50-foot easement was reasonably necessary and convenient for the inspection, operation, and maintenance of each of the pipelines. The factual findings upon which he based that conclusion were not clearly erroneous. Although each easement case is factually unique, almost every court to construe an easement with similar language as the one at issue here has concluded that a 25-foot right of way on both sides of the pipeline was reasonably necessary and convenient. And it is beside the point to argue that federal regulations do not require natural gas companies to clear rights of way around their pipelines. Assuming that to be true, the regulations do not prohibit gas companies from clearing rights of way. Although federal law may be helpful in construing certain ambiguous easements, the rights granted in an easement ultimately flow from a private agreement. The difficulties Columbia Gas might face in conducting pipeline inspections was a primary ground for the lower court’s conclusion that a 50-foot right of way was reasonably necessary and convenient for each of the pipelines on the Andrews property.

Columbia Gas offered evidence that the trees hindered the company’s ability to conduct both aerial and close interval pipeline inspections. According to an expert witness, the presence of trees within the right of way interfered with aerial inspections. Additionally, trees within 25 feet of the center of a pipeline could hinder the company’s ability to conduct close interval surveys and to excavate the pipeline in the event of an anomalous inspection or an emergency such as a leak or rupture.

The Andrews argued that Columbia Gas had safely maintained its pipelines for decades without removing the trees and that if an emergency ever arises, it can remove the trees quickly enough at that time. The trial court recognized this as well, but also reasoned that there were some circumstances in which the additional time to remove the trees could impose a substantial hardship on customers who would be without natural gas service during the excavation and the delay to remove the trees could unnecessarily jeopardize public safety. There was ample support in the record for the conclusion that a cleared right of way was reasonably necessary to ensure a safe, timely, and efficient excavation. The trial court also considered evidence that a 50-foot right of way is standard in the gas pipeline industry.

Finally, the Andrews challenged the trial court’s determination that they are not entitled to damages for removal of the trees. Because the trees were inconsistent with the easement rights of Columbia Gas, the company was authorized to remove them.

Thomas L. Root

Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 12, 2017


Marlborough should have heeded Marlboro's advice -

Marlborough should have heeded Marlboro’s advice – “better makin’s” … as in “we’d better be makins sure we own the land befores we go digging’ it up.”

Some time years ago, Marlborough (the City, not the cigarette) abandoned a seldom-used city street, even recording in the land record the misspelled sentiment that it “hearby abandon[ed] and discontinu[ed] any and all rights …” in the street.

Well, time passed and while much improved in the world, the competence of decision-by-committee did not. When the Marlborough powers that be decided a new water main had to be installed, they concluded they should go right down the right-of-way they had abandoned. “What, we abandoned it? Well,” the city fathers and mothers chuckled, “we’ll just take it back!”

And they did, too, going right up the center of the abandoned street, tearing up the place and downing a number of trees (which is how we ended up writing about this to begin with). America’s a relatively civilized place (albeit one with a lot of lawyers), so the landowners sued.

Obtaining a judgment that the City had trespassed was easy: after all, the land records themselves revealed the City had no rights in the street. But damages were tricky, especially because the landowners wanted treble damages. In Massachusetts, a trespasser to trees is liable for treble damages unless he or she had “good cause to believe” that he or she had a right to cut down the trees. The City argued it had relied on one of its attorney-employees, who opined that the street remained a public thoroughfare despite the unambiguous and misspelled language of the recordation and Massachusetts law. The City said it took “extensive steps” to determine its rights.  Sure, and Hillary was very careful with her classified information, and Donald’s people avoided the Russians.

The Court said “nonsense.”  It seemed the plans for the water main construction themselves carried the notation “Ownership to be determined,” and the trial judge warned the City at the temporary restraining order stage that its rights were pretty shaky. But the City dug and cut on. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

An interesting damages note to the case: the City offered “expert” testimony from a real estate professional as to the loss of value of the property because of the trespass, calling this a “common sense” approach to valuation. The Court rejected the expert and the approach, because the loss calculation necessarily must include the value of the trees that had been cut down. Besides, the Court said, a real estate expert — no matter how good in his or her area of expertise — knew diddly-squat about trees.

street150615The damage approach approved by the Court – the “cost of cure” method – took into account the cost of replacing the trees that had been curt, as well as removal of the larger stumps.

Smith v. City of Marlborough, 67 Mass.App.Ct. 1104, 852 N.E.2d 137, (Mass.Ct.App., 2006). Abutting landowners brought an action against the City of Marlborough, alleging that city had trespassed, destroyed trees, and removed soil and gravel during the installation of a water main through their properties along an allegedly abandoned lane. The Superior Court entered judgment for landowners and awarded treble damages, and City appealed.

Held: The award of treble damages was upheld. The Court agreed that the City of Marlborough had abandoned the street, and it thus committed trespass when it destroyed trees while installing a water main along the abandoned street. A recorded order stated that the city “hearby abandons and discontinues any and all rights that it now has or ever had” in the lane. The Court held that the City did not have a good reason to believe that it owned land which it had previously abandoned, and thus the landowners abutting the street — who received the property following abandonment — were entitled to treble damages due to the city’s removal of trees while installing the water main.

Marlborough tried to make Sandy Posey's 1967 country-pop song into the city anthem ...

Marlborough tried to make Sandy Posey’s 1967 country-pop song into the city anthem …

The evidence showed that the survey “was performed without the benefit of the determination of the status” of the lane, and that the landowners raised questions about the ownership of the land with city personnel immediately after receiving notice of blasting near lane, but the city continued its work nonetheless.

The amount of damages determined under the “cost of cure” method were not disputed on appeal. The damages included cost of replacement of trees, as well as removal of stumps of larger trees that had been cut. Marlborough complained that it was deprived of an opportunity to present its own “common sense and expert approach” when its expert, a real estate appraiser, was not allowed to testify because he was not an arborist and did not determine the value of the trees.

Marlborough offered no specific allegations of errors in procedure or in the jury instructions and merely concluded that “according to common sense” the loss of trees could not be worth more than the damages awarded for the land taking. The Court rejected this argument, too.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, September 11, 2017


AdvPossSignIn an Ohio case we were working on recently, we had occasion to be considering a “wrongful cutting” statute. Many states have them, statutes that require people who trespass on land and remove trees to pay multiple damages – most commonly three times the value of the timber but in some states double damages. Usually, the statute requires that the person trespassing and removing trees have some culpability more than mere negligence. The notion is that people who recklessly or intentionally cut down someone else’s trees need a strong incentive to abandon their nefarious ways, and awarding a multiple of actual damages is intended to encourage them to walk on the paths of righteousness.

But like any good statute (look at the federal RICO statute in the event you need some proof of this) the opportunity for misuse of the wrongful cutting law is rife. In today’s case, we start with your garden-variety adverse possession case. The plaintiff really had encroached on his neighbor’s property over a period of close to 50 years, although he had not gone to court to get record title. When the record owner of the land cut down some of the trees on land his title said still was his, the adverse possessor not only sued to quiet title – that is, get a judicial acknowledgement that he now owned the disputed strip of real estate – but even wanted treble damages for the timber his neighbor had cut.

The Massachusetts Land Court wisely declined the plaintiff’s invitation. It ruled that if your title says the land is yours, even if someone might be able to take it away from if the case goes to court, you hardly can be blamed for cutting timber on it. The Massachusetts statute required that you have “good reason to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed” wasn’t yours, in order to be on the hook for treble damages.

The adverse possessor already was getting title to land he had never bought, a judicial act some would call unjust enrichment. Giving him treble damages because the guy who owned the property according to the title cut down some of what the records said were his trees trees would really be piling on.

Mendes v. Bachant, Not Reported in N.E.2d, 2007 WL 1874768 (Mass. Land Ct., June 29, 2007). George Mendes bought land in 1969. At that time, a shed stood at the rear of the parcel, and in fact intruded on land owned by a man named Gleason. Neither Mendes nor the prior owner had permission to locate a shed on Gleason’s land, and apparently no one was aware that the shed was in the wrong place.

Mendes installed a barbeque pit on the disputed land ... do you think the Bachants were ever invited to a pig roast?

Mendes installed a barbeque pit on the disputed land … but do you think the Bachants were ever invited to a hog roast?

Gleason sold the land in 1969 to the Bachants. In the 1970s, Mendes installed a garden and trellis on the disputed land. Ten years later, Mendes replaced the shed with a larger shed which further encroached, and built a stockade fence behind the shed which enclosed the area in dispute. He also added a barbeque pit. Again, he did this without permission and apparently even without knowledge that he was intruding.

Some 46 years or more after the first intrusion, the Bachants figured out that they held title to the disputed land, and in 2005, they tore down the fence, tore up the garden, and cut down and removed trees in the disputed area. Mendes sued, claiming the land by adverse possession and asking damages for trespass to trees. He demanded treble damages under Massachusetts G.L. c. 242, §7 for the destroyed timber.

The Bachants said that Mendes had failed to establish what portion of their property he adversely possessed, and had not proven the elements of dominion and control or open and notorious possession sufficient to establish his claim of adverse possession. The trial issued a temporary restraining order enjoining the Bachants from undertaking any construction or related activities on the disputed land. After trial, the court made findings.

Held: The land belonged to Mendes by adverse possession, but the Bachants were’t liable for cutting down the trees.

The Court ruled that Mendes’ possession had been actual, exclusive, and non-permissive, exercising dominion and control for a continuous period of at least 20 years. The Bachants argued that because the land was undeveloped woods, a stricter rule applied, and Mendes was required to have enclosed the area he possessed. The Court agreed that where a party claims adverse possession of woodlands, it must also demonstrate that the land at issue was either enclosed or reduced to cultivation and, in contrast, title by adverse possession cannot be shown to wild or woodland that has always been, and remains, open and unenclosed. But, the Court said, Mendes met the stricter standard imposed upon woodland parcels by enclosing substantial portion of the disputed area with a stockade fence and the cultivation of a vegetable garden within the same enclosure, coupled with the aforementioned additional activities.

beware140430 As for the trespass to trees, the Court observed that under G.L. c. 242, §7, a person who without right to do so cuts down and removes another’s trees and timber is liable for treble damages. Mendes contended the Bachants unlawfully entered his land, and removed all of the trees and brush up to his shed. The Bachants argued that they were entitled to enter upon the land pursuant to their record title. The Court didn’t buy either argument, but it observed that the statute permitted treble damages only where the trespasser did not have “good reason to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own.”

Here, the Court said, the Bachants’ record title indicated they owned the disputed area. Thus, even if damages were appropriate, treble damages wouldn’t apply. All they had done was to cut trees from land that remained theirs as a matter of law until the courts said otherwise.

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Friday, September 8, 2017


Oh, if it were only that easy ...

Oh, if it were only that easy …

In the world of negligence, it’s not enough that the person who screws up – referred to generally as the “actor” – is stupid. After all, the world’s chock-a-block with stupidity, and if being an imbecile were enough to make one liable, we’d all walk through life with our checkbooks perpetually open.

No, idiocy is not enough to create liability. Instead, the stupidity must be the “proximate cause” of the damage suffered by the plaintiff. For all of you proponents of chaos theory, you can consider it the obverse of the “Beijing Butterfly Effect.” You remember the illustration: the beat of a butterfly’s wings in Beijing today sets a miniscule air current in motion, which sets other air in motion, and so on nearly ad infinitum, until the air currents set into circulation cause a thunderstorm a week later in New York City. Small changes in input result in big changes in output. Just ask Edward Lorenz.

Lorenz was a scientist, not a lawyer. Had he been an attorney, he might have sued the butterfly because he got wet hailing a taxi at 52nd and 5th Avenue. But the law wouldn’t have been with him, because his damages – a soaking-wet bespoke wool coat and trousers – were not proximately caused by the butterfly’s erratic flight around the Forbidden City seven days prior. It’s the lesson every first-year law student learns in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad, a now-legendary tort case from pre-Depression New York.

Chaos isn't such a bad thing ... the theory gave us Benoit Mandelbrot's beautiful and repeating fractals.

Chaos isn’t such a bad thing … the theory gave us Benoit Mandelbrot’s beautiful and repeating fractals.

The facts were almost Rube Goldbergian. Mrs. Palsgraf – the countess of causation herself – had just arrived at the station to catch a commuter train. A passenger carrying a package, while hurrying to board a moving train, appeared to two Long Island Railroad employees to be falling. The employee standing on the passenger car tried to pull the passenger into the car while the other employee tried to push the rider into the car from behind. Their efforts to aid the passenger caused the unlucky fellow to drop the package he was holding. The box – about 15 inches long and wrapped in newspapers – struck the rails in between the cars.

The package contained fireworks, and it of course exploded when it hit the rails. The shock from the blast caused a panicked bystander to stumble into a pair of scales, which fell over, striking Helen Palsgraf. Palsgraf sued the Long Island Railroad (of course, because no one else in the chain of causation had any money), claiming her injury resulted from negligent acts of the Railroad’s employee in pushing the passenger onto the train. The trial court and the intermediate appeals court agreed with Mrs. Palsgraf.

The Long Island Railroad appealed the judgment to the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court. In a celebrated opinion by then-Chief Judge Benjamin Cardozo, the Court held that there was no way the LIRR employee could have known that the newspaper-wrapped parcel was dangerous, and that pushing the passenger would thereby cause an explosion. Without a reasonable perception that one’s actions could harm someone, there could be no duty towards that person, and therefore no negligence for which to impose liability. Whether the Railroad employees had acted negligently to the passenger they manhandled was irrelevant for Palsgraf’s claim, because the only negligence that a person can sue for is a wrongful act that violates his or her own rights. “If the harm was not willful, [a plaintiff] must show that the act as to him had possibilities of danger so many and apparent as to entitle him to be protected against the doing of it though the harm was unintended.”

palsgraf150611This is known as “foreseeability,” a concept that tends to limit liability to the consequences of an act that could reasonably be foreseen rather than to every single consequence that follows. Otherwise, liability could be unlimited in scope, as causes never truly cease having effects far removed in time and space. (This returns us to the wayward Beijing butterfly). Today’s case is a current illustration of what happens when a plaintiff’s lawyer slept through that particular session of tort law class.

The actors were a dumpster, a black squirrel, and a black hole. OK, not a black hole, more like a tennis ball-sized hole that provided the furry critter with access to the dumpster. Ms. Hansen dumped her garbage in the dumpster. The dumped bags startled the squirrel, which had perhaps gotten in the dumpster through the hole. The squirrel leaped from the dumpster in alarm, in turn startling Ms. Hansen, who fell and hurt herself.

So who was at fault? Ms. Hansen naturally blamed the condo association and Waste Management, for permitting a hole to remain in the lid (perhaps because both of the defendants had insurance). Being students of Palsgraf, the appellate panel made short work of this one, asking how the defendants could reasonably have foreseen that failing to seal a tennis ball-sized hole in the dumpster lid could cause a condo owner to fall down. They could not, of course. Ms. Hansen was out of court.

The squirrel is still on the loose.

Hansen v. Getchell, 70 Mass.App.Ct. 1101, 872 N.E.2d 840 (2007). Sandra Hansen had been a resident of the Beal’s Cove Village condominiums for nearly 10 years. She fell after being startled by a squirrel that leapt from a garbage dumpster she had opened to deposit some trash.

Hansen has owned a condominium unit at Beal’s Cove since 1997. During her years there, Hansen had actually seen animals such as raccoons and squirrels on the property, which is close to some woods. She also had seen animals at Beal’s Cove near a different dumpster as well. However, this being America, someone had to be at fault, so she sued Getchell, trustee of the Beal’s Cove Village Condominium Trust, and Waste Management, Inc., the waste removal contractor.

Squirrels can be frightening creatures. Just look at the terror on this victim's face.

Squirrels can be frightening creatures. Just look at the terror on this victim’s face.

Hansen claimed that the dumpster had a hole in the lid the size of a tennis ball, a squirrel-size hole which had been there for weeks and which provided squirrels an unfettered means of access. Her expert opined that the failure to repair the hole in the lid was a substantial contributing cause of her injuries, and she blamed defendants for not fixing it. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants because Hansen failed to establish that the defendants owed her a duty, and she failed to demonstrate a causal relationship between the claimed negligence and her resulting injury.

Held: The dismissal was upheld. The Court of Appeals said that whether the case was analyzed from the standpoint of the defendants’ duty to Hansen or from the standpoint of whether the breach of their duty proximately caused Hansen’s injury, she lost. The requisite foreseeability was absent.

Although there was evidence that the parties were aware that animals frequented the dumpster, the Court held that squirrels and other animals were a naturally occurring condition that the defendants didn’t create. There was no proof that squirrels or other animals that got in the dumpster made a habit of leaping out at unknowing depositors of trash. And even if – given the pesky and mischievous nature of squirrels – the defendants could have foreseen that they would leap from the dumpster, it wasn’t foreseeable that the leap would lead to a condominium tenant becoming injured.

In other words, it was not reasonably foreseeable that, as a direct result of the unrepaired hole in the lid, a person accessing the dumpster would be startled, fall, and become injured. Neither Getchell nor Waste Management, Inc., had a duty to guard against such an unforeseeable harm.

– Tom Root