Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 12, 2018

TREE TRESPASS LOTTERY

There are a lot of moving parts to today’s case. First, we have the classic setup for treble damages. A neighbor is told repeatedly that his belief as to his property boundaries were wrong, but he pig-headedly ignores the news he does not want to hear. After the inevitable trespass results in the butchering of hundreds of trees, the unhappy victims – who don’t want justice as much as a pound of flesh – decide to pile on with multiple experts, each describing the loss a little differently. Finally, we have a plaintiff’s lawyer who screws up on a minor, rather technical rule of pleading, and costs his clients some money.

In any fair contest, the Linebargers should have gotten treble damages from their neighbor, George. How many times do you have to be put on notice that you are in risk of a timber trespass before you check your figures, just to be safe?

Still, the punishment ought to fit the crime. Like the Alaska case we considered a few months ago, compensation for loss is one thing. A lottery ticket that would score you two-thirds of the fair market value of your 30-acre spread for the loss of 4 acres of trees just seems wrong.

But no one should quibble with the Linebargers getting treble damages. Pig-headed George had it coming. But their lawyer somehow forgot to ask for treble damages in his complaint, or even at trial. A basic tenet of procedural due process is that a defendant should get notice of what the plaintiff wants to stick him or her with, and an opportunity to put on as good a defense as the defendant can muster and the law allows.

In today’s litigious world, the Linebargers would have gone after their lawyer’s malpractice policy the day after the appeals court ruled.

Linebarger v. Owenby, 79 Ark.App. 61, 83 S.W.3d 435 (Ark.App. 2002). George Owenby’s property lies south of a heavily wooded, 30-acre tract owned by Jerry and Margaret Linebarger. The Linebargers bought the northern 20 acres of their property in 1976, where they built a weekend cabin. They bought the southern 10 acres in 1993 to serve as a buffer between their cabin and neighboring lands.

In 1998, George sold the timber on his tract to Canal Wood Corporation. Canal began cutting in the fall of 1998 and, in the process, cut 329 trees from the southern 10 acres of the Linebargers’ land. Jerry complained that he had tried to tell George for years that a 1987 survey George used to establish his boundary was wrong, and that there was a more recent survey available.

As late as December 1997, when George told Jerry he was thinking of selling his timber, Jerry reminded George of the boundary problem and asked George to call him before proceeding. Heedless of this good advice, George made his deal with Canal, and, when Canal noticed some evidence of a boundary different than the one George had indicated, George provided Canal with the 1987 survey. In reliance on the wrong survey, Canal marked the acreage in such a manner that some of the Linebargers’ trees were cut.

Jerry and Marge finally got George’s attention by suing him and Canal, trespass and destruction of trees “that had been used for shade and beauty.” They asked for damages that would allow them to replace the lost trees, for attorney fees and costs, and for anything else to which they might be entitled. At trial, the Linebargers offered testimony of three experts on the amount of damages they had suffered. One, Bill Kelly, said the stumpage value of the cut trees was $1,081.60 and that it would cost $643.50 to prepare the site for re-planting. Another expert, real estate appraiser Wayne Coates, testified the market value of appellants’ property was $68,000 before the cutting and $62,000 afterward (which included $3,000 in clean-up costs). A third expert, Al Einert, placed a value on every tree that had been cut and determined the total value of the trees to be $44,702. Naturally, the Linebargers liked the Al’s number the best.

The trial judge found that Canal had failed to obtain a survey prior to cutting the trees and had trespassed on Linebarger land as the result of George’s intentional failure to disclose the true the correct survey. However, the judge found that the $44,702 damage figure testified to by Al was disproportionate in relation to the fair market value of the land. He awarded the Linebargers $5,000 for reduction in value of the land, based on Wayne Coates’s testimony, plus $1,081.60 stumpage value and $643.50 in clean-up costs, based on Bill Kelly’s testimony.

The Linebargers appealed.

Held: The replacement value of the trees was grossly disproportionate to the diminution of the land value, and would be a windfall for the Linebargers.

The Linebargers complained that the trial court should awarded them the $44,702 replacement value of the trees. Arkansas courts have recognized that when ornamental or shade trees are injured, the use made of the land should be considered and the owner compensated by damages representing the cost of replacing the trees. However, fact situations may arise in which recovery of the replacement cost of trees would yield a result grossly disproportionate to the fair market value of the land and thus would be an inappropriate measure of damages. The evidence in each case determines what measure of damages is to be used.

Here, the trial judge acknowledged the Linebargers had used their trees for screening and shade, and he gave due consideration to the replacement measure of damages. However, he found that most of the trees cut were behind and over the crest of a hill from Jerry and Marge’s cabin, which tended to reduce the harm they suffered. After all, you can’t derive shade from trees you can’t see. He also found that the replacement cost of the trees would be disproportionate in relation to the fair market value of the land.

The Court of Appeals agreed. “We cannot say that the trial judge abused his discretion in making the damage award,” the Court wrote. “Although he recognized that an award of replacement value might be possible, he declined to use that measure of damages because: 1) the cut trees were behind and over a crest from the cabin; and 2) the replacement value would be disproportionate to the land value. The location of the cut trees in relation to the cabin is a legitimate factor to consider. The trees provided only minimal shade, ornamental, or landscaping value to the appellants’ residence.”

It was obviously meaningful to the appellate court that if George paid the Linebargers the full replacement value of $44,702 for trees cut on 4.29 acres, Jerry and Marge would have received 67% of the value of the entire 30 acres as a whole (including the cabin). Such an award would exceed the stumpage value of the cut trees by over $43,000.

The Linebargers cited Ark. Code Ann. § 18-60-102 (a), which provides that if a person cuts down another’s tree, he may be liable for treble damages. Here, the Court replied, the trial judge found that the wrongful cutting in this case occurred through George’s intentional conduct. In cases of intentional wrongdoing involving the cutting of trees, the victim may recover treble damages. But despite his finding of intentional conduct, the judge declined to award treble damages in this case, based on the idea that a court of equity cannot award treble damages.

The judge was right, the appellate court said, but for the wrong reason. Jerry and Marge did not include a request for treble damages in their pleading, nor does the record reveal that they notified George and Canal at trial that they would be seeking exemplary (punitive) damages. A defendant is entitled to be given adequate notice of the remedy he or she will be confronting. An award of treble damages would have been inappropriate in the absence of the Linebargers pleading for them or the issue being tried with the express or implied consent of the parties.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 11, 2018

FISTS, NOSES AND TREES

punch50720Everyone’s heard the old canard that “The right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” Imagine your nose is a 65-foot tall maple tree, and my fist is a backhoe. Good luck with that – most imaginations aren’t quite that agile.

Here’s the problem we’ve been looking at the past several days. We all know about “self help,” the venerable old Massachusetts Rule that limits a landowner to trimming away encroaching branches and roots from a neighbor’s tree up to the property line. Michaelson v. Nutting – and virtually every encroachment case decided in the eight decades since that decision – has given a property owner the right to trim back a neighbor’s tree to the boundary without any limitation.

At the same time, we all know about boundary trees, those trees whose trunks enter the earth smack on the property line, so that tree is attached to the ground in both properties. Boundary trees are special, and the general rule is that neither property owner may trim the tree without the consent of the other.

But what happens when a neighbor’s tree is not on the boundary, but so encroaches on a landowner’s property – both above ground and below ground – that the practical effect of the landowner’s Massachusetts Rule self-help will be to kill the tree?  Well, like many things in life, that depends… In Washington State, the tree’s death is just so much collateral damage, and tough luck to the tree’s owner. In California and New York, on the other hand, it’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: the Massachusetts Rule yields to the imperative that the tree not be harmed.

Remember King Solomon? When two women appeared in front of him arguing over who was the mother of a baby, the King proposed to settle it by cutting the baby in half so that each woman would get 50 percent of the child. That threat was enough to smoke out the imposter. In today’s case, dividing the tree in half would have had the same effect as cutting up the infant (albeit it with less blood).

The Alvarezes own a nice place in Vermont, complete with a view of Lake Champlain. They have a 65-year old maple tree next to the property line of their neighbors, the Katzes. It was close, but the base of the tree was completely on Alvarez property, so this was no boundary tree the parties were dealing with.

The tree had been standing for almost seven decades. In fact, when the Alvarezes bought the property 20 years ago, the maple had already sent roots and branches across the boundary between the two parcels.

The Katzes, who also enjoy a view of Lake Champlain, have planned for a number of years to add on to their house, essentially doubling its size with a two-story addition. The only problem – or at least, the only problem we care about – was the maple tree. To add on, the Katzes would have to cut away about half of the maple tree’s branches and roots, in all likelihood killing the tree.

The Alvarezes and Katzes tried to resolve the problem amicably, but – just as happened with the women in front of King Solomon – there really wasn’t any middle ground. Either the Katzes would get their way, building onto their house and killing the tree, or the Alvarezes would have it their way. Like Dr. Seuss’s north-going and south-going Zax, neither neighbor would budge.

But then Katz somehow learned all about the Massachusetts Rule. It dawned on him that he could cut back the offending maple tree to the property line, both roots and branches. Sure, the tree might die, but the Massachusetts Rule said nothing about what happened to the tree after a neighbor used “self-cutting” trimming on it.

The Alvarezes ran to court, and obtaining an injunction against Katz. The trial court found that trimming the tree as Katz proposed doing would probably kill it. The injunction prohibited cutting away only about 25 percent of the tree, about half of what the Katzes needed for their ambitious plans.

The Katzes appealed, and the Vermont Supreme Court threw out the injunction. It held that the Massachusetts Rule was a blunt object, and had always been one. A landowner owns everything above and below ground level, and that owner can cut anything he or she wants to cut, without regard for the effect of the cutting. The Court said that was the law in Vermont and just about everywhere else.

The Supreme Court seemed a little uncomfortable with its decision, but it ruled in essence that the law is the law, and that’s the way Vermont had always done it.. It noted, in a hint that was as subtle as an anvil, that cases where Massachusetts-style self-help had been limited – such as in Booksa v. Patel – the theory that had been advanced was that of nuisance. In other words, the Alvarezes could have argued that Katz’s proposed trimming would so endanger the tree that it would interfere with their enjoyment of their property. Recall in Booksa, the court ordered the defendant to trim the encroaching tree reasonably. The Vermont Supreme Court telegraphed that it would probably have done the same, if the Alvarezes’ lawyer had only thought to make the argument. Oops.

Alvarez v. Katz, 124 A.3d 839, 199 Vt. 510 (Supreme Court of Vermont, 2015). The Katzes own property at in South Burlington in the Shelburne Bay area. The Alvarezes own the adjoining lot just to the north of the Katzes. The Alvarezes have a 65-ft. tall maple tree, the trunk of which is located entirely on their property. About half of the branches and roots from the tree cross the property boundary and encroach onto the Katz lot. Some roots extend under the Katzes’ existing deck.

For several years the Katzes have sought to expand their home by adding a two-story addition on the rear. The plans for the construction of the addition would require cutting the roots and branches that are encroaching onto their property. This could encompass up to half of the tree’s roots and branches.

The Alvarezes and the Katzes have been unable to amicably resolve the problem of the maple tree. In 2013, when the Katzes considered taking unilateral action to trim the tree’s roots and branches, the Alvarezes filed for an injunction. The superior court found it more likely than not that removal of 50% of the tree’s roots and branches would result in the premature death of the tree, perhaps within five years and probably within ten from the time of cutting. The court employed what it called the “urban-tree rule,” under which trimming the roots or branches of an encroaching tree may be proscribed if the trimming will destroy the tree. The injunction barred the trimming of more than 25% of the roots and branches of the tree.

The Katzes appealed.

The Zaxes wouldn’t budge, either …

Held: The injunction was vacated. The Supreme Court reaffirmed “Vermont’s long-standing right of a property owner to trim branches and roots from an encroaching tree without regard to the impact that such trimming may have on the health of the tree.”

Vermont has long recognized ownership of property to include the ownership of that which is below the ground and that which is attached overhead. The right has been clear for almost 100 years, since Cobb v. Western Union Telegraph Co., (a 1916 decision which stated the Massachusetts Rule before there ever was a Massachusetts Rule). Cobb held that “it is a sound principle that where a tree stands wholly on the ground of one and so is his tree, any part of it which overhangs the land of an adjoining owner may be cut off by the latter at the division line.” The Supreme Court criticized the trial court for conjuring up an “urban-tree rule” that would be an exception to Cobb. The trial court had considered this case to be one of first impression in Vermont because of the anticipated adverse – and likely fatal – effect the root-and-branch cutting would have had on the encroaching tree. The Supreme Court held that any attempt to “distinguish” Cobb, that is, to find that the Cobb case was somehow different just because the Cobb tree was located in a rural setting, was wrong.

Further, the Supreme Court said, the “urban-tree rule” does not enjoy the support attributed to it by the trial court. Outside of two cases, the California decision in Booksa and one obscure New York decision, the Massachusetts Rule (which maybe we should have called the “Vermont Rule”) enjoys extremely widespread support. What’s more, the Court reasoned, the Vermont legislature has had 99 years to modify the Cobb holding by statute, and it has not bothered to do so. The Supreme Court concluded that the “right to cut encroaching trees where they enter the land of another, without regard to the impact on the encroaching tree by such cutting, is well-established under Vermont law.”

The Supreme Court noted that at common law, the right to cut encroaching boughs and roots historically counterbalanced a landowner’s right to grow shade trees on his land, regardless of the impact those trees may have in casting shade or encroaching upon the neighboring property. Common law provided no claim for damages caused by encroaching roots or branches. Instead, the remedy was one of self-help, allowing the cutting of roots and branches to the extent of encroachment.

Where other jurisdictions have departed from the common-law rule and allowed actions for damages as a result of encroaching roots or branches, they have generally relied upon nuisance principles. Even where such actions have been permitted, those jurisdictions continue to recognize the right to self-help. In this case, the Alverezes did not raise a nuisance claim, so “the issue of whether a nuisance claim might exist for the encroachment of roots and branches from the Alvarezes’ tree is not presently before the Court.”

The Supreme Court subtly suggested that the proper way for the Alvarozes to address the problem would be through the law of nuisance ...

The Supreme Court subtly suggested that the proper way for the Alvarezes to address the problem would be through the law of nuisance …

The Supreme Court defined the conundrum as follows: “[T]his case presents the competing interests of neighboring property owners. On the one hand, [the Katzes] have an interest in using their land, which they have purchased and upon which they pay taxes, as they see fit, within permissible regulations, free from limitations imposed by encroaching roots and branches from the neighbors’ tree, which they did not invite and for which they receive no benefit. The Alvarezes seek to restrict the use of the Katz property by preventing the removal of branches and roots on land that is not theirs and for which they have given nothing of benefit to [the Katzes] for suffering the encroachment. On the other hand, the Alvarezes wish to continue to enjoy their tree, which has been there for many years, without placing its viability in peril due to the construction that [the Katzes] wish to undertake.”

The Court observed that if the Alvarezes had the right to have their tree encroach onto the neighboring property, the obvious next question would be to what extent the encroached-upon property owner must suffer such an encroachment. The Supreme Court admitted that on some occasions the “exercise of self-help may result in the immediate or eventual loss of an encroaching tree, given the long-recognized rule in Vermont and its widespread support elsewhere, we decline to depart from the common-law rule in favor of the approach adopted by the superior court.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, September 10, 2018

A KINDER, GENTLER MASSACHUSETTS RULE

We saw last week that they’re some pretty tough nuts out in Washington. Ironically known as “The Evergreen State,” Washington law holds that if I hack off the roots or branches of your tree up to my property line, even if it ensures that your tree will end up in a “never-green state,” which is to say, dead, dead, dead.


Today, we’re looking at the other side of the country and, for that matter, the other side of the coin. New York State takes a much more liberal view of things. Every homeowner still has the first prong of the Massachusetts Rule at his or her fingertips (or the tip of the chainsaw). That is, a landowner may trim branches or roots up to the property line.

However, there is a caveat. New York has codified some of its common law. That is, it has tried to distill some of the court-made law from years and years of jurisprudence into its statutes. One such code relates to real estate law, and is called of New York Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law.

Called the RPAPL, an unpronounceable acronym if ever there was one, that code contains § 861, which makes a landowner liable for “despoiling” a neighbor’s tree without the neighbor’s permission. In today’s case, the court let the Fliegmans go forward with their complaint that construction contractors hired by their neighbors, the Rubins – while not setting foot on their land – nevertheless caused three Fliegman trees to topple but cutting roots that had grown into the Rubins’ property. The Rubins had the right to cut encroaching roots, the court held, but not so as to harm the tree’s support structure.

Fliegman v. Rubin, 781 N.Y.S.2d 624 (S.Ct. 2nd Dist., Nov. 20, 2003). After three large trees located on Agi and Mendel Fliegmans’ property fell, damaging their home, they sued their next-door neighbors Liebel and Dorothy Rubin, as well as their contractors. The Fliegmans argued that the trees fell because of an excavation on the Rubins’ property as part of a house construction project.

They sued, claiming negligence, trespass and violation of New York Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law § 861, Action for cutting, removing, injuring or destroying trees or timber, and damaging lands thereon.

The trial court threw out the Fliegmans’ suit, and they promptly appealed.

Held: The Fliegmans could recover damages.

The fallen trees at issue were located on the Fliegmans’ property, but their roots and branches encroached onto the Rubins’ property. At common law, adjoining property owners – such as the Rubins – are permitted to trim tree branches and roots which encroach onto their property from a neighboring lot. However, the appellate court said, the right to self-help is limited, in that an adjoining landowner’s right to engage in self-help “does not extend to the destruction or injury to the main support system of the tree.”

New York RPAPL 861(1) provides that “if any person cuts down or carries off any wood, underwood, tree… or otherwise despoils a tree on the land of another, without the owner’s leave… an action may be maintained against him by the owner…” This is in accordance with common law principles, the Court held.

RPAPL 861 does not require that a trespass occur in order to impose liability. Insteas, damages may be recovered under the common law and pursuant to RPAPL 861 if a tree is, among other things, “cut down or despoiled even if the defendants herein did not enter onto the plaintiffs’ property.”

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Friday, September 7, 2018

WASHINGTON STATE – GREAT COFFEE, GREAT VISTAS… AND GREAT CONFUSION

I have to confess that, although I am a proud Midwesterner, I love the State of Washington. Temperate rain forests, soaring mountains, beautiful lakes, great coffee, greater beer, and Seattle in the sunlight.

OK, not so much about the sunlight. But for that, Washington is two fantastic states, the first being a lush and moist paradise west of the crest of the Cascades, and the other being a sprawling, sunny and semi-arid plain east of the mountains.

Despite my love of the place, I was unstinting in my criticism yesterday about how the Mustoe court had sanctioned an “anything goes” culture in Washington, in which a landowner could misuse the Massachusetts Rule to kill a neighbor’s tree by indiscriminate cutting of roots and branches, regardless of effect. As long as you stay on your own property, you can trim branches and roots with a backhoe bucket, if you so choose.

Today’s case is every bit as puzzling as is Mustoe, but in quite the opposite direction. One set of neighbors hacked branches off a boundary tree to the point that the other set legitimately feared that it was so unstable it would fall. The second set of neighbors then retaliated, taking the rest of the branches off the tree. That stabilized the tree trunk, but had the unfortunate side effect of killing the tree.

Neighbor One, who lacked not for chutzpah, sued Neighbor Two for timber trespass. The courts found Neighbor Two liable for treble damages under the State’s timber trespass statute, regardless of the fact that Neighbor One’s reckless trimming without position created a hazard tree, and the need for the drastic remedy that killed the tree.

The Court in today’s case candidly “acknowledge that under Mustoe and our holding here, it would appear that a property owner has greater rights with respect to trimming a neighboring tree than a tree standing on a common property line with a neighboring property. This outcome is the result of applying a statute to a situation that was not likely contemplated upon the statute’s drafting. Our legislature may clarify the statute’s applicability to boundary trees in future legislation.”

Of course, part of the problem may be that the lawyer for the Pelayos (Neighbor Two) failed to remember that the best defense is often a good offense. He did not file a timber trespass claim against the Herrings (Neighbor One), which would have placed their misconduct into play. To be sure, in any fair world, the Herrings’ conduct in removing all the branches overhanging their property also violated RCW 64.12.030, and should have mitigated, if not outright excused, the Pelayos’ cutting in response.

Herring v. Pelayo, 397 P.3d 125 (Wash.App. Div. 2 2017). The Herrings and Pelayos are neighbors. In December 2011, the Herrings hired a tree trimmer to remove some branches from a tree located on the common property line. The Herrings did not discuss their plan to remove branches from the tree with the Pelayos prior to the work. When they discovered the trimming, the Pelayos believed that the work had caused the tree to become unbalanced, constituting a danger to their home. Three weeks after the Herring trimming, the Pelayos had a tree trimmer to remove all the remaining branches from the boundary tree, causing the boundary tree to die. Like the Herrings, the Pelayos did not discuss their plans with the neighbors before the work was done.

The Herrings sued, claiming a timber trespass in violation of RCW 64.12.030 or, in the alternative, regular garden-variety trespass in violation of RCW 4.24.630. At trial, Jose testified that he knew the tree at issue was on the common property line, he told the tree trimmer to remove all of the remaining branches from the tree, he did not discuss his plan with the Herrings, (4) the tree was alive prior to the removal of the remaining branches, and (5) he believed that removing the remaining branches would kill the tree, which it did.

The Pelayos’ tree trimmer, Tim Jones, testified that he believed the tree was a danger to the Pelayos, and he had recommended that they. Tim stated that remove the entire tree or, at least cut off all the remaining branches. But Tim also told the Pelayos that they could remove a top portion of the tree to balance it, and Tim admitted that he might have been able to remove some of the remaining branches to render the tree safer without killing it.

The trial court held that the Pelayos committed timber trespass under RCW 64.12.030, and their defense of mitigating circumstances, allowed by RCW 64.12.040, did not apply.

Held: The Pelayos had to pay.

Jose and Blanca Pelayo argued that the trial court failed to find that their conduct in removing the branches from the boundary tree was both (1) willful and (2) without lawful authority. Without those findings, they contended, they could not have violated RCW 64.12.030.

RCW 64.12.030 provides that “whenever any person shall cut down, girdle, or otherwise injure, or carry off any tree… on the land of another person… without lawful authority, in an action by the person… against the person committing the trespasses… any judgment for the plaintiff shall be for treble the amount of damages claimed or assessed.” Washington law is clear that there must be an element of willfulness on the part of the trespasser to support treble damages under RCW 64.12.030. In this context, the Court said, “willful” simply means that the trespass was “not casual or involuntary.” The burden of proving that a trespass was casual or involuntary is upon the defendant once the fact of trespass and the damages caused thereby have been shown by the plaintiff.

Here, the Court said, the Pelayos never argued and no evidence ever suggested that the trespass was casual or involuntary. Under those circumstances, it was not necessary for the Herrings to prove willfulness.

Jose admitted at trial that he knew the Herrings had an ownership interest in the boundary tree and that he had ordered the remaining branches to be removed from the tree knowing that such removal of branches would kill the tree. The Court said his testimony “was tantamount to a concession” that the conduct in removing the branches was willful. No other evidence would have let the trial court infer that this conduct was casual or involuntary. Therefore, no specific finding as to willfulness was required.

Next, the Pelayos argued that they were lawfully authorized to remove branches from the boundary tree that were overhanging their property. The Court made short work of that argument as well.

RCW 64.12.030 applies only to people acting without lawful authority. A landowner has the legal authority to engage in self-help and trim the branches and roots of encroaching onto his or her property. On the other hand, a landowner does not have legal authority to cut down an encroaching tree. But here, the issue was whether a landowner may trim the branches of a tree standing on a common property line in a manner that a defendant knows will kill the tree.

The Court began by holding that trees standing directly on the property line of adjoining landowners are the common property of both landowners. The Pelayos contended that landowners had an unfettered right to trim branches that overhang their property regardless of whether the tree is situated entirely on a neighboring property or, instead, is situated on a shared property line.

Despite Washington State’s rather cavalier treatment of a tree owner’s rights vis-à-vis the neighbor in the Mustoe decision, the Court concluded that where the tree stood on a common property line, both the Pelayos and the Herrings had undivided property interests in the tree. This was consistent with the only other relevant decision on matter, a Washington appellate decision in Happy Bunch LLC. Because the Pelayos has a property interest in the tree at issue, the Court reasoned, portions of the tree overhanging their property could not be said to be “encroaching” in the same way that the branches and roots were encroaching in Mustoe.

The Pelayos and Herrings owned the tree as tenants in common, and thus each couple was entitled to use, maintain, and possess the boundary tree, but not in a manner that “interfered with the coequal rights of the other cotenants.” Unlike a landowner engaging in self-help to trim branches overhanging his or her property from a tree situated entirely on the property of another, the Court ruled, a cotenant owning a boundary tree had a duty not to destroy the common property and thereby interfere with the rights of the other cotenants.

After all, the Court argued, if landowners had an unfettered right to cut away the portions of a common boundary tree that stand on their property, without any regard for whether such cutting would injure or destroy the tree, the timber trespass statute could become inapplicable to neighbors sharing a property interest in a boundary tree. Under the Pelayos’ argument, the Court complained, a neighbor sharing a property interest in a boundary tree could effectively destroy the tree and escape liability under the timber trespass statute if the neighbor destroys the tree in a manner that does not physically trespass on the portion of the tree situated on the neighboring property. “This result cannot withstand the plain language of RCW 64.12.030,” the Court said, “which imposes liability on ‘any person… [who] cut[s] down … or otherwise injure[s] … any tree… on the land of another person’.”

The Court observed that it also had to “give effect to language in the statute shielding from liability conduct that is taken with ‘lawful authority’… In recognition of the long recognized lawful authority to trim overhanging vegetation, the lawful authority to use and maintain property held in common with a cotenant, and the plain language of the timber trespass statute, we hold that where a tree stands on a common property line, the common owners of the tree may lawfully trim vegetation overhanging their property but not in a manner that the common owner knows will kill the tree.”

Because the Pelayos admitted they directed the removal of the remaining branches of the boundary tree, knowing that the removal would kill the tree, they were liable under RCW 64.12.030.

The Pelayos tried to avoid being hit with treble damages under RCW 64.12.040 by arguing that mitigating circumstances applied to their conduct. They said that because they cut the tree branches while standing on their property, they had probable cause to believe that they owned the land where such conduct took place.

The Court rejected that argument, too, holding that RCW 64.12.030 violations involve direct trespass to a tree, not trespass to the land on which the tree grows. The timber trespass statute applies when a defendant commits a direct trespass that causes immediate, not collateral, injury to a plaintiff’s timber, trees, or shrubs, even if the defendant is not physically present on a plaintiff’s property.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, September 6, 2018

FOOTBALL IS BACK!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! High school games every Friday night, our beloved Ohio State Buckeyes (the second most loathed college football team in America, we were chastened to learn last week) on Saturday, and the Super Bowl-bound Cleveland Browns on Sundays.

And Colin Kaepernick is still in the headlines. Life is sweet once again.

In honor of the nascent gridiron season, we resort to cheap metaphors today while considering an unusual and (to us) troubling tree law case. Change the fact pattern by about three feet, and the outcome would have been opposite what the court ruled. That is, if Jennifer’s trees had been growing a yard or so south of where they were rooted, they would have been boundary trees. Neighbors Tony and Xiaoye couldn’t have touched them. But because the trunks and root flares of the conifers were all on Jennifer’s land, Tony got away with whacking away so much root support that Jennifer had to take the three trees down.

“Can they do that?” you ask, because you seem to remember a California case that said otherwise. Good recall, tree law fan. Unfortunately, the answer is pretty much, “Yeah, in Washington, they can do that.” But somehow it seems that the answer ought to be otherwise, that your right to Massachusetts Rule-style hacking at your neighbor’s tree should be informed by some kind of a duty not to kill the tree in the process.

Trigger warning: the outcome of this case is tragic for the trees involved, and those sensitive readers among us who cower at the sound of chainsaws might be needlessly upset.

Mustoe v. Ma, 371 P.3d 544 (Wash.App. 2016). Jennifer Mustoe had two large Douglas fir trees located entirely on her property, about three feet from the property line. Her neighbors were Anthony Jordan and Xiaoye Ma. In October 2013, Tony dug a 18-20-inch deep ditch on his property along the border of Jennifer’s lot. In the process, he exposed and removed the trees’ roots, leaving them to extend only 3-4 feet from the trunks, a loss of nearly half of the trees’ roots, all from the south side of the trees. The trees were thus exposed to southerly winds with no support, making the damaged trees likely to fall on Jennifer’s home.

The landscape value of the trees was estimated to be $16,418; the cost of their removal was estimated to be $3,913.

Jennifer filed suit against Xiaoye and Tony, asserting that Tony had negligently, recklessly, and intentionally excavated and damaged her trees. The trial court dismissed Jennifer’s claims, holding that Tony was entitled to remove those portions of roots that had encroached onto his and Xiaoye’s property and that in so doing, he did not owe Jennifer a duty of due care to prevent damage to the trees.

Jennifer appealed.

Held: The Court rejected Jennifer’s claims.

Jennifer started out a field goal behind, because she was compelled to acknowledge that Washington law lets an adjoining landowner engage in self-help and trim the branches and roots of a neighbor’s tree that encroach onto his or her property. Yet, Jennifer argued, the right to self-help does not extend to removing the tree itself, and the State’s common “does not immunize a landowner against liability for damage to the trimmed trees” and argues that the Court should hold that in exercising self-help, a landowner owes a duty of care to prevent damage to the trees themselves.

Jennifer thought she’d put one through the uprights and tie the score, but the Court played Lucy to her Charlie Brown. The law was clear, the Court said, that an adjoining landowner may trim only those branches or roots that encroach on his own property, but did not hold that a landowner owes a duty to act in good faith or reasonably to prevent damage to the trees.

Jennifer also claimed that under state law, all members of society owe a broader legal duty to their fellow citizens and must not use their own property to the injury of others. She cited an exception to the common enemy doctrine in water trespass cases as an example of this duty. The common enemy doctrine allows landowners to dispose of unwanted surface water in any way they see fit, without liability for resulting damage to their neighbors, but a “due care” exception requires that a landowner change surface water flow in good faith and in such a way as not to cause unnecessary damage.

The Court rejected Jenn’s comparison, observing that no court had ever extended the “due care” exception beyond surface water. The Court said, “Surface water is a common enemy precisely because it is a force of nature which may indiscriminately affect any landowner. As such, each landowner may defend against it so long as he or she does not do so in a manner that unnecessarily redirects the wrath of the common enemy upon a neighbor. Unlike surface water, tree roots and branches are not a force of nature which indiscriminately wreak havoc among adjoining landowners. Instead, they are an encroachment upon the land of one’s neighbor.

Jennifer, facing second and long, argued that Booska v. Patel, a California case, found that adjoining landowners had a duty to act reasonably in trimming encroachments where neighbors’ trees were concerned. Citing a decision from the other end of the country, Jennifer argued that in Fliegman v. Rubin, a New York court – relying on Booksa – reversed the trial court’s summary dismissal of plaintiff’s claims for damages to his trees allegedly resulting from the defendant’s severance of roots that had encroached on to his property. The Fliegman court held there was an issue as to whether severance of the trees roots damaged plaintiff’s trees because “the right to self-help is limited, in that an adjoining landowner’s right to engage in self-help ‘does not extend to the destruction or injury to the main support system of the tree… .'”

Jennifer’s court was unswayed, holding that Booska and Fliegman appeared to be “outliers.” In Alvarez v. Katz, the Vermont Supreme Court rejected the holdings in Booska and Fliegman, finding that the “right to cut encroaching trees where they enter the land of another, without regard to the impact on the encroaching tree by such cutting, is well established under Vermont law.”

Here, the Court was likewise persuaded that the law in Washington was consistent with the general rule as applied in Vermont.

Pinned deep in her own territory on third down, Jennifer aired it out. She contended that her nuisance action against Tony and Xiaoye should go forward because Tony’s excavation and removal of tree roots was unreasonable in relation to the harm it caused to her trees. A nuisance is an unreasonable interference with another’s use and enjoyment of property. RCW 7.48.010 defines an actionable nuisance as “whatever is injurious to health or indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to essentially interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of the life and property.

The fundamental question in a nuisance issue is whether the use to which land is put can be considered reasonable in relation to all the facts and circumstances. Tony argued that Jennifer had no action for nuisance because she has no legally recognized right. The Court agreed that Jennifer had not established that she has any legal cause for complaint or interference with the lawful removal of the roots on Ma’s property.

A nuisance claim will fail if it is nothing more than a negligence claim “in the garb of nuisance” unless the negligence claim has merit. Where the alleged nuisance is a result of the alleged negligent conduct, the rules of negligence are applied.

Here, Jennifer’s nuisance claim arose from Tony’s actions that damaged the trees; the nuisance is the result of his alleged breach of duty. But there was no breach of duty: because Jennifer’s negligence claim failed, her nuisance claim did, too.

On fourth down and a mile, with only a few seconds left, Jennifer threw the Hail Mary. She complained that she was entitled to damages under the timber trespass statute, RCW 64.12.030. The statute reads, “Whenever any person shall cut down, girdle, or otherwise injure, or carry off any tree, … timber, or shrub on the land of another person, … without lawful authority, in an action by the person, city, or town, against the person committing the trespasses or any of them, any judgment for the plaintiff shall be for treble the amount of damages claimed or assessed.”

Alas, the ball fell short. By its own terms, the Court said, the timber trespass statute applied only to persons acting without lawful authority. Because Tony did not act unlawfully when he removed roots that encroached onto his property, the claim fails.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 5, 2018

ALL YOUR TREE ARE BELONG TO US

If you were not following Internet culture (as oxymoronic as that phrase may be) back in 2001, you might not recognize the badly-mangled taunt “All your base are belong to us,” derived from the poorly-translated Japanese video game, Zero Wing. It became a cult classic in 2001, and the melodious strains of the techno dance hit Invasion of the Gabber Robots can be heard in some of the goofier corners of the ‘Net – and there are plenty of those – to this very day.

allyourbaseOver the past week, we have looked at Colorado’s unusual and needlessly complex approach to boundary trees. Yesterday and today, we are looking at another approach, one that is simple, clean and efficient.

In today’s case, an elm tree stood on the boundary line between the Ridges and the Blahas. One can almost imagine Mr. Blaha — who was tired of the mess the elm made every fall — announcing to the tree that “you are on the way to destruction!” But the problem was that, contrary to Mr. Blaha’s belief, all the tree’s base did not belong to him, at least not just to him. Rather, the base of the tree straddled the property line between the Blaha homestead and the Ridges’ house.

Unlike the Colorado decision of Rhodig v. Keck, which we discussed in our review of Love v. Klosky last week, the Illinois court did not require that the plaintiff show who had planted or cared for the tree. Instead, its analysis was simple: the tree grew in both yards, and thus, the Ridges had an interest in the tree, as did the Blahas. This made the landowners “tenants in common,” and prohibited either from damaging the tree without permission of the other.

The Illinois view, exemplified here and in yesterday’s discussion of Holmberg v. Bergin,  is the more common approach that Colorado’s “husbandry” test, and it prevails in the United States. Here, the Court issued an injunction against Mr. Blaha prohibiting him from cutting down the tree. For great justice.forgreatjustice

Ridge v. Blaha, 166 Ill.App.3d 662, 520 N.E.2d 980 (Ct.App. Ill. 1988). The Ridges sought an injunction against the Blahas to prevent them from damaging an elm tree growing on the boundary line between their respective properties. After living with the elm for many years, the Blahas tired of the tree’s unwanted effects and decided to remove it with the help of an arborist. The Ridges were not consulted, however, and when arborist Berquist came to remove the tree, plaintiffs objected that the tree belonged to them and that they did not want it destroyed.

Growing_TreeThe evidence showed that the base of the tree extended about 5 inches onto the Ridges’ property, but that the tree trunk narrows as it rises so that at a height of 1.25 feet, the trunk is entirely on Blahas’ side of the line. Photographs were also introduced which showed the tree interrupting the boundary line fence. The trial court found that no substantial portion of the elm’s trunk extended onto the Ridges’ property and that, as such, they did not have a protectable ownership interest in the tree. The Ridges appealed.

Held: The Ridges had a protectable interest. The Court held that the fact that a tree’s roots across the boundary line, acting alone, is insufficient to create common ownership, even though a tree thereby drives part of its nourishment from both parcels. However, where a portion of the trunk extends over the boundary line, a landowner into whose land the tree trunk extends had protectable interest even though greater portion of trunk lied on the adjoining landowners’ side of boundary. That interest makes the two landowners tenants in common, and is sufficient to permit the grant of an injunction against the adjoining landowner from removing the tree.

Move Zig.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 4, 2018

WHEN A TREE GROWS ACROSS A BOUNDARY – AND CAUSES A NUISANCE

Trees often don’t start out straddling property lines. Rather, they sprout as carefree saplings, but later grow above and below the ground without regard for metes and bounds.

Do you remember Flap Your Wings? It’s a great children’s book by P.D. Eastman, a story in which Mr. and Mrs. Bird suddenly find an oversize egg in their nest, placed there by a well-meaning stranger who found the orb on the ground and wrongly deduced it had fallen from the tree. They love and care for the egg, but it hatches into something that unexpectedly becomes a real nuisance in their nest. A great book with a happy ending… but no spoiler alert needed here. We won’t tell you what hatched.Flap

When the Bergins planted a tree on their land in 1942, they had little idea that it would grow into a big problem. The tree thrived over 25 years, a great oak from a little acorn having grown, so to speak. (All right, it was an elm, but you take the point… ) It expanded from its modest plot toward and across the boundary line with their neighbors, in the process knocking the neighbors’ chain link fence out of line, raising the sidewalk and causing drainage problems.

The Holmbergs argued that the tree was a nuisance, and demanded that the Bergins remove it. The Bergins argued that the tree was a boundary tree, and it thus belonged to both the neighbors and to them commonly. They thus could not be seen to be maintaining a nuisance.

The Court disagreed with the Bergins’ defense, ultimately adopting the rationale of the Colorado case of Rhodig v. Keck. It was the intent of the parties, the Court ruled, not the location of the tree, that governed whether the tree was a boundary tree.

Little trees don't stay little

Little trees don’t stay little…

Here, the Bergins planted and maintained the tree exclusively. They and the Holmbergs neither treated nor intended the elm to be a boundary tree. Instead, the tree ended up straddling the boundary only by an accident of growth. No matter where the tree had grown to encompass, it remained the Bergins’ tree, and the court found it to be a nuisance.

The damage wrought by the tree makes an interesting comparison to the 2007 Virginia decision in Fancher v. Fagella on encroachment and nuisances. The tree’s shallow root system made remedies short of removal infeasible, and the roots seemed to run just about everywhere. The case is an excellent illustration of how the facts of the particular growth at issue can drive a court’s decision.

Holmberg v. Bergin, 285 Minn. 250, 172 N.W.2d 739 (Sup.Ct. Minn. 1969). The Bergins and Holmbergs were adjoining landowners in Minneapolis. In 1942, the Bergins planted an elm tree on their property about 15 inches north of the boundary line, and they have maintained the tree and have exercised sole control over it since that time. The Holmbergs bought their place 10 years later, and constructed a chain-link fence on their property 4 inches south of the common boundary line. When the fence was completed, the tree was 6 inches away from it and 2 inches away from the boundary line, so the tree did not touch or interfere with the fence.

By 1968, the tree was 75 feet high, with a trunk diameter of 2 1/2 feet, and it was protruding about 8 inches onto the Holmberg’s property. Its roots extended onto Holmberg’s property and pushed the fence out of line, making the use of a gate in the fence impossible. The tree was close to both houses and the roots, being cramped for room, have pushed up a large hump in the ground around the base of the tree. The roots raised the ground level from the base of the tree to the Holmbergs’ sidewalk and caused it to tip toward their house, resulting in drainage into their basement.

To fix the problem, the Holmbergs were forced to construct a new sidewalk, which — because of the tree roots — promptly cracked as well. The Bergins’ property value property would depreciate by $5,000 if the tree were removed.

Over the Bergin’s complaint that the tree was a boundary tree, the trial court found that the tree was a nuisance and ordered it removed by the Bergins at their own expense. No damages were awarded to the Holmbergs due to their failure to take advantage of earlier opportunities to remove roots. The Bergins appealed.

The parties had never agreed that the tree would mark their boundary - and this was important to the court

     The parties had never agreed that the tree would mark their boundary – and this was important to the court.

Held: The tree was a nuisance. The Supreme Court held that something more than the mere presence of a portion of a tree trunk on a boundary line is necessary to make the tree itself a ‘boundary line tree’ so as to bring it within the legal rule that it is owned by adjoining landowners as tenants in common.

Whether the tree marks the boundary depends upon the intention, acquiescence, or agreement of the adjoining owners or upon the fact that they jointly planted the hedge or tree or jointly constructed the fence.

Nothing in the record discloses any intention of the parties that the tree mark a boundary line between the properties. The law is clear that one cannot exercise his right to plant a tree in such a manner as to invade the rights of adjoining landowners. When one brings a foreign substance on his land, he must not permit it to injure his neighbor. And, the Court held, an injunction against the continuance of a nuisance — such as the one issued by the trial court — may be proper if it is necessary to a complete and effectual abatement of the nuisance.

– Tom Root
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