Case of the Day – Monday, December 21, 2020


We’re heading into the teeth of the winter storm season, with The Weather Channel continuing its silly practice of naming foul weather systems: the last one was Winter Storm Gail. The aptly-named Gail, delivered plenty of snow and wind to New England.

The wind reminds us of the case we’re writing about today. We’re not suggesting that the case has an Association to the 1960’s hit. But it was windy one night near the musical instrument capital of the world, and many trees in Elkhart County were blown over. The county crews worked diligently through the night cleaning up the mess, but Marvin Hochstetler rode his motorcycle down a dark county road in the predawn hours, he found a tree the county hadn’t gotten to — and he found it the hard way.

As he recuperated from his injuries, Mr. Hochstetler hired a canny personal injury attorney. The problem was that that the Indiana Tort Claims Act had an exemption carved out for conditions arising from inclement weather. Our intrepid cyclist’s response was two-fold: (1) this was so long after the storm (a whopping four hours) that it no longer qualified as storm damages; and (2) if the County hadn’t been negligent in maintain roads and trees prior to the storm, the limb he hit wouldn’t have been there. He lost in the trial court, but the Court of Appeals agreed with Hochstetler.

The Indiana Supreme Court wasn’t buying, however. It upheld the trial court, finding that the unrebutted evidence told of widespread damage and hard-working repair crews through the nighttime hours. To agree with Mr. Hochstetler that the limb with which he had become intimately familiar should have been removed prior to 5 a.m. was to hold the County to too high a standard.

mccrash150227Hochstetler v. Elkhart County Highway Dept., 868 N.E.2d 425 (Sup.Ct. Ind., June 20, 2007). At around 1 a.m. on June 12, 2001, Elkhart County was hit by a strong storm that produced many fallen trees and limb. The county started dispatching crews about 1:30 as calls began coming in to the highway garage. There were eventually 56 reports of fallen trees on county roads as a result of the storm.

Among these reports, received about 2 a.m., was a call about a tree down on County Road Four, north of State Road 120. It turns out that County Road Four is some seven miles long, and State Road 120 does not intersect with it. Riding his motorcycle sometime very early that morning, Marvin Hochstetler struck a tree that had fallen across County Road 4.

Hochstetler contended the erroneous report was about the tree he hit. Hochstetler sued the highway department, the county commissioners, and the county sheriff, alleging that they were negligent and careless in maintaining the county road. The county defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of immunity under the Indiana Tort Claims Act. The trial court granted them judgment.

The Court of Appeals reversed.

The Indiana Supreme Court then heard the case.

association150227Held: The county defendants prevailed. A provision of the Indiana Tort Claims Act provides immunity for losses resulting from temporary conditions of public thoroughfare that result from weather. The Supreme Court held that the provision applied to county highway, sheriff’s departments and county commissioners insofar as the personal injuries went that Mr. Hochstetler claimed to have sustained when he hit a tree that had fallen on a county road.

The unrebutted evidence showed that the storm produced scores of trees and limbs down on roads, county highway crews were on the job almost immediately, and highway crews were still at work hours after storm had passed in middle of the night. The Court agreed that state and local governments may have tort responsibility for damages flowing from negligence, but the Tort Claims Act grants immunity for that negligence under certain specified circumstances. This was one such circumstance, the majority held.

The plaintiff tried to get around the weather exception by arguing that the weather-related hazard went on too long after the storm, and that there was an issue of fact whether poor design and maintenance — not the storm — was responsible. One judge thought the plaintiff had enough of a point so as to survive summary judgment, but the majority of five judges prevailed.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Friday, December 18, 2020


bad160311Every so often, a case comes along that so warms the cockles of our hearts that we just have to share it, despite the fact that it may not be terribly relevant to tree or neighbor law. But it’s the Friday before Christmas Week. Under normal circumstances, no work would be done today because of the annual office party. But there’s no party this year. For that matter, there’re no office, either.

But let’s pretend there is, and instead of working, we are kicking back with some eggnog, enjoying today’s wonderful tale from Delaware.

The case began as a rather prosaic trespass. The homeowners, part of what is essentially a condo association, put their kids’ swingset and play gear on common land. Even after demand was made, the family refused to remove it, so the homeowners association —nonprofit corporation — sued the family for trespass.

Luckily for the homeowners (and we say that with a bit of irony), one of the couple was a lawyer, in a law partnership with his father. The two attorneys proceeded to turn a simple trespass case — in fact, a case which shouldn’t have happened at all, because the trespass was as plain as the nose on your face — into a legal circus, with multiple affirmative defenses and counterclaims. Perhaps the most creative defense: the homeowners claimed that the association was engaged in age discrimination, because the case dealt with a child’s playset, and children are… well, you get, they’re young.

"But, Your Honor," the defendant's lawyer argued, "it was just a tiny little swingset!"

“But, Your Honor,” the defendant’s lawyer argued, “it was just a tiny little swingset!”

We were a bit in awe at lawyer Ramunno’s creativity and legal legerdemain, but the trial court wasn’t. Believe it or not, there are rules against too much creativity and virtuperativeness — embodied in Delaware and many other states, as well as the federal system (see Fed.R.Civ.P. 11) — and here, the Chancery Court held that the Ramunnos and their attorney paterfamilias had crossed the line. What started out as a simple request to “move the playset” ended up a judicial order to “move the playset” … and to pay over $11,000 in the plaintiff’s legal fees.

We love a happy ending.

Fairthorne Maintenance Corp. v. Ramunno,  2007 Del. Ch. LEXIS 107, 2007 WL 2214318 (Del.Ch., Jul. 20, 2007).  This started out to be a simple case. Louis and Melanie Ramunno own a residence in the Fairthorne development of Wilmington, Delaware. To the rear of their residence is a portion of the 34 acres of private “open space” that is collectively owned and maintained by all of the homeowners in the Fairthorne development through a non-profit corporation known as Fairthorne Maintenance Corporation. By placing a playset, a park bench and other items on about 150 feet of the open space, the Ramunnos trespassed on common association property controlled by FMC. They resisted all demands that they remove it.

fix160311FMC sued for trespass. So far, so good. But Mr. Ramunno was a lawyer, and his partner was his father, who according to the account by the court was a zealous — perhaps over-zealous — advocate. The Ramunnos raised nine affirmative defenses and five counterclaims in their answer, which, they claimed, excused their conduct or required judgment in their favor. The trial court was so taken by the “apparent frivolity” of the answers and counterclaims (for example, the Ramunnos demanded that FMC pay for their playset because it didn’t provide any itself) that it threatened lawyer Ramunno with sanctions).

The Ramunnos backed off of seven of the nine defenses and all but one counterclaim. They then agreed to remove the personal property from the open space, but the parties couldn’t settle because the Ramunnos refused to pay FMC’s legal fees.

Held:   The trial court found that the “simple reality of this case is that the Ramunnos have been trespassing on FMC’s land since December 2005 and have been using this litigation to stall FMC’s landscaping and other projects in order to continue to enjoy the fruits of their trespass.”

You want a lawyer who won't clown around ...

You want a lawyer who won’t clown around …

The Ramunnos argued that as homeowners in Fairthorne they were privileged to use the open space for recreational purposes and therefore were permitted to place their play set there because it occupied little space and could be removed. But the Court held that the playset was large, designed to be permanent, not easily moved, and, in fact, it was never removed from the open space once placed there. Even if the Ramunnos had had some license to use the open space along with Fairthorne’s other residents, the Court said, they impermissibly exceeded that authority.

Trespass can occur despite “authority under [a] license to enter the property” because the actions taken exceed the permission given. It was no defense that the play set only occupied 150 square feet of the 34 acres of open space because there is no de minimis exception to trespass liability.

The court found that the Ramunnos had argued tangential issues designed solely to help them delay the legal consequences of the trespass. The arguments had unduly burdened the court, intentionally delayed resolution of the underlying dispute, and purposefully wasted FMC’s resources. Thus, under Chancery Rule 11, the Court found that the Ramunnos and their counsel, Attorney Ramunno, had acted in bad faith, and the Court ordered a shift of responsibility for fees under the “bad faith” exception to the traditional American Rule. The Court specifically “address[ed] a troubling pattern of conduct engaged in by Attorney Ramunno that does not befit an officer of this court. That conduct began with an adolescent letter writing campaign during discovery, continued with a procedurally improper and substantively baseless letter seeking the court’s recusal from this action, and culminated in the filing of a host of frivolous arguments that were made without sufficient grounding in law and fact.

The Court explained that “the attorney’s duty is one of reasonableness under the circumstances; a subjective good faith belief in the legitimacy of a claim does not alone satisfy the requirements of Rule 11. Where that obligation is not upheld, sanctions, including the imposition of the opponent’s costs, may be imposed. This is so even when frivolous claims are withdrawn.”

Based on a persistent abuse of the litigation process, the Court found that sanctions under Rule 11 were appropriate, and ordered the Ramunnos and their lawyer to pay FMC legal fees of $11,355.93.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Thursday, December 17, 2020


cops150225Many people find it hard to believe that until about 50 years ago or so, a citizen was largely without remedy when federal employees violated his or her Constitutional rights. Oh, sure, if the feds beat a confession out of you or took your stash of B.C. Bud without a warrant, you might get the confession suppressed or the fruits of the illegal search excluded from your trial. But this pretty much meant that only the guilty could get their Constitutional rights vindicated. For the truly innocent – like the readers of this blog – suppression seems like a pretty pale palliative.

What if you were like Webster Bivens, whose door was kicked in by drug agents who had the wrong house? In Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), the Supreme Court said that when the government, its agents, its employees, or even its minions, breach a person’s Constitutional rights, a remedy must exist. (For a state/local version of this, look at Anjanette Young, the naked, frightened social worker whose door was kicked in (mistakenly it turned out) by Chicago police).

Badboys150226Since that time, Bivens actions have been employed (mostly without marked success) by citizens whose rights have been allegedly trampled by federal agents and employees. A lot of those citizens are not in very good positions to begin with (as you can see here at our sister blog). But some are just average Joes, like rancher Charlie Robbins. He bought a ranch whose predecessor had given the federal Bureau of Land Management an easement. But the BLM knuckleheads never recorded it, so when Robbins bought the place, he took the ranch free of the easement. BLM demanded he sign another one. He refused.

What followed was a disgraceful reign of harassment which caused one BLM official to resign, saying “[i]t has been my experience that people given authority and not being held in check and not having solid convictions will run amuck [sic] and that [is] what I saw happening.” But the BLM’s war of attrition was one of a thousand petty slights — trespasses, spurious administrative sanctions, even videotaping of his guests — and Mr. Robbins didn’t have the money or energy to litigate every one of them.

Too bad for him. The Supreme Court held that there was no Constitutional remedy for the non-stop harassment by government employees. Instead, the victim must bankrupt himself or herself by litigating the slights as they occur. It’s like suggesting that the best remedy for a death by a thousand cuts is a thousand Band-aids. And to add insult to injury, the Court held that what would be extortion if inflicted on an East Side shopkeeper by the Mob is perfectly lawful is practiced by a government employee to gain an advantage for the government.

"Nice place," BLM told Rancher Wilkie. "Can we harass you out of it, maybe?"

“Nice place,” BLM told Rancher Wilkie. “Can we harass you out of it, maybe?”

Wilkie v. Robbins, 551 U.S. 537 (2007). Robbins’s Wyoming guest ranch was a patchwork of land parcels intermingled with tracts belonging to other private owners, the State of Wyoming, and the federal government. The previous owner granted the United States an easement to use and maintain a road running through the ranch to federal land in return for a right-of-way to maintain a section of road running across federal land to otherwise isolated parts of the ranch. When Robbins bought the ranch, he took title free of the easement, which the Bureau had not recorded.

Robbins continued to graze cattle and run guest cattle drives under grazing permits and a Special Recreation Use Permit (SRUP) issued by the Bureau of Land Management. Upon learning that the easement was never recorded, a BLM official demanded that Robbins re-grant it, but Robbins declined. Robbins claims that after negotiations broke down, BLM employees began years of low-level harassment of him in order to force him to re-grant the BLM easement. This harassment included an unauthorized survey of the desired easement’s terrain and an illegal entry into Robbins’s lodge. In each instance, Robbins had a civil damages remedy for trespass, but he did not pursue it because the isolated trespass had caused inconsequential damages. BLM at the same time began vigorous — perhaps unduly vigorous — enforcement actions against Robbins, including administrative claims for trespass and other land-use violations, a fine for an unauthorized road repair, and two criminal charges.

Robbins had the opportunity to contest all of the administrative charges. He fought some of the land-use and trespass citations, and challenged the road repair fine as far as the Interior Board of Land Appeals, but did not seek judicial review after losing there. He exercised his right to jury trial on the criminal complaints, and the jury acquitted him after only 30 minutes deliberation. Although the quick verdict tended to support Robbins’ baseless-prosecution charge, the federal trial judge did not find the Government’s case thin enough to justify attorney’s fees, and Robbins appealed that ruling too late.

Extortion is ugly, no matter whether the Mob or Uncle Sam is behind it.

Extortion is ugly, no matter whether the Mob or Uncle Sam is behind it.

BLM also cancelled a right-of-way given to Robbins’s predecessor in return for the Government’s unrecorded easement, a 1995 decision to reduce the Robbins’ special recreational use permit duration from five years to one, and termination of the SRUP and a grazing permit in 1999. Robbins also alleged BLM employees videotaped his ranch guests during a cattle drive, and they attempted unsuccessfully to pressure a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee to impound Robbins’s cattle. Robbins has an administrative, and ultimately a judicial, process for vindicating virtually all of these complaints. Instead, he filed a claim against the BLM employees he alleged had orchestrated and carried out the low-intensity warfare against him to pressure him into granting BLM an easement, claiming that they had violated his due process rights under color of their office, relying on Bivens v Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a Supreme Court case from the 1970s that permitted citizens to sue federal employees who had violated their constitutional rights. Robbins also claimed the employees had engaged in RICO (Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) conduct by blackmail and extortion (a so-called Hobbs Act violation) in order to obtain a new easement. The trial court threw out the suit, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it. The BLM sought review from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Held: The Supreme Court dismissed the case against the BLM employees. The Court held that a landowner did not have a private action against BLM’s employees for damages of the sort recognized under Bivens, and the alleged violations of the Hobbs Act and state blackmail statutes by BLM employees in their efforts to obtain an easement over landowner’s property for the exclusive benefit of the Government did not qualify as a predicate RICO offense.

The Court said that trying to induce someone to grant an easement for public use was a perfectly legitimate purpose, and, as a landowner, the Government had a valid interest in getting access to neighboring lands. To permit a lawsuit to redress retaliation against those who resist Government impositions on their property rights would invite claims in every sphere of legitimate governmental action affecting property interests, from negotiating tax claim settlements to enforcing OSHA regulations. The Court observed that Congress is in a far better position than a court to evaluate the impact of a new species of litigation against those who act on the public’s behalf. At any rate, the Court said, the Hobbs Act does not apply when the federal government is the intended beneficiary of extortionate acts by government employees. given that the alleged conduct did not fit the traditional definition of extortion

The Court found it noteworthy that Robbins had had judicial and administrative remedies for all of the minor annoyances, harassments and inconveniences which he, in the aggregate, claimed merited a Constitutional rights lawsuit. He did not pursue many of these remedies, and those he did pursue he often did not pursue to the end. Given that the wrongs he complained of were not without remedy, the Court was uncomfortable with trying to create a new one, especially one which it feared would spawn so much litigation.

Two justices dissented in part to the decision.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Wednesday, December 16, 2020


It started out harmlessly enough. About 65 years ago, the owner of a piece of land gave some neighbors an easement to use a gravel driveway over his property in order to get to their own houses. But time marched on, the grantor of the easement moved elsewhere, and a few conveyances later, Chris Clark and his wife owned the property over which the easement ran (the “servient estate,” we call it).

The Clarks apparently liked neither the easement nor the easement holders. Chris argued that the easement and the driveway it surrounded were in the wrong place, but that complaint seemed to just be a makeweight for his general irritation over there being an easement at all. Trees and shrubs overgrew the gravel driveway, but  when the easement holders would try to trim them back, Chris and his wife would threaten them, even calling the police on one occasion. Chris erected stakes and signs marking what he thought was the proper easement, leaving a width more suitable for a rattlesnake to negotiate than a car or pickup truck. It got so bad that even the fire department complained it could not get to the easement holders’ homes in the event of fire.

You could have made it easy, Chris. Read your deed, note the easement it reserved to the dominant estate, and then just go with the flow for a change… But not you: you’re the guy who intends to take the “ease” out of easement, but all you ended up doing – several years and a lot of legal fees later – was to find yourself under a permanent injunction that left you a lot more restricted than you would  have been if you had just shook hands with your neighbors and made it easy.

You can’t spell “easement” without “e-a-s-e,” but you can without “l-a-w-s-u-i-t” if you put your mind to it.

Crittenden v. Clark, 2018 Ill.App.Unpub. LEXIS 2236 (Ct. App. Illinois, Dec. 18, 2018). The Crittendens and some of their neighbors had a permanent easement over Chris Clark’s property for purposes of getting to their residences and businesses. The easement was improved with a gravel driveway, but memories clouded over exactly where the easement lay. Over the years, trees and bushes encroached on part of the easement, eve as Chris got increasingly steamed at the easement holders.

For their part, the easement holders were equally unhappy with Chris. Whenever they attempted to maintain or improve the easement by removing the trees and shrubs, or even just fixing potholes, Chris threatened them and called the cops. Later on, Chris placed signs and metal stakes inside the easement area. The distance between the signs and stakes did not allow the easement holders to get through. Additionally, it was impossible for fire, emergency, and waste removal vehicles to properly access their properties.

There had been numerous other arguments between the holders and Chris related to the maintenance and use of the easement. Chris even threatened to move the driveway at one point.

Finally having had enough, the Crittendens and five neighbors sued Chris for a declaratory judgment that they had an “exclusive right to reasonable maintenance of the Permanent Easement at their expense to preserve their ingress and egress without unreasonable interference” from Chris. They requested an injunction prohibiting Chris “from interfering with the full rights of ingress and egress over the Permanent Easement, including a mandatory injunction ordering Defendant to remove the existing impediments to such access.” The Crittendens demanded attorney fees.

The trial court granted the injunction, ruling that the easement was 20′ wide and 13.5’ tall, and inside the easement area, Chris was prohibited from “inserting any object that would restrict or impede the use of the drive portion of the easement” by the easement holders. The injunction gave Chris until November 30, 2016, to trim the trees and remove any impediments, after which the easement holders could remove trees, shrubs and impediments that interfered with the easement.

Chris appealed.

Held: The permanent injunction was affirmed.

Chris argued that the trial court erroneously granted a permanent injunction. He said the court should have simply affirmed “the existence of the Subject Easement as platted,” which he claimed should just be a 10-12 foot-wide gravel driveway rather than allowing the Crittendens to improve the easement with a wider drive. Chris argued that the court materially altered the easement, placed a greater burden on his servient estate, interfered with his use and enjoyment of the land, and exposed him to liability to the electric utility, because the wider easement purportedly invaded the utility’s easement. Chris argued the easement holders suffered no irreparable harm and the equities did not favor their position.

The Crittendens cited trial evidence supporting the court’s finding that defendant unreasonably interfered with their rights under the easements.

An easement is a right or privilege in the real estate of another. The Crittendens and their neighbors, the Court said, as the owners of the dominant estates, are entitled to the “necessary use of the easements.” This means such use as is “reasonably necessary for full enjoyment of the premises,” including the right to maintain the easement. Easement holders may not, however, for the mere sake of convenience, “materially alter the easements so as to place a greater burden on the servient estate or interfere with the use and enjoyment of the servient estate by its owner.”

Chris, the Court said, as the owner of the servient estate may use his property for any purpose that is consistent with the easement holders’ use of the easement, provided Chris’s use does not materially interfere with or obstruct the use of the land as a right of way. The reasonableness of the use of an easement presents a question of fact that depends on the circumstances of the case.

Here, the Court ruled, the trial judge’s findings were supported by the evidence, and the injunction was not an abuse of discretion. Chris insisted the easement was only the existing 10-12’ wide drive, but the evidence showed the easement area is about twice that width. The rule is that the owner of a right of way for ingress and egress has the right to use the full width of the area or strip having definite boundaries, unhampered by obstructions.

This case depended a lot on witness credibility, and Chris’s habit of preventing the Crittendens from maintaining the drive, placing delineators and signs along the drive that made it impossible for two cars to use it at the same time, and planting lilacs within the easement area, did not help his case. The Court of Appeals held that “instead of altering the parties’ rights and obligations with respect to the easements, it is apparent that the trial court merely intended to allow plaintiffs to restore the drive to something approximating what it believed were the dimensions prior to the mid-2000s. It seems that the court also had safety concerns in mind.” The width the trial court allowed for the easement comported with a fire chief’s testimony about the requirements for this drive as a fire apparatus access road.

The Court dismissed Chris’s fear that he might encounter problems with ComEd if the width of the drive was changed, noting that the Crittendens’ easement predated ComEd’s utility easement, and ComEd’s own evidence showed that there was no clearance issue.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Tuesday, December 15, 2020


What do you call a guy who volunteered to help his father-in-law cut down a tree, and who witnessed first-hand the risk that a branch would bounce back and endanger the workers, but then went ahead and clobbered himself by – guess what – letting a branch bounce back and hit him?

So what do you call a guy who breaks both wrists doing that, and then sues his father-in-law?

This case illustrates the various rungs of the guest ladder that a person standing in your front yard might occupy. The bottom rung, of course, is slimy trespasser. The top would be owner. In between are business invitee, social invitee and licensee.

Dumber thought he could promote himself to the status of licensee, as though he were an employee of his father-in-law (who must have been a tolerant soul to let his daughter marry this guy). The Arkansas Supreme Court knocked him down a few rungs, but undoubtedly made him feel better by explaining that the rung did not matter. Patient father-in-law had not just warned him of the danger, but he had shown him the danger and how to ensure it did not come to pass.

Some people simply won’t learn.

Young v. Paxton, 316 Ark. 655, 873 S.W.2d 546 (Supreme Court of Arkansas, 1994). Don Young brought a negligence action against his father-in-law, Gerald Paxton, for injuries which he sustained on Gerald’s land as a result of trimming limbs from a tree. Gerald successfully moved for summary judgment. Don appealed, arguing that material issues of fact remained to be decided, including whether he held the status of a licensee or invitee on Gerald’s property, and whether Gerald’s negligence was the proximate cause of his injuries.

On a fine June Saturday, Don walked over to his father-in-law’s house in Saline County. There he found Gerald trimming the limb of a hardwood tree with a chainsaw while standing on a 20-foot extension ladder. The tree was over 15 feet tall with limbs drooping to the ground. Gerald had previously cut three or four limbs down.

The ladder Gerald was using rested against the limb which he was attempting to trim. As he began to cut the limb which the ladder was leaning against, the limb began to rise as the weight from the severed part fell away. Gerald asked Don to get a rope from his shop. Don located a rope and returned to the tree, and at Gerald’s request he threw him the rope.

Gerald then wrapped the rope around the limb. Don held the rope while standing on the ground to prevent it from “bucking” and dislodging the ladder when the cut part of the limb fell away. As Don held the limb securely with the rope, Gerald cut the end of the limb and climbed down the ladder.

Gerald then showed Don where to place the ladder in order to cut another limb. The ladder was placed against the designated limb, and Don climbed up with the chain saw and proceeded to cut it. This occurred five minutes after Gerald cut the limb with Don’s help. When the weight of the cut part fell away, the limb rose and the ladder lost its support, causing Don to fall. Because of the fall, Don badly hurt both wrists.

Don sued Gerald for $25,000 in damages, alleging that Don was a licensee on Gerald’s property and that his injuries were proximately caused by Gerald’s failure to supply proper tools for use to perform the task which he asked Don to perform; failure to properly supervise the cutting; and failure to secure the limb.

Gerald filed for summary judgment, arguing that Don had admitted that he was a licensee on Gerald’s property and that there was no proof that Gerald had violated any duty owed Don by acting willfully or wantonly towards him. Gerald argued that Don knew or should have known the dangers posed by cutting branches from the tree. In the alternative, the motion stated that as a matter of law Don had failed to present any proof that Gerald’s conduct proximately caused his injury.

Don then filed an amended complaint, alleging that Don came onto Gerald’s property at Gerald’s express or implied invitation and acted for the parties’ mutual benefit by cutting the branches. Don further alleged that as an invitee Gerald failed to use ordinary care to avoid injury to him because Gerald knew or reasonably should have known that danger existed.

The trial court granted Gerald’s motion for summary judgment, and Don appealed.

Held: Don will collect not a dime.

The Court noted that an invitee may be a public invitee or a business invitee. A business visitor is one who enters or remains on land for a purpose connected with the business dealings of the owner. A public invitee is invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public.

However, one who goes upon the premises of another with the consent of the owner for his own purposes and not for the mutual benefit of himself and the owner is not an invitee but a licensee. The Supreme Court declined to extend the invitee status to persons on the premises of another primarily for social reasons.

The law of negligence requires as essential elements that a plaintiff show that a duty was owed and that the duty was breached. A property owner owes his or her licensee the duty to refrain from causing the licensee injury by willful or wanton conduct, and as well owes a duty to warn of hidden dangers or risks. To constitute willful or wanton conduct, there must be a deliberate intention to harm or an utter indifference to, or conscious disregard of, the safety of others.

But, the Court reuled, the duty to warn does not extend to obvious dangers or risks that the licensee should have been expected to recognize. Indeed, there is no obligation to protect the invitee against dangers which are known to him, or which are so apparent that he may reasonably be expected to discover them and be fully able to look out for himself.

The Court said an invitee may be a public invitee or a business invitee; a business visitor is one who enters or remains on land for a purpose connected with the business dealings of the owner, while a public invitee is invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public. However, one who goes upon the premises of another with the consent of the owner for his own purposes and not for the mutual benefit of himself and the owner is not an invitee but a licensee; invitee status has not been extended to persons on the premises of another primarily for social reasons.

Where there was no evidence that Don was invited onto the property he was not visiting his father-in-law for any stated business purpose and expected no pay for his assistance, no reasonable jury could have found otherwise and, thus, no material issue of fact existed on this point. What’s more, the Court found, there was no evidence that Gerald acted willfully or wantonly to cause Don any injury. In fact, the evidence showed that Gerald advised Don that the limb would have a tendency to rise as the weight from a severed branch fell away, and Don had even seen it happen a few minutes before when he helped Gerald when faced with the same risk. Even if Don had not known of the risk when he arrived, the court said, that risk was brought to his full attention before the accident.

It is a landowner’s duty to use ordinary care to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition for an invitee, the Court said, but that duty usually is satisfied when the danger is either known or obvious to the invitee. There is no obligation to protect an invitee against dangers which are known to him, or which are so apparent that he may reasonably be expected to discover them and be fully able to look out for himself.

So, the Court concluded, regardless of Don’s status as licensee or invitee, Gerald did not breach the duty of care owed. He perpetrated no willful or wanton injuries on Don, who was well aware of the danger involved in the limb cutting.

Because breach of a duty owed is an essential element in a cause of action for negligence, and that element was lacking, Gerald was fully entitled to summary judgment.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, December 14, 2020


Dick, Jane and Mom have fun at the Zoo ... as long as they can dodge the falling trees.

Dick, Jane and Mom have fun at the Zoo … as long as they can dodge the falling trees.

Simon and Garfunkel told us that the monkeys stood for honesty, the giraffes were insincere, and the elephants were kindly but dumb. We don’t know about that, but they were right when they sang that “it’s all happening at the zoo.”

Just ask Ms. Cherney. She’d tell you that Simon and Garfunkel failed to mention were the ficus trees. One ficus at the Zoo — the North Carolina Zoological Park — fell on poor Ms. Cherney, injuring her. That began an eight-year legal odyssey through the North Carolina legal system, through the Industrial Commission (which hears tort claims made against the state), the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court, back to the Commission, and again to the courts.

In the penultimate chapter, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that Cherney had no evidence that the Zoo personnel had any basis to believe the ficus was about to fall. Of course, the evidence also suggested that the whole idea of having a ficus growing too large in an indoor setting and not being properly maintained was rather daft. And whose fault was that? The beavers, perhaps?

A dissenting judge vigorously disputed this, pointing out that the tree had been cabled to a wall to help support it. The very fact that the Zoo believed that cables were needed was evidence that they knew the tree was a hazard, the dissenter argued.

Usually, dissenting opinions are curiosities, but little more. On three-judge appellate panels, 2-1 majorities carry the day. Despite the fact the dissenter probably thought he was talking to himself, he nonetheless explained in detail how the record supported finding the Zoo liable. This time, however, the dissenting judge found that he had some fans – the justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The Supremes reversed the Court of Appeals in a terse per curiam opinion (that means “by the court”) agreeing with Judge Wynn’s analysis.

bracing150225This kind of thinking does raise a conundrum. Bracing or cabling a tree is a well-established practice in arboriculture. There’s even an ANSI standard for it. Could it be that cabling a tree may be prudent from an arboriculture standpoint but legally dangerous? A careful tree professional would probably take from this decision the notion that he or she would be well advised to tell any client for whom a tree is cabled or braced that the very fact the tree was braced means it should be considered to be a hazard tree. That of course would bring with it responsibilities for regular inspection and – just ask Ms. Cherney – notice to people who could be affected if the tree falls.

Cherney v. North Carolina Zoological Park, 648 S.E.2d 242 (N.C.App., Aug. 7, 2007), reversed, 362 N.C. 223, 657 S.E.2d 352 (N.C. Supreme Court, 2008). Tinya Cherney was in the enclosed African Pavilion at the North Carolina Zoological Park near the center when a large ficus tree fell hitting a palm tree. Both trees then fell on her, pinning her to the floor of the walkway in the African Pavilion. The impact caused vertigo, broke her right femur, cracked three ribs, broke her back and wrenched her knee.

The injury occurred because the ficus tree — which was indoors – had been permitted to grow too large for its roots, or alternatively, had not been properly maintained to prevent it from becoming unsafe. The ficus tree was under the exclusive control of the Zoo’s personnel and not subject to wind or any other natural force. A hearing examiner at the North Carolina Industrial Commission awarded Cherney $500,000 in damages. Unhappy at the result, the Zoo appealed.

If your tree needs to be cabled like this, it's time to let it go - preferably not onto a passerby.

If your tree needs to be cabled like this, that could mean it’s time to let it go – preferably not onto a passerby.

The full Commission reversed the award and found for the Zoo. Cherney appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Commission’s claim. She took it the North Carolina Supreme Court, which reversed and remanded. The Commission then entered a second decision denying Cherney’s claim. She again appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that the Commission’s second decision denying Cherney’s claim was proper, even though the Supreme Court had ruled in her favor on her appeal from first decision of the Commission denying her claim. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Commission’s finding that the evidence showed that neither the zoo’s curator of horticulture nor her staff knew or should have known that the ficus tree that fell in the zoo exhibit was likely to fall, and that there was no showing that any member of the curator’s staff violated any applicable standard of care.

In a carefully-crafted dissent, Judge Wynn observed that the evidence showed that when the ficus tree was replanted, “six, seven-strand 3/8 ” cables going in four directions were looped around the tree and attached to the planter walls” in order “to aid the tree in keeping it upright and to assist in monitoring the tree.” The cables were inspected monthly by the Zoo staff. Two of the four cables had snapped when the tree fell on Ms. Cherney. The judge argued that the “very fact that the tree was cabled to the planter walls illustrates that the Zoo and its employees had “express or implied knowledge” that the tree might fall; if there had been no danger, then the tree would not have needed to be cabled in such a fashion, nor would the Zoo employees have needed to monitor it so closely.”

bracingb150225The dissent argued that the question was not whether the tree was likely to fall, as the Commission thought it was. Rather, the issue was whether a Zoo visitor such as Ms. Cherney or one of the tens of thousands of kids who passed through each year – was unnecessarily exposed to danger and was not warned of a hidden hazard. The dissent believed that they were, and the Zoo had a duty to warn visitors of the possibility that the tree might fall.

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the appellate panel, and specifically adopted Judge Wynn’s reasoning as its basis for doing so.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Friday, December 11, 2020


burgerk150223Today’s case appears at first blush to be nothing more than a titanic conflict between a fast food purveyor and a strip mall, hardly the material that will get a tree or neighbor law fan’s blood pumping. But it illustrates a few worthwhile points.

A Burger King and a Long John Silver’s sat next to each other in Bay City, Michigan. The owners of the lots agreed to mutual easements so that patrons of each could use a common driveway while their arteries clanged shut from the cholesterol and trans fat. The easements were written without benefit of a legal description of the land subject to the easement (perhaps to save the $300 or so a surveyor would have cost). Sometime after that, the Burger King was dethroned, and the restaurant was torn down. The buyer of the land, the strip mall next door, tore down the BK and expanded the mall. In so doing, the developer built over where one of the access drive easements lay (although the actual common driveway had never been constructed).

The Long John Silver’s crew observed the construction, but the company didn’t complain until the construction was completed. Then, the fish folks sought an injunction in federal court to get the offending building torn down. The Court agreed that the mall developer had violated the easement, but the facts that the remedy was so drastic (tearing down the building) and the fact that Long John Silver’s sat on its complaint during the construction, and said nothing when the mall developer could have remedied the problem easily. That is called “laches,” and the law doesn’t think much of people who engage in it.

The case wasn’t resolved at that point, but Long John Silver’s was more likely to just win the difference in value of the real estate (about $35,000, or 1,591 8-piece family meals). But the lesson is that if you sit on your rights and permit the other party to really damage you, you may be severely limited in your remedies.

The lesson of laches - don't sit on your rights.

The lesson of laches – don’t sit on your rights.

BR Associates, Inc. v. LaFramboise, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46036, 2007 WL 1840031 (E.D.Mich., June 26, 2007). BR operated a Long John Silver’s restaurant just west of a busy intersection in Bay City, Michigan. LR owned a commercial plaza east of the Long John Silver’s at the intersection itself. In 2004, a Burger King had operated on the LR site, but it closed and the site was sold to LR. LR demolished the Burger King and added on to its existing plaza, making space for five new tenants. BR’s fish fryers were aware of the construction, and they informed BR’s corporate offices of the activity.

BR never complained during the construction. But after LR was done, BR claimed that the plaza blocked an easement arising out of a written agreement entered into by BR and the old Burger King owner, in which BR and the prior owner gave a mutual “perpetual, non-exclusive easement” for the customers of each other to use two driveways (the “North Access Drive” and the “South Access Drive”) on the easement areas, which were the boundaries of the two properties. Under the easement, the parties had the right “to relocate from time to time and in each party’s own discretion, those driving aisles and ingress and egress points located on their own Parcels … provided that such relocation does not adversely effect the other party’s right to use the Easement Area … [and] upon the mutual written agreement of the parties hereto.” Apparently, the contemplated South Access Drive was never constructed when the Burger King still operated. The easement agreement did not specify the width or the length of the access drives nor did it have a legal description of the areas. LR did not get BR’s permission to move the North Access Drive, nor did it have permission to completely block the South Access Drive, which it did as a result of the construction.

BR sued LR for trespass during the construction, but mostly for breach of the easement agreement, seeking an injunction to compel LR to honor the easement. BR contended that LR’s conduct violated the easement agreement and placed an increased burden on the easement. LR’s actions constituted a trespass, in BR’s view, and created additional wear and tear on BR’s parking lots. Finally, LR’s activities interfered with BR’s business. BR claimed that the easement agreement simply did not contemplate loading and unloading of vendor vehicles as well as parking or that LR would use BR’s property for uses beyond simple customer ingress and egress contemplated by the easement agreement.

LR argued that any recovery for breach of the easement agreement should be limited to $35,000, because BR’s appraiser valued its property with the easement at $650,000 and without the easement at $615,000. BR and LR both moved for summary judgment on all issues.

Imagine 1,591 of these monster meals - that's probably what the damages will buy.

Imagine 1,591 of these monster meals – that’s probably what the damages will buy.

Held: BR was entitled to summary judgment on some claims, and others would go to trial. The District Court noted that Michigan law defined an easement as the right to use the land of another for a specific purpose. In order to create an express easement, there must be language in the writing manifesting a clear intent to create a servitude. Any ambiguities are resolved in favor of use of the land free of easements. The plain unambiguous language of an agreement controls the determination of whether breach has occurred.

Here, the Court said, there could be no dispute the LR breached the express terms of the easement when it constructed the addition to the plaza. The easement agreement provided that an “access drive” could only be relocated upon the mutual written agreement of the parties. LR didn’t contend that it got BR’s consent. Instead, it claimed that the South Access Drive never came into existence at all. No curb cut was made, and the electrical installations otherwise blocking the south access drive preventing its use were never removed. The parties’ course of performance, LR argued, demonstrated that there never an intent to open the south access drive.

But the Court found that the parties’ mutual intent was clearly expressed in the plain language of the easement agreement, which granted BR a “perpetual, non-exclusive easement.” The fact that one of the access drives hadn’t been built, the Court said, provided no basis for the Court to depart from the language of the agreement. However, the Court said, requiring LR to remove the building blocking the south access drive was unjustified, because BR waited until construction was complete to seek any type of relief and it couldn’t identify the specific dimensions of the South Access Drive, because neither party required that level of precision in the easement agreement. It would be difficult if not impossible, the Court said, to fashion such injunctive relief to the extent of the breach. Finally, destroying the structure would necessarily be economic waste.

The Court refused summary judgment on BR’s remaining issues, denied summary judgment on all of LR’s issues, and set trial dates.

– Tom Root