Case of the Day – Monday, October 28, 2019

SWEET BAMBOO

It’s been nearly a year since I wrote about bamboo, which is essentially kudzu with cellulose stalks. A 60 Minutes report on pandas that aired last night reported, among other things, that the anthropomorphic beasts have been eating bamboo for 6 million years.

If that’s so, they certainly have done a lousy job of it.

Bamboo grows at two rates, fast and faster. It invades like the Germans into Russia, a plant so aggressive that landscapers recommend installing a concrete tank in the ground to ensure that its roots don’t go deep and spread into the neighbor’s land. It grows dense and tall, and takes no prisoners.

Florida Power & Light, the defendant in today’s case, considered bamboo a “critical removal” species. When found under FLP lines, bamboo was not to be trimmed. It was to be removed, killed dead, dead, dead.

That didn’t happen in today’s case, and the invasive plant was so high and thick that a teenager climbed it, and died when the bamboo bent over and contacted a live power line.

That’s where the personal injury lawyer came in. PI attorneys are their own type of invasive species. The complaints they file spread far and wide, like bamboo, and can be as aggressive as bamboo itself.

A personal injury case, if successful, results in an award of damages to the plaintiff intended to make him or her whole. You would think that would be straightforward, but the amount is computed by juries, and juries can be fickle. A crying mother who lost her son versus a faceless, soulless electric utility owned by a faceless, soulless holding company sporting a made-up name, Nextera Energy, Inc. That holding company, stock symbol NEE, had net income of $6.6 billion (with a “b”) last year, on total revenues of $16.7 billion.

That’s a lot of money, and it spawns plaintiffs’ attorneys’ arguments I’ve heard many time before: Corporate greed killed the boy, and don’t you think this poor woman deserves at least one half of one percent of FP&L’s obscene profits for her suffering? You, Mr. and Ms. Juror, need to send the defendant a message, and put the other corporate giants like it on notice that it cannot treat people this way.

In today’s case, the jury thought the loss of plaintiff Tricia Dominguez’s son was worth $12.5 million. It seems like a lot to me, but it is not my son who died. The tougher part is that the jury awarded Tricia another $15 million in punitive damages, damages awarded to punish FPL for its greedy and reckless decision to not cut the bamboo.

Punitive damages never made a lot of sense to me. Why should the plaintiff get them? If the object is to be like a fine in a criminal case, shouldn’t the punitive damages be paid to the state? And too often, the punitive damages seem to be as much a penalty imposed on a company for its size or profits as they are for truly abhorrent conduct.

Tricia’s PI attorney used a Florida doctrine known as direct liability, in which a corporation is punished for gross negligence if “there [is] willful and malicious action on the part of a managing agent of the corporation.” It worked, and FPL was socked with $15 million in punitives, despite the fact that the guy who was pilloried for gross negligence was a minor supervisor in a regional office, and despite the fact there was no evidence he even knew about the bamboo stand where the accident occurred.

Last week, a court of appeals threw a healthy dose of reality on the case, and undid the punitive damages.

Florida Power & Light Co. v. Dominguez, 2019 Fla. App. LEXIS 16114 (Ct.App. Fla. 2d Dist., Oct. 25, 2019). In December 2011, 15-year-old Justin Dominguez was climbing a tall stalk of bamboo in his neighbor’s backyard. The stalk bent into a power line, resulting in Justin’s electrocution and death. The boy’s mother, Tricia Dominguez, filed a wrongful death action against Florida Power & Light, arguing FPL was negligent because it ignored its own maintenance and safety standards when it failed to remove the bamboo, a fast-growing and uncontrollable plant, from the area near the line. She further alleged that FPL had been warned about the bamboo at the accident site but still failed to remove it. As a result of this negligence, she argued that FPL created a dangerous safety hazard that claimed her son’s life.

Tricia asked for punitive damages as well as for compensation for her loss, complaining that the accident scene was overgrown with trees so that the power lines were not easily visible in the area around the bamboo. She showed that FPL’s vegetation maintenance procedures explicitly recognized the risk of electrocution posed by foliage encroaching upon powerlines, including the danger to children who climb trees.

Bamboo in particular is a problem because of its aggressive growth rate, so FPL designated it as a “critical removal” species that should be removed outright instead of merely trimmed in the vicinity of power lines. Tricia argued that FPL had been told about the bamboo at the accident site by one of its contractors, who had recommended that it be removed. Despite the recommendation, Tricia alleged, FPL violated industry standards and its own vegetation maintenance policy by not doing so. Tricia asserted that this failure warranted punitive damages because it was the direct result of a corporate policy that prioritized cutting costs and corporate greed over the lives and safety of the general public.

Tricia argued that due to direct liability FPL through the behavior of Barry Grubb, the head of vegetation management for the region in which the accident occurred and the person identified by FPL as being its vegetation management program expert. Tricia ran with that, arguing that Barry was willfully ignorant about the circumstances and hazards surrounding Justin’s death. When answering interrogatories, he claimed that no trimming or other maintenance was necessary at the accident site even though he had never visited the scene himself. At the time of his deposition years later, Grubb [had still not visited the site and had no opinion on the adequacy of the maintenance there. He also testified that he was not familiar with language in FPL’s vegetation maintenance rules about the danger of electrocution from foliage near power lines. In sum, Tricia argued, regional vegetation manager Grubb taken a see-nothing, know-nothing approach. The jury agreed with this assessment and awarded her $15 million in punitive damages.

FPL appealed.

Held: The Court of Appeals upheld the wrongful death judgment, and the $12.5 million in compensatory damages. It reversed, however, on the punitive damages.

Direct liability is one of two theories recognized in Florida through which a corporation may be liable for punitive damages. Under the direct theory, liability for gross negligence is established if the corporation itself engaged in conduct that was “so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct,” and its conduct contributed to the loss of the injured party. Because a corporation cannot act on its own, “there must be a showing of willful and malicious action on the part of a managing agent of the corporation” to establish direct punitive liability.

A “managing agent” is more than just a manager or midlevel employee. Instead, the Court held, a managing agent is an individual like a “president [or] primary owner” who holds a position with the corporation which might result in his acts being deemed the acts of the corporation.

Here, Tricia sought punitive damages under the direct liability theory through the alleged gross negligence of a regional supervisor in FPL’s vegetation management program. At trial, supervisor Grubb was identified as the FPL employee who knew the most about this program, but he was only in charge of the program for a limited geographical area. He also testified that he has a manager himself, and that he does not make policy decisions relating to the program. While his position certainly comes with significant managerial power, Grubb does not qualify as a managing agent of FPL. Overseeing only a portion of FPL’s arborist program, which is itself ancillary to FPL’s primary function of providing electric power, Grubb is at best a midlevel employee more akin to a bank vice president or hotel manager than to a corporate officer or official who could represent FPL as a whole. Because Grubb is not a managing agent for purposes of direct punitive liability, the Court said, the award of punitive damages in this case had to be reversed.

Even if Grubb were a managing agent, punitive damages are only warranted if there is evidence he was negligent “equivalent to the conduct involved in criminal manslaughter.” To be punished by punitive damages, the Court observed, conduct must be “so reckless or wanting in care that it constitutes a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct.

But in this case, trial testimony established that Grubb was not directly involved with the accident and did not know about the details of Justin’s death until years after the fact. Grubb also seemed unaware of specific FPL safety standards cited by Tricia, despite being identified as the person most knowledgeable about FPL’s vegetation program. Whatever negligence a jury may infer from this evidence, the appellate panel ruled, “it certainly does not rise to the level of ‘reckless disregard of human life’ or an ‘entire want of care, which would raise the presumption of a conscious indifference to consequences’.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Friday, October 25, 2019

HE’S A CAD, NOT A TRESPASSER

It does not take very many years in the general practice of law for an attorney to see people at their worst. There’s nothing like watching a loving family, united in grief over the death of a loved one, get torn apart by greed and jealousy when the time comes to probate the will. A close second, however, has to be divorce.

Early on in my career, I witnessed a wife who threw her husband’s expensive shotgun collection into a swamp, and refused – even on pain of jail for contempt of court – to tell anyone where she had bogged the prized Purdeys. Then there was the husband who hid all the money over a three-month period before announcing, “Surprise, I’m divorcing you!” His wife had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and he could not understand why he should spend all the couples’ money on her healthcare when she was just going to die anyway.

One of my favorites was the couple who had agreed to an amicable divorce. They owed about $10,000 on credit cards, so they agreed to jointly borrow the money from the bank to pay off the high-interest debt with a loan which they would share in paying down. The day before the final divorce hearing, the husband called the bank and convinced the loan officer that his soon-to-be ex had asked him to pick up the check. He did, and then forged his wife’s name on the back, took the $10,000, and fled for Florida.

Shortly after he got to the Sunshine State, his mother died and left him $500,000. Using some of the money to get drunk and high, the still-the-husband ran his Harley into a bridge abutment at 95 mph. Since he had never gone through with the divorce, he was still married. Of course the reprobate had no will, so his brother – next in line for the money – got nothing, while my client, the wife (who had been furious at being stuck with the $10,000 loan obligation), got it all. She went to Florida, picked up his new $40,000 truck, all sorts of expensive tools, and the remainder of the money he had inherited (about $420,000). It took two cops to go with her to the family compound of dead hubby in order to pick up the property.

Revenge is sweet.

So why the family law lesson? Because, as we will see in today’s case, trying to screw your ex is never a very good idea. A moment’s visceral pleasure, followed by years (or a lifetime) of regret. Still, the ex-husband, whose in-your-face ripoff of the ex-wife even went to the extent of having her share paid to the new girlfriend, got off easy. When he sold 400,000 board-feet of jointly-owned timber – cheating the ex out of $52,600, the former wife originally got her share plus treble damages under Louisiana’s timber trespass statute (and another $63,000 in legal fees). But the Cajunland Supreme Court ruled that whatever the ex-husband might otherwise be, he was not a trespasser to whom the treble damage statute applied.

Sullivan v. Wallace, 51 So.3d 702 (Supreme Ct. Louisiana, 2010). During their marriage, defendant Bruce Sullivan and plaintiff Janice Sullivan, bought a 120-acre tract of land in Claiborne Parish. The couple divorced in 1990, but they retained the community tract in co-ownership and listed it as an asset in the divorce proceeding. The divorce judgment prohibited the parties from doing anything to sell or diminish the value of community property.

In 1994 and 1995, however, Bruce cut, stacked and sold some of the timber on the property. The checks for the 1994 timber he sold were payable to Bruce’s then-girlfriend and current wife Priscilla Wallace, the defendant’s girlfriend at the time (now wife). The checks for the 1995 timber were made payable to Bruce. In all, Bruce sold over 254,000 board feet, worth over $105,000.

In 1995, Janice learned that Bruce had been cutting and selling timber from their jointly-owned tract. She advised the timber buyer that the property was in litigation, and the buyer immediately ceased removing timber from the property. When Bruce told the buyer there was another 40,000 board feet of timber awaiting pickup, the buyer declined to have anything to do with it.

Janice sued Bruce, his girlfriend Priscilla and the timber buyer, claiming trespass, negligence, and conversion, and seeking treble damages and attorney fees under La. Rev. Stats. 3:4278.1 and 3:4278.2. At trial, Bruce argued the timber had come from his separately-owned but adjoining tract, and that the timber had been damaged by an ice storm and had to be cut. The trial court, noting that the sale receipts predated the ice storm, didn’t believe him. It ruled for Janice, finding that her share of the cut timber was about $52,600.00. To that figure trial court applied La. Rev. Stat. 3:4278.1 to award treble damages, or about $157,800.00, and to award attorney fees in the amount of 40% of the treble damage award, about $63,000.00.

The court of appeal affirmed that Janice was entitled to damages, but it reversed as to the treble damages and attorney fees. The appellate court agreed with Bruce that the timber trespass statute does not apply to co-owners of property, holding that the co-ownership articles of the Louisiana Civil Code provide adequate recourse among co-owners of real property. The appellate court cut Janice’s award to $52,600.00, representing one-half of the value of the lost timber, and vacated the portion of the judgment awarding attorney fees.

Janice petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court for review.

Held: The treble damage statute for trespass to timber does not apply to co-owners who cut timber without consent of the other owners.

The Court observed that the fundamental question in cases of statutory interpretation such as this one is legislative intent and determining the reasons that prompted the legislature to enact the law. The starting point in statutory interpretation the language of the statute itself. When a law is clear and unambiguous and its application does not lead to absurd consequences, the Court said, the law is to be applied as written.

When the language is susceptible to more than one meaning, however, the Court held, it must be interpreted as having the meaning that best conforms to the purpose of the law, and the words of law must be given their generally prevailing meaning. When the words of a law are ambiguous, their meaning must be sought by examining the context in which they occur and the text of the law as a whole, and laws on the same subject matter must be interpreted in reference to each other.

La.Rev.Stat. 3:4278.1, commonly referred to as the “timber trespass” or “timber piracy” statute, provides that it “shall be unlawful for any person to cut, fell, destroy, remove, or to divert for sale or use, any trees, or to authorize or direct his agent or employee to cut, fell, destroy, remove, or to divert for sale or use, any trees, growing or lying on the land of another, without the consent of, or in accordance with the direction of, the owner or legal possessor, or in accordance with specific terms of a legal contract or agreement.” Although the statute is directed to “any person” who cuts, fells, destroys, removes, or diverts for sale or use any trees, the Court said, the statute is facially ambiguous with regard to co-owners of the timberland, neither expressly including nor excluding these persons from its provisions.

When viewed strictly, the statute is violated only when “any person” acts with respect to trees growing or lying “on the land of another” and when this action is taken without “the consent of … the owner or legal possessor.” The timber trespasser owes the penalty to “the owner or legal possessor of the trees,” a phrase the Court said more logically describes a person other than the wrongdoer as described in the statute. What’s more, the timber trespass statute is found within the title of the Revised Statutes entitled “Agriculture and Forestry,” and the Chapter entitled “Forests and Forestry,” and the part entitled “Protection and Reforestation.” Given this context, the Court held, the legislative purpose behind La. Rev. Stat. 3:4278.1 is to protect those with interests in trees from loggers who enter their property without permission to harvest timber illegally. Thus, with the proper construction in mind, the Court said, “the focus of the statute is on an actor other than an owner.”

The Court said the fact that La.Rev.Stat. 3:4278.1 is not directed to co-owners who act without the permission of their co-owners was further supported by considering it in context with La. Rev. Stat. 3:4278.2, the 80% rule, which allows a timber buyer to cut standing timber when the buyer has the consent of co-owners holding 80% or more of the ownership interest. If 3:4278.1 applies to co-owners, then one co-owner who holds more than 80% of the ownership interest and permits timber to be cut in accordance with La. Rev. Stat. 3:4278.2 would nevertheless be liable to the other co-owners for treble damages under 3:4278.1 despite the fact the timber “buyer” would escape the penalty because of La. Rev. Stat. 3:4278.2(B). “Such a contradiction.” The Court reasoned, “cannot be what the legislature intended in enacting these statutes.”

Therefore, Janice was entitled only to her share of the cut timber.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Thursday, October 24, 2019

STUPID LAWSUITS, TREE-TRIMMING DIVISION

The Internet, repository of wisdom that it is, features several videos of people leaning a ladder against a tree branch, climbing the ladder, and then cutting off the branch against which the ladder was leaning.

It is this kind of advance planning (along with every cellphone serving double duty as a video camera) that assures that America’s Funniest Videos will never run out of new material.

The Keystone Cops could not have done it better than the mook named Mook in today’s case. After being told not to trim his friend’s tree, he does it anyway, with a Rube Goldberg ladder, wearing dress shoes and sawing off the branch against which his latter was leaning. Later, he told the paramedics he had no idea what had happened. That’s not surprising… it appears that his brain wasn’t functioning well before the accident happened.

Kun Mook (Kun being his last name) did, however, have the presence of mind to hire a lawyer who was unafraid to bring such a nothingburger of a case. And, amazingly enough, it sort of paid off. Mook sued the landowner, Young Rok Lee, and his minister, Pastor Jang (who was a confederate in the tree-trimming misadventure). The Pastor had insurance, which paid the policy limit of $100,000 as a settlement, before Rok walked away with the win.

So who was the real mook, Mook or the lawyer who advised the insurance company to part with 100-large?

Kun Mook Lee v. Young Rok Lee, Case No. 2-18-0923 (Ct.App. Ill., Sept. 3, 2019), 2019 IL App (2d) 180923; 2019 Ill.App. LEXIS 732. Kun Mook and Young Rok were members of the same church, pastored by Rev. Jang. One day, Kun Mook and Pastor Jang appeared at Young Rok’s house, despite the fact Rok had told them not to appear. Rok did not provide, maintain, or otherwise supply any of the equipment used in the subsequent tree trimming efforts.

Upon looking at the tree limb, Mook said that the work should be left to professionals because the tree limb was too large and too high and the work would be dangerous. Not taking his own good advice, Mook and Pastor Jang unloaded their and attached two ladders with wire in order to reach the needed height. Rok, who had been mowing his lawn in back, came to the front yard and saw what Pastor Jang and Mook were up to, he immediately told the men to stop their efforts, because it was too high and too dangerous. The two men ignored Rok and continued to try to cut the limb off the tree. Rok eventually gave in, and assisted them in their efforts.

Mook thought that the tree limb might damage the roof when it fell after being cut, so Rok tied one end of a rope around the limb being cut and the other end to another limb. The wired-together ladders were placed against limb to be cut. Mook volunteered to climb the ladders to a height of 25 feet while wearing dress shoes and carrying an electric chainsaw. He sawed through the limb with predictable effect. The limb swung free the ladder fell, and Mook was seriously injured.

Mook sued Rok and Pastor Jang for negligence, arguing that Rok failed to provide appropriate tools, safe instruction, a safe place to perform the work, and appropriate safety equipment, and failed to adequately supervise the work and secure the debris. Mook then filed a motion for a good-faith finding, noting that Pastor Jang had insurance coverage for the incident under his homeowner’s insurance policy and that the insurance company had tendered the limits of Pastor Jang’s policy, $100,000, to Mook. The trial court confirmed settlement between Mook and Pastor Jang.

Rok stood as firm as his granite namesake, arguing Mook was more than 50% comparatively negligent and that, even if he had not been, Rok was not liable under the open-and-obvious rule. Specifically, Rok alleged that, at the time Mook fell, he had a duty to exercise ordinary care for his own safety, including the duty to avoid open-and-obvious dangers. Despite this, Rok argued, Mook “breached his duty by carelessly and negligently failing to appreciate and avoid a danger so open and obvious, specifically, two ladders affixed together reaching considerable heights leaned against a tree limb to be cut with an electric chainsaw, that any person would reasonably be expected to see it.”

Held: Mook would collect nothing from Rok.

A plaintiff alleging negligence must show that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, that the duty was breached, and that the breach proximately caused the injuries that the plaintiff sustained. Relationship-induced duty can be inferred if the plaintiff can show that the injury is reasonable foreseeable, the injury is likely, the burden on the defendant of guarding the plaintiff against the injury is slight, and the consequences of placing that burden on the defendant.

A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land, the Court ruled, if but he knows or should know of the condition and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to his invitees, and should expect that they either will not realize the danger or will fail to protect themselves against it. If he knows that or reasonably should be expected to know that, and he yet fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger, he is liable.

However, a possessor of land is not liable to his invitees for physical harm they suffer due to any activity or condition on the land whose danger is known or obvious to them, unless the possessor should anticipate the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness. This is known as the “open-and-obvious” rule.

Here, the Court said, Rok, as a landowner, has a general duty to protect an invitee like Mook, his invitee, from dangerous conditions on his property. Nevertheless, the open-and-obvious rule applies, providing an exception to that duty. This is so, the Court said, because “we fail to understand how any reasonable person could not have appreciated the open-and-obvious danger of tying two ladders together and placing those ladders against a tree limb 20 to 25 feet above the ground, the very limb that he was attempting to cut down. We also find that no exception to the open-and-obvious rule applies here. Kun Mook was certainly not distracted from noticing that he was climbing the two ladders with a chainsaw in his hand. We also find that the deliberate-encounter exception does not apply. No reasonable person would expect that Kun Mook would climb the ladders and cut down the limb — with the top ladder leaning against the limb to be cut — because the advantage of getting rid of the limb outweighed the incredible risk of doing so.”

Besides, the Court said, Mook’s injuries were not foreseeable. “An injury is not reasonably foreseeable,” the Court ruled, “when it results from freakish, bizarre, or fantastic circumstances… The conduct that Kun Mook engaged in here—tying two ladders together, placing the top ladder against the very limb that was to be cut, climbing the ladders with dress shoes on and a chainsaw in this hand, and, finally, cutting the limb that led to his fall constitute, as a matter of law, freakish, bizarre, and fantastic circumstances.”

After initially looking at the tree limb, the Court observed, Mook said that the work should be left to professionals because the tree limb was too large and too high and the work would be dangerous. “Nevertheless, he marched on in the face of that danger, climbing the ladders while wearing dress shoes and carrying a chainsaw. Then he proceeded to cut the limb, against which the top ladder was leaning. As a matter of law, we find that these actions go well beyond a showing of more than 50% liability.”

– Tom Root

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