Case of the Day for Tuesday, March 1, 2016
LINES OF AUTHORITY
A county park had a contract with Green View — a nonprofit company with the laudable goal of putting our shiftless senior citizens to useful work like, say, cleaning up parks — to maintain the grounds. This is a good thing. Otherwise, retirees with their pants drooping to show their underwear and their “tatts” and funny flat-brimmed baseball caps worn sideways on their heads, just hang around and ride their little electric carts up and down streets and … you know what trouble they can be.
Green View’s people were busy staying out of trouble when a tree branch broke off a tree and struck a park patron during a summer storm. Being aware that branches never break off in storms unless someone is negligent, the injured woman sued the county and, for good measure, went after the old people, too. She argued that the elderly working for Green Tree had a duty to inspect the park for branches that might fall off in storms, and they had been too preoccupied with talking about their regularity to carry out their obligations.
In depositions, the Green View people admitted that they had looked for dead trees, but they explained that the county employees were responsible for removal of hazards like that. At least one deponent might have even denounced the plaintiff as a “young whippersnapper.”
The young whippersnapper was, to use a legal term, whippersnapped. The court ruled that neither Green View’s contract with the county nor the job descriptions for its workers included any duty to inspect the trees or warn of their dangers. The county employees — who were immune from suit (if you’re wondering why the old folks at Green View were being picked on to begin with) — all agreed that it was the county’s duty to inspect trees and warn of dangers.
The injured plaintiff couldn’t find any duty that Green View or its senior-citizen workers owed her. Without the duty, there could be no negligence.
Senior citizens humor aside, it is this kind of litigation — and the legal fees Green View undoubtedly had to shoulder to defend an action for which there was no factual basis — that drives beneficial programs like this one (intended to provide meaningful work and activity for seniors) out of business). While an injury like the one the plaintiff suffered was lamentable, the reason branches fall in summer storms is fairly well understood.
Sometimes stuff happens, and suing anyone who happened to be nearby seldom makes it better.
Rolfhus v. County of Wright, Not Reported in N.W.2d, 2001 WL 290525 (Minn.App. 2001). Dawn Rolfhus was seriously injured at a Wright County park in 1997 after a tree branch broke and struck her head during a summer storm. She and her husband sued the county and respondent Green View, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides senior citizens with maintenance and custodial work at state and county parks. Green View had a contract with the county to maintain the park at which Rolfhus was injured.
The county park manager testified that the Green View employees, without discussion, undertook to remove the tree that had fallen on Ms. Rolfhus. Harold Johnson, a Green View employee, admitted to looking for dead trees in the park, but stated that it “isn’t our job to chop down trees or anything like that.” Another employee, Frank Duncan, conceded that he never saw any county employees in the park inspect trees, but that he “knew they did it.” The county employees all testified that it was the county’s duty to inspect trees and warn of dangers, and the Green View employees all testified that it was not their duty to inspect trees or warn of their dangers. The district court granted summary judgment to the county based on immunity, and to Green View based on a determination that Green View had no duty to inspect trees or warn park patrons of dangerous trees. Rolfhus appealed the grant of summary judgment to Green View.
Held: The grant of summary judgment was upheld. The elements of a negligence claim include a duty, a breach of that duty, proximate cause, and injury in fact. Even where no duty otherwise exists, a person who voluntarily assumes a duty may be liable for failing to exercise reasonable care in performing the duty. One who assumes to act, even though gratuitously, may thereby become subject to the duty of acting carefully, if he acts at all.
The Court ruled that neither the language of the contract between the county and Green View nor the pertinent job descriptions created a duty for Green View employees to inspect trees or warn of their dangers. Furthermore, the county employees all testified that it was the county’s duty to inspect trees and warn of dangers, and the Green View employees all testified that it was not their duty to inspect trees or warn of their dangers. There was no issue of fact remaining, and judgment was appropriately entered for Green View.
Case of the Day for Wednesday, March 2, 2016
WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS …
Over the years, things became less so, as several legally significant events occurred. First, the trees got big. As they did, the trunks ended up crossing the boundary line so that the trees were growing on both Curington’s and Lemon’s land. Second, the root systems expanded and began putting the squeeze on Lemon’s foundation. Third, Lemon discovered that if he used self-help, trimming back the roots and topping off the trees, he would make them unstable, turning the poplars into topplers. So Lemon — who was completely soured on the trees by this point — sued Curington, asking that the trees be declared nuisances and that Curington be made to remove them.
Life had given Curington a Lemon, but he tried to make lemonade. He argued that the Massachusetts Rule gave Lemon no aid, and that he was limited to self-help. However, the court relied on the Idaho nuisance statute (noting in passing that the Massachusetts Rule didn’t really apply to a tree growing in both properties at once, a fascinating observation we wish he had explained a bit better), ruling that the trees were nuisances for having damaged Lemon’s foundation. It also seemed important to the Court that Lemon couldn’t trim the tree and roots himself without making the poplar a “danger” tree that was likely to fall.
This case is a gallimaufry of issues — the interplay of nuisance statutes with common law and the interplay of boundary trees with encroachment — as well a rather poorly-thought out dismissal of the Massachusetts Rule for reasons that were unnecessary. After all, the Massachusetts Rule was specific in its limitation to non-nuisance encroachment, twigs and leaves and that sort of thing. The Lemon decision, remarkably similar to the Hawaii Rule (but decided 14 years before the Hawaii Rule was adopted), is also quite similar in its fact pattern to Fancher v. Fagella, a 2007 Virginia Supreme Court decision. In fact, a real argument can be made that this Idaho case was entirely unnecessary in its treatment of the venerable Massachusetts Rule. Michalson v. Nutting, in our view, is a “big tent” with enough room for all of the poplars, sweet gums and banyan trees that followed.
Lemon v. Curington, 78 Idaho 522, 306 P.2d 1091 (1957). Lemon and Curington owned adjoining land with a common boundary, on which two poplar trees had been planted over 50 years ago. The trees had grown to approximately four to five feet in diameter at the base, and the trunks and branches extended across the boundary line. The roots were surface feeders and in one case extended from the boundary line to and against the foundation of Lemon’s house, cracking the house’s foundation. pushing the wall of plaintiffs’ house inward.
If Lemon topped the trees were topped and cut the roots extending onto his land, the trees are likely to fall over. Lemon sued, alleging the trees to be a nuisance, and asked authority to remove the offending trees.
The trial court authorized the destruction of the tree damaging the foundation, but held the other tree was healthy and mature, and thus not a nuisance. Curington appealed, arguing that the Massachusetts Rule limited Lemon’s remedies to self-help, that is, to lemon’s trimming the tree and roots himself.
Held: The tree is a nuisance, and the Court may order Curington to remove it. The Supreme Court held that the Massachusetts Rule was not dispositive where a nuisance had been shown to exist.
The Court said “[w]e think the condition here shown to exist constitutes a nuisance under the provisions of Idaho Code § 52-101.” That statute defined a nuisance to be “[a]nything which is injurious to health … or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.” Here, not only had the tree made a mess of Lemon’s foundation, but the evidence showed that if Lemon cut the roots and topped the tree, the whole thing was likely to fall over. The Court said that statute authorized an action by any person “whose property is injuriously affected or whose personal enjoyment is lessened by the maintaining of a nuisance to have it abated.”
Without explaining its reasoning very far, the Court also said that the fact the tree was a boundary tree, on the properties of both parties, made the Massachusetts Rule inapplicable. So while Lemon reserved the right of self-help, the courts were also available to him to abate the nuisance tree.
Case of the Day for Thursday, March 3, 2016
WHOSE TREES ARE THEY?
No issue of property ownership may be more misunderstood than the question of who owns the tree lawn, sometimes called the boulevard lawn, that strip of land between your front sidewalk and the street.
The confusion was illustrated recently by our reader Joel, who wanted the city to remove a dead tree on his tree lawn. He had always just understood that the tree lawn wasn’t his, and that he couldn’t cut or trim the trees growing there. We straightened him out, but a lot of uncertainty remains.
In today’s case, some homeowners knew the tree lawn was theirs, but their failure to appreciate the limits of their rights led to a suit against the city. It seems that the city was improving the street, and its plan included the removal of four trees from the Foote’s tree lawn. The homeowners demanded compensation, arguing that the city’s removal of the beautiful trees amounts to a “taking” of property under the 5th Amendment, a “taking” for which they must be paid. A trial court agreed with them.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the decision. It explained that the Footes, like any owner, was entitled to use all of his or her property right to the centerline of the street. However, the property was owned subject to a public easement (that’s why a deed always says “subject to all legal highways, easements and other restrictions of record”). In other words, the owner’s use of the land had to yield to the public easement of the highway.
Here, the city was merely using more of its highway right-of-way by expanding the street. As long as it remained within the bounds of its easement — which usually extends beyond pavement for a distance — the city could remove trees and other of the owner’s property to the extent needed for the public’s enjoyment of the easement. The removal of the trees let the public enjoy the easement, and no money was due the property owner because of it.
How wide is the right-of-way? It depends on the state you live in and size of the street. If you have questions, you could check with your local government’s engineering department. Or your lawyer. Lawyers love to answer questions. Usually for a fee.
Foote v. City of Crosby, 306 N.W.2d 883 (Sup.Ct. Minn. 1981). Gene and Joan Foote owned a home in the City of Crosby. The platted right-of-way of the street in front of the home, Cross Avenue, was 80 feet wide and extended to approximately 6 inches from the front steps of the house.
The center 32 feet of the right-of-way was paved. Next to the pavement is a 10-foot wide grassy boulevard, and then a 4-foot sidewalk. On the boulevard were four large healthy elm trees which had been maintained by the Footes. Although the trees had cracked and heaved the sidewalk, there had been no complaints that the trees impeded foot travel, nor had the trees interfered with motorized travel.
The city began an extensive municipal improvement project prompted by the need for storm sewers, including a new lateral line under Cross Avenue. To provide proper grade for drainage, Cross Avenue would be torn up entirely, a plan which called for removal of the four trees, because root cutting necessary to accommodate them to the change in grade and repositioning of the curb and sidewalk would likely kill them. The Footes sued for an injunction, arguing the city couldn’t cut the trees without paying them compensation. The district court granted the injunction, and the city appealed.
Held: The injunction was dissolved. The Court observed that the owner of property abutting a right-of-way for public travel had the right to use his one half of roadway in any manner compatible with use by public of its easement. Any encroachment on the public right-of-way must be clearly obstruction to public easement before municipality may remove it without an adjudication that it was in fact an obstruction.
The Footes were not entitled to compensation for removal of trees within public right-of-way, the Court ruled, although they had a property right in the trees, because the taking was pursuant to a project which was a proper exercise of police power and encompassed a public purpose, and removal of trees was necessary to implementation of the project. After all, the Court said, the removal of the boulevard trees within the platted right-of-way was necessary to the street improvement project, and if not removed, the trees would clearly obstruct the public’s easement of travel.
Case of the Day for Friday, March 4, 2016
Running a swine farm is an odiferous but serious business. When a tree fell onto a power line on his neighbor’s land and interrupted his electricity, farmer Timmerman was glad that Northern States Power came out to his neighbor’s place and promptly trimmed the tree and fixed the lines.
But his relief turned to dismay when 10 minutes after the trimmer left, the remainder of the tree collapsed onto the power line. It turned out the tree that had caused the first outage was completely rotten. The second power failure cut off the ventilation to Timmerman’s hog barn, and 160 pigs met an untimely demise.
Timmerman sued both his neighbor for not having inspected the tree — which had been rotten for at least five years — and the power company for being grossly negligent in trimming the tree. He claimed gross negligence because Northern States Power’s tariffs excluded it from liability except for gross negligence. The trial court turned him down.
The Court of Appeals agreed. It noted that gross negligence is a pretty serious derelection of duty, and that Timmerman’s saying didn’t make it so. The neighbors didn’t have a duty to Timmerman, it held, because he wasn’t an invitee (or even a trespasser) onto its land. It noted that NSP had trimmed the tree to the national code, and meeting a national standard was performance enough.
The decision is a little puzzling, because it’s fairly well established that an owner has a duty to inspect trees (with a degree of care that varies according whether the land is urban or rural). If Timmerman had been driving by and the tree had fallen onto his truck, there might have been liability. Why not for 160 hogs’ worth of bacon?
Timmerman v. Manguson, Not Reported in N.W.2d, 1996 WL 266404 (Minn.App. 1996). Timmerman owned and operated a hog farm, to which Northern States Power provides electrical power. The power lines run north across the Mangusons’ farmland and continue onto Timmerman’s land. One afternoon, limbs on a willow tree located on the Mangusons’ land broke, striking the power line and causing a power outage on Timmerman’s farm.
NSP investigated the site, found the burned tree limb that had struck the power line, and trimmed some branches back. The tree trimmer investigated the trunk of the tree from his position on the power pole, but he did not see any signs of cracking or damage to the tree trunk. Ten minutes after he left the area, the power went out a second time. The trimmer returned to the site and trimmed back the tree sufficiently so that, if it continued to topple over, the tree would not hit the power lines again. The next morning, he called another NSP representative to report the outages and suggest that they send in the tree trimming crew to clean up the area.
The second power outage left about 160 pigs in Timmerman’s barn without ventilation, and despite Timmerman’s efforts, nearly all of the pigs in two of the five rooms in the barn died. The tree turned out to be rotten and, according to Timmerman’s expert witness, “undergrown … or there was a lot of trees in that area.” The expert determined that the tree had been rotting for at least the past five years and posed a significant hazard to the power lines.
Timmerman sued NSP for gross negligence and the Mangusons for negligent maintenance and inspection. Both NSP and the Mangusons moved for summary judgment. The district court granted both motions, finding, as a matter of law, that NSP had not been grossly negligent and that the Mangusons owed Timmerman no legal duty.
Held: The decision in favor of the Mangusons and NSP was upheld. The Court held that gross negligence was substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude than ordinary negligence. It was materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence, an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care.
Timmerman presented evidence that the tree and power lines at issue could not be viewed properly from the road, but required an on-site, on-foot inspection. He also presented evidence that NSP failed to trim the tree near the lines and allowed them to become overgrown with vines and vegetation.- But the Court said that this evidence did not rise to the level of gross negligence. NSP did not demonstrate an “indifference to present legal duty” nor did it act without “scant care” or “slight diligence.”
NSP had most recently trimmed this tree within NSP’s policy of trimming every four years. Since 1990, NSP had routinely checked the power lines at issue here in accord with the National Electric Safety Code (NESC). NSP representatives have viewed the power lines and trees from the road when driving through the area. NSP also trimmed portions of the tree after the first power outage to restore service. Although, the Court found, the evidence suggests that NSP could have more diligently exercised its duties, that evidence only raises the question of ordinary negligence, for which NSP is not liable under its own tariffs.
As for the Mangusons, the Court held that they had no legal duty to protect Timmerman because they did not have a “special relationship” in which Timmerman had entrusted his safety to the Mangusons. The parties’ relationship as neighboring farmers does not fall into any of the limited number of “special relationships” that the Minnesota supreme court has recognized. Although Timmerman contended the Mangusons had a duty to inspect and repair the tree or else warn him of the dangers on their land, the Court held that the theories of duty and liability don’t apply here because Timmerman was not an “invitee” or “licensee” on the Mangusons’ property. Furthermore, the Court said, even if the Mangusons knew the old tree was near the power lines, knowledge of a dangerous condition, by itself, without a duty to protect, was not sufficient to establish liability for negligence.
Given that no legal duty existed, Timmerman’s negligence claim against the Mangusons could not stand.
Case of the Day for Monday, March 7, 2016
LICENSE TO SWIM
One of Harry S Truman’s favorite admonitions was that one should never confuse wishes for facts. In today’s case, Bill Johnson wanted to have the rights to use John Bradley’s lake so much that he convinced himself that he did. But he didn’t.
Up in Shawangunk Ridge country, John Bradley built himself a nature preserve, including rehabilitating an old dam and lake. It was a pretty nice place, so nice in fact that his neighbor, Bill Johnson, found it irresistible.
Bill had property that came within about 10 feet of the lake, and he found it convenient to push the boundaries just a bit so he could boat and swim as well (the court opinion said he used it “for his boating and bathing activities,” and we’d prefer to assume that he wasn’t floating around with a bar of Ivory soap). Property owner Bradley put up fences, sent letters, threatened and cajoled, but nothing seemed to deter Johnson from using the pond as an extension of his place.
Johnson argued he had the right under the deed for his place that had been given to his predecessor in title, Miltie Quackenbush. That deed slapped a number of restrictions on the Johnson land, which included language that held no water rights in the lake were granted “except that the grantee named in this particular instrument and his or her family and the guests of his or her family are hereby permitted to use and enjoy the waters of Tillson Lake for fishing, boating and bathing.” Johnson took this language and ran with it (or swam with it).
Unfortunately, the Court said Johnson was all wet. Johnson said the deed restrictions and covenants “ran with the land,” which means that they applied not just to Milton Quackenbush, but to everyone who ever bought the land after him. The Court disagreed. It said that a restriction or covenant was true where the deed language was unequivocal in doing so. Johnson’s argument sank because the fishing, bathing and boating exception — only one clause in a long list of restrictions and covenants — was clearly limited to the grantee “named in this particular instrument” — and that grantee was Miltie Quackenbush, not Bill Johnson.
State v. Johnson, 846 N.Y.S.2d 671, 45 A.D.3d 1016 (N.Y.A.D. 3 2007). The Awosting Reserve was founded by John Bradley in the late 1950s as a nonprofit organization for the purpose of preserving the natural wilderness of the Shawangunk Mountains. In 1994, Ridge Lake Partners, of which Bradley was a member, bought property that later became Tillson Lake. Ridge Lake got permission from the Department of Environmental Conservation to repair a dam on its land and flood a portion of the property that had formerly been a lake. It did so, clearing, refilling, and safeguarding the newly formed Tillson Lake, including installing a metal fence around the lake and a posting of “no trespassing” and “private property” signs every hundred feet.
The Awosting Reserve bought the lake and adjoining lands in 2002, including Lake Avenue, the only access road to the lake. By a 1994 deed, Bill Johnson obtained title to a parcel of land separated from the lake by a strip of land about 10 feet wide and 60 feet long. Johnson’s deed incorporated by restrictions and covenants contained in the deed from prior grantors Hassie Tillson and Carolyn Tillson to prior grantee J. Milton Quackenbush and Helen Quackenbush, stating “the above described premises are sold and conveyed and accepted upon and under the following restrictions and covenants on the part of the parties of the second part [Quackenbush] their heirs and assigns forever.” The sixth enumerated restriction said that “[n]o water rights in and to Tillson Lake or the inlet thereto or the outlet therefrom is granted except that the grantee named in this particular instrument and his or her family and the guests of his or her family are hereby permitted to use and enjoy the waters of Tillson Lake for fishing, boating and bathing.”
The language of the grant further permitted the grantee “to use and enjoy the waters of Tillson Lake … subject to the rules, by-laws and regulations of the Tillson Lake Property Owners Association, which … may be changed, altered or amended at any time.” The final portion of the Tillson to Quackenbush deed stated that “the above restrictions, agreements and covenants shall run with the land.” Johnson said that since the time of his purchase, he has consistently used, mowed and cleared such strip in order to access Tillson Lake for his boating and bathing activities.
Beginning in 1998, Bradley complained that he regularly saw Johnson trespass on Awosting’s land, cutting timber, mowing the grass and using the lake even after being told repeatedly that he was to leave. Since 1998, the lock on the gate nearest to Johnson’s property was frequently broken and replaced by a lock similar in appearance. In 2002, Bradley told Johnson to remove a dock he had built from Tillson Lake. Two years later, Johnson stacked firewood, parked his vehicle, planted grass seed and erected a wooden fence across a portion of Cherry Street, a private road owned by the Awosting Reserve.
In 2004, the Awosting sent Johnson a letter telling him to get his personal property out of Tillson Lake. When none of these entreaties was successful, Awosting sued Johnson for trespass, seeking a permanent injunction barring him from entering the property or using the lake. Johnson counterclaimed, asserting, among other things, easements by prescription and adverse possession. The trial court granted judgment to Awosting.
Held: Johnson had trespassed, and an injunction issued barring him from further trespass. The Court rejected Johnson’s claim of an easement, holding that to create an easement by express grant there must be a writing containing plain and direct language evincing the grantor’s intent to create a right in the nature of an easement rather than a revocable license. The writing must unequivocally establish that the grantor’s intent was “to give for all time to come a use of the servient estate to the dominant estate.” If there is an ambiguity with regard to the permanency of the restriction placed on the servient estate, it is to be treated as a license or an easement in gross which is revocable at will by the grantor.
Here, although Johnson said that the last portion of the Tillson to Quackenbush deed — which said that “the above restrictions, agreements and covenants shall run with the land” — created an easement entitling him to the use of Tillson Lake, the Court held that the license allowing the specific grantee to use Tillson Lake for boating, bathing and fishing was merely a temporary exception to the enjoining restriction which was intended to run with the land.
Extensive record evidence established Johnson’s trespass both on the Cherry Street property, as well as Tillson Lake. Finding these acts to establish plaintiff’s prima facie burden of a trespass, the Court said, and it was up to Johnson to show that he had either a lawful right to enter these properties or had the owner’s permission. He did not do so.
Case of the Day for Tuesday, March 8, 2016
DON’T SIT ON YOUR RIGHTS
Today’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.
BR Associates, Inc. v. LaFramboise, Slip Copy, 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 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.
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.
Case of the Day for Wednesday, March 9, 2016
AT THE ZOO
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 one thing Simon and Garfunkel didn’t 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.
This 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.
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.”
The 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.
Case of the Day for Thursday, March 10, 2016
WHATCHA GONNA DO WHEN THEY COME FOR YOU?
Many people find it hard to believe that until 35 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.
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.
Since that time, Bivens actions have been employed (mostly without marked success, by citizens whose rights have been allegedly trampled by federal agents and employees. Which brings us to rancher 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.
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.
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.
Case of the Day for Friday, March 11, 2016
YOU’RE A LOUSY LAWYER, DAD
Every 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. Today’s case from Delaware is such a wonderful tale.
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.
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, Not Reported in A.2d, 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.
FMC 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.”
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.
Case of the Day for Monday, March 14, 2016
Yesterday, we saw a tractor-trailer blown off the highway into a snow drift by a bitter north wind. And here we are at Pi Day, already two weeks into first meteorological day of spring, too. Br-r-r-r.
The wind reminded 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.
Hochstetler 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.
Held: 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.
Case of the Day for Tuesday, March 15, 2016
IT WAS SMALL WHEN I PLANTED IT
Times change and trees grow. That’s the lesson in today’s case.
Mr. Paredes was driving along I-805 in the driving rain, transporting his daughters in a superannuated Volkswagen with bald tires. He lost control of the VW and it slid down a bank, colliding with a eucalyptus tree located about 25 feet from an on ramp. His 6- and 9-year old daughters died in the accident, and he was badly hurt.
Normally, one would shake his or her head and observe that Mr. Paredes maybe was going too fast, or driving a junker in weather that was too bad, or perhaps engaging in risky conduct by relying on bald tires. But this being America, it had to be someone else’s fault.
Mr. Paredes blamed Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation. It was the agency’s fault, because the trees were closer to the on ramp than permitted by Caltrans standards, and in fact shouldn’t have been there at all. Only problem was, when the trees were planted, they complied with all standards. Even today, they were more than 30 feet from the road and 25 feet from the on ramp. In other words, Caltrans may have set in motion the factors that caused the damage, but it didn’t create it negligently: the construction complied with all standards when built.
Under the law, the agency had to have actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition. Splitting hairs, the Court found that Caltrans knew that the trees were planted where they were planted: after all, Caltrans had planted them. But, the Court said, Caltrans didn’t have knowledge that the trees, located as they were, were dangerous.
It strikes us as maybe parsing things a little too finely. But as we’ve said before, hard cases make bad law. Here, the jury may have gone off on a frolic, and — notwithstanding all of the expert testimony — figured that Mr. Paredes was a little too much at fault to be entitled to much. The Court of Appeals, which is legally disposed to defend a jury verdict anyway, may have agreed.
Driving 60 mph in a beater of a car with bald tires through heavy rain? So exactly who was negligent here? Some workers who planted a tree 15 years ago or the idiot who jeopardized his most precious possession — two little girls — in his haste to get somewhere?
Paredes v. State, 2008 WL 384636 (Cal.App. Feb. 14, 2008). Marco Paredes was injured and his two daughters killed when Paredes lost control of his vehicle in heavy rain, after which the vehicle slid down an embankment and struck a eucalyptus tree. Paredes claimed that California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) employees created the dangerous condition by creating the slope and planting eucalyptus trees within 30 feet of the on ramp without protecting them with guardrails, demonstrating negligence per se as well as placing Caldrons on notice of the defect.
The jury disagreed. It found that the property was in dangerous condition at the time of the accident and was a substantial cause of Paredes’s injury and the death of his children, but it nonetheless concluded that the State did not have actual or constructive notice of the condition in sufficient time before the incident to protect against it. The jury also found the dangerous condition was not caused by a negligent or wrongful act or omission of a State employee acting within the scope of employment.
Held: The verdict against Paredes was upheld. The Court of Appeals observed that California law held that except as provided by statute, a public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and either a negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.
The law, the Court said, plainly requires a finding that a public entity’s negligent or wrongful acts created a dangerous condition. It does not impose liability for mere creation of a dangerous condition. In this case, the jury was instructed that the plaintiffs had to establish that negligent or wrongful conduct by a State employee acting within the scope of employment created the dangerous condition. The Court concluded that substantial evidence from State’s expert, as well as Paredes’ own experts, supported the jury’s finding that State did not act negligently or wrongfully in planting the accident trees on the slope along the accident site.
The State’s expert explained that the standard applicable at the time of the planting was Caltrans’s “clear zone principle,” which required only that trees be planted 30 feet beyond the traveled way of the I-805 mainline and 20 feet from the on-ramp. For that matter, Paredes’ expert agreed the accident tree was over 31 feet from the edge of the traveled way of the I-805, and 25 feet from the edge of the traveled way of the nearby on-ramp. Another expert explained that a fixed immovable object under the Caltrans clear zone standard was a tree having a trunk with eight inch diameters or greater. The State’s expert testified that a guardrail would not have been required at the site of the accident tree applying standards prevalent at the time of trial.
The testimony of a single witness may be sufficient to establish substantial evidence, the Court said, and here, the jury as the exclusive judge of credibility was entitled to believe defendant’s witnesses.
The Court also concluded that substantial evidence supported the jury’s finding that State did not have actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition. A public entity has actual notice of a dangerous condition if it had actual knowledge of the existence of the condition and knew or should have known of its dangerous character. A public entity has constructive notice of a dangerous condition only if the plaintiff establishes that the condition had existed for such a period of time and was of such an obvious nature that the public entity, in the exercise of due care, should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character.
Here, State employees planted the accident tree as well as other trees on the embankment. But the Court refused to fault the jury’s finding that the public property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the accident required it to also find the State had notice of that condition. On the evidence here, the jury could have concluded that the planting of the young eucalyptus tree on the embankment was not dangerous in 1979 or 1980 when that project was completed, but became dangerous only when its trunk grew to a larger diameter. Thus, while State may have had notice of the physical condition it had created — the presence of trees on the slope — the jury was entitled to conclude it did not have notice that the condition was dangerous. Substantial evidence supported such a conclusion, the Court held.
Case of the Day for Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Mr. Elder drove his dump truck onto the Union Pacific tracks in Nephi, Utah — a town, not a soft drink — where he was promptly hit by what the Utah Supreme Court described as a “ninety-one car train.” It’s unlikely 78 cars or 23 cars or even just a set of GE diesel-electric locomotives would had a less deadly result.
Mr. Elder was killed, and his widow set off trying to find someone to pay for it. She sued the Railroad and the City, suggesting that someone should have trimmed the trees near the tracks so her husband could have seen the train. The UP, which was quite adept in its own right in blaming others for grade-crossing mishaps, had a great excuse: the railroad didn’t own the trees to begin with.
It seems that no one ever remembered to give the Union Pacific title to its right-of-way, due to — what else? — a federal government screw-up back in the 19th century. However, the ever-resourceful Mrs. Elder argued, the Railroad had acquired all of the land under and around the tracks by prescriptive easement. She was thus in the unusual position of arguing in the lawsuit that the defendant Railroad was entitled to own a big piece of land on which it had been squatting for a hundred years — and was therefore liable for not keeping up the land it had never claimed it owned — all at the same time.
Pretty creative lawyering! But the Utah Supreme Court held Mrs. Elder had no standing to claim the UP’s prescriptive easement on its behalf, probably because the Court suspected she didn’t have the Railroad’s best interests at heart. Imagine! As for the City, the Court agreed it had no duty under statute to trim the trees, but it observed the City did have a common law duty to Mr. Elder. The case was sent back to figure out whether that duty required it to trim the trees obscuring the crossing.
Elder v. Nephi City ex rel. Brough, 164 P.3d 1238 (S.Ct. Utah, 2007). Shelley Elder was killed on a Union Pacific Railroad railway track in Nephi City, Utah, when the dump truck he was driving was struck by a freight train. His widow sued, contending that her husband’s death was caused by the negligence of Union Pacific Railroad and the City of Nephi.
According to Mrs. Elder, her husband would not have lost his life had a line of trees located parallel to the railroad tracks not obscured his vision of the train. The trees were situated on land owned by the City of Nephi, but Union Pacific owned the tracks and operated the train. The Railroad had no recorded property interest in the ground where the trees were located. The trial court summarily dismissed Mrs. Elder’s wrongful death claim, ruling as a matter of law that neither Nephi nor the Railroad owed a duty to Mr. Elder to assure that the trees did not impair motorists’ ability to observe approaching trains. She appealed.
Held: The Railroad had no property interest in the trees and was under no duty to remove them. While the City of Nephi owed no statutory duty to Mr. Elder, it did owe a common-law duty to him, and the case had to be reversed on that point.
As for the Railroad’s right-of-way through Nephi, the UP route was acquired by prescriptive easement rather than by statute, and thus did not extend to land bordering tracks, including the land on which the offending trees stood. Under the Federal Townsite Act of 1867, the United States conveyed by patent to a probate judge the land within the city limits, including the railroad crossing area. Because this conveyance occurred before Congress passed the Railroad Right of Ways Acts granting railways a right-of-way through public lands, the statute could not have conveyed the right-of-way through Nephi.
Mrs. Elder claimed that the Railroad’s prescriptive easement extended not only to the railbed, however, but also to the land on which the trees stood. The Court ruled that while it wouldn’t rule that out, Mrs. Elder lacked standing to make a prescriptive easement claim on behalf of the Railroad. Standing to bring a quiet title action to perfect title is limited to parties who could acquire an interest in the property created by the court’s judgment or decree. What Mrs. Elder sought to do was to stick Union Pacific with the prescriptive easement as a way-station on the road to making the Railroad liable for her husband’s death.
As for the City of Nephi, the Court said, municipalities owe a duty of reasonable care to ordinary people, and this duty extends to travelers upon their highways. The scope of a governmental entity’s common-law duty to persons using roadways under its control extends beyond the boundaries of the thoroughfare. A governmental entity does not undertake a duty to remove vegetation from private land that may obstruct the vision of motorists utilizing its roadways; nor does a private party bear a common-law duty to keep roadways free of visual obstructions caused by vegetation growing on his land.
The Court ruled that the Utah statute requiring landowners to remove vegetation “which, by obstructing the view of any operator, constitutes a traffic hazard,” did not impose on city a duty on the City to monitor railroad crossings for visual obstructions. U.C.A. § 41-6-19. Rather, the City’s statutory obligation to remove the trees would have been triggered by receipt of notice from the department of transportation or a local authority that an investigation had deemed the trees to be a traffic hazard, and city did not undertake any such investigation itself.
Nevertheless, the Court said, a genuine issue of material fact remained as to the allocation of duties between the City — which owned land near railroad tracks that contained irrigation ditch and trees which sprouted from the ditch embankment — and the irrigation company, which maintained irrigation ditch along the land pursuant to an irrigation easement. The common-law duty of a governmental entity to safeguard those who travel its roads may extend to visual hazards located on its land outside the bounds of the roadway itself, and the mere fact that an easement existed did not automatically assign that common-law duty to the servient estate. The issue of whether the City or the irrigation company was responsible for tree trimming, and whether the City breached its duty to the late Mr. Elder, precluded summary judgment.
Case of the Day for Thursday, March 17, 2016
Sadly, Robert Grey Johnson, Jr., does not. Mr. Grey Johnson lived in tony Monarch Bay Terrace, on the Pacific Ocean between Long Beach and San Diego. The community is governed by the Monarch Bay Terrace Property Owners Association, a type of local quasi-gove rnmental regulatory body that gives despotism a bad name. A few years ago, Monarch Bay POA and Grey Johnson became embroiled in a dispute concerning his alleged installation of various “unapproved” trees on his property, and his failure to properly trim and maintain all of his trees so they didn’t impede either use of the sidewalks adjacent to his property or – more important when the “starter houses” in your neighborhood sell for over a million bucks – the ocean views of his neighbors.
To settle that earlier case, Grey Johnson promised to abide by a settlement that spanned more than 20 pages. He said he abide by Monarch Bay’s “Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions” and seek prior approval of any trees planted on his property. He conceded that Monarch Bay POA’s board of directors would have “sole discretion” to determine the proper height of any tree, or whether any new or existing planting constitutes a view impediment or a nuisance – and that its decisions would be “final.” Finally, Grey Johnson promised to remove certain trees, trim or top other trees, as necessary, to maintain them at rooftop level; and pay a fine of $250.00, plus $500.00 in attorney fees to Monarch Bay.
No one looked behind Grey Johnson’s back while he signed off on the deal, or they might have seen his crossed fingers. A few years later, after Grey Johnson had failed to trim his trees as he promised, the parties were back in court. The POA wanted the trial judge to enforce the deal. Grey Johnson, who channeled Joyce Kilmer, argued that he should not be required to “top” the tree that some of his neighbors characterize as an impediment to their ocean views, even though he earlier agreed to do that very thing.
The court was unimpressed. Kilmer, the judge pointed out, didn’t say that trees were lovelier than ocean views – just poems. Grey Johnson offered fifty shades of justification for not honoring the deal, but the court saw through them. After the trial court upheld the deal, he took his plea to the Court of Appeals, which wisely observed that “this case is not about whether Johnson should be required to top his tree – or whether Kilmer would have approved of his doing so. It’s about whether Johnson’s voluntary agreement to do it is legally enforceable, even though he doesn’t want to do it anymore. It is.”
Our hats are off in homage to the salesmanship of the lawyer who convinced Grey Johnson that he ought to bankroll this turkey. Had Grey Johnson come to us, we probably would have uncreatively told him to “keep your word … you signed the deal, now live with it.” Which, come to think of it, is exactly what the Court of Appeals told him.
The moral? Lawyers often say that a “bad settlement is better than a good lawsuit.” True, but that settlement is more than a technicality on the road to ending some pesky litigation. Courts presume the parties understand what they’re signing, and won’t later entertain deviceful arguments for ignoring the plain terms of the deal.
Monarch Bay Property Owners Ass’n v. Johnson, Case No. G043518 (Ct.App. 4th Div. Cal., Oct. 19, 2011). Johnson, a homeowner in Monarch Bay, became embroiled in a dispute with the Monarch Bay Property Owners Association over his installation of various “unapproved” trees on his property, and his failure to properly trim and maintain other trees to ensure they were not impeding use of the sidewalks adjacent to his property, or the ocean views of his neighbors. In 2008, the parties settled the dispute with a lengthy settlement agreement, in which Johnson promised abide by the community’s Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, and would seek prior approval of any plantings on his property. He also agreed that the POA’s board of directors would have sole discretion to determine the proper height of any trees, or whether new or existing trees constitutes a view impediment or a nuisance. Johnson promised to remove some trees and trim others as necessary to maintain them at roof level, and to pay a modest fine. The parties agreed that a particular Canary pine “will be inspected” nine months after the date of settlement to determine whether it creates any view impediments. If it does, it would be further trimmed – but only if a “neutral arborist” (paid by Monarch Bay) determines that doing so would not permanently injure the tree. The settlement specified that the POA could enter a judgment against Johnson if he didn’t comply.
Right after signing the settlement agreement, Johnson removed and trimmed trees as he had promised to do. However, when Monarch Bay inspected his property nine months after the settlement, it determined that he had failed to properly maintain the trimming of his existing trees, and also that the Canary pine appeared to be impeding the views of his neighbors. The POA concluded that Johnson was in breach of the settlement agreement, and sought entry of judgment against him.
Monarch Bay’s motion for entry of judgment was filed just over one year after the settlement date. Johnson opposed the motion, arguing that he was in compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement, but that Monarch Bay had breached it by “fail[ing] to inspect the Canary pine within the nine month period of the agreement.” Johnson also argued that Monarch Bay had provided no evidence that further trimming of the Canary pine would not endanger it, and that the stipulated judgment was too “vague” and lacking in objective standards to be enforceable.
The court denied the POA’s motion, without prejudice, because it lacked sufficient supporting evidence to establish Johnson’s breach of the agreement. The POA refiled its motion for entry of judgment five months later, supported by additional evidence, including the declaration of a neutral arborist, and declarations of neighbors attesting to view impairment. Also included with the moving papers was a copy of the stipulated judgment which the court was being asked to enter. Johnson again filed opposition. The trial court entered judgment for the POA on December 29, 2009.
Held: The POA was entitled to its judgment. Johnson asserted two primary bases for challenging the stipulated judgment which arose out the prior settlement. First, he claims the court was without jurisdiction to enter an order enforcing the parties’ settlement pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 664, because Monarch Bay’s motion was brought more than one year after the date of the settlement, in violation of a provision requiring that the case be dismissed no later than one year after the settlement date. And second, Johnson claimed that the terms of the judgment as entered are materially different from those he stipulated to. Neither argument is persuasive.
The Court ruled that the settlement agreement did not actually require that the case be dismissed within a year after the settlement date – or at all. Instead, what the provision Johnson relies upon does is prohibit dismissal of the case for a period of time. But even if settlement had imposed a deadline or dismissal of the case, Johnson would have waived any right to rely upon it by failing to enforce it prior to entry of judgment. Until the case was actually dismissed – which this one never was – the court retained jurisdiction to enter judgment.
The Court also held that Johnson’s argument concerning the specific terms of the judgment ignored the plain fact that, as part of the settlement agreement, Johnson expressly stipulated to the exact terms of the judgment to be entered against him if he failed to comply with his obligations under the settlement agreement. While Johnson may be unhappy with its terms, the Court held, it is too late for him to raise that issue now.
Finally, Johnson also challenged the trial court’s award of about $60,000 in attorney fees incurred by the POA in enforcing the settlement agreement. The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that “the parties specifically provided in their stipulated judgment for an additional award of attorney fees incurred by Monarch Bay ‘in enforcement of the stipulation,’ which would equate to the fees expended to obtain entry of the stipulated judgment. Nor did the court err by including in its award the fees Monarch Bay incurred in its first motion to obtain entry of judgment. The court explicitly denied the first motion “without prejudice, ” thus signaling that the issue of whether Monarch Bay was entitled to such a judgment was yet to be determined – in other words, that neither party had yet won nor lost the fight. The court’s fee award, entered after Monarch Bay ultimately prevailed, was consistent with that approach: One fight, one victor – and to the victor went the spoils.
Case of the Day for Friday, March 18, 2016
COUNT YOUR SILVERWARE
You know people like this. They leave restaurants with their pockets bulging from stolen packets of sugar, jelly or ketchup. They return from a vacation with a valise full of shampoo, conditioner, soap and teabags, boosted from every hotel on their itinerary. When they move from a house, they be sure to pick it clean of light bulbs, curtains, and even the unused toilet paper rolls left on the dispensers. In rare cases, they even uproot garden plants as they leave.
When you have folks like this over for dinner, you should audit your silverware before they leave.
The late Mr. Thomas was that kind of guy, probably a man with a closet full of mini-shampoo bottles, Bob Evans jelly tubs, and McDonald’s sugar packets. He was quite a thrifty guy. Maybe there’s a better word to use than “thrifty.” A word like “light-fingered.”
However you would describe him, after he signed the deal to sell his Iowa farm to Mr. Laube, but before he surrendered possession, Mr. Thomas thought he just might thin the timber a bit by cutting down and selling about a hundred walnut trees. True, the walnuts weren’t really ready for harvest – the 20-year old trees were only about halfway to an age where they should be harvested – but Mr. Thomas could hardly see the sense of leaving all of that nice hardwood for Mr. Laube to cash in on a couple decades after closing.
Mr. Laube sued. Sadly, while he won the case, he was butchered on damages. There was no question that Mr. Thomas was liable. After all, the contract of sale didn’t reserve any timber rights to the seller. But the issue was the value of the trees that had been removed.
Generally, there are several ways to figure damages for loss of trees. Where the trees are for a special purpose, such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use, the measure is usually the difference in value of the real estate before and after the destruction of the trees. Where the trees have no special use beyond being marketable timber, the measure of damages is the commercial market value of the trees at the time of taking. Where the trees can feasibly be replaced, the measure of damages is the reasonable cost of replacement.
The Court ruled that the value of the 100 immature walnut trees was their present-day value at the mill, despite Mr. Laube’s lament that they would have been worth so much more had they been 20 years older. The Iowa Supreme Court admitted that Mr. Laube had a point – he had been deprived of trees that had great potential value, something that giving him present commercial value didn’t recognize. But the Court said that the law had never allowed such damages, and it didn’t intend to do so here. The Court speculated – and that’s exactly what it was – that it “was perhaps to address this criticism that the legislature provided for treble damages in Iowa Code section 658.4.”
Poppycock. Punitive damages are intended to punish, not make up for deficiencies in the law of compensatory damages. Farmer Thomas did not profit from his selling of the walnut trees on his way out the door, but Mr. Laube was hardly made whole.
Laube v. Estate of Thomas, 376 N.W.2d 108 (Sup.Ct. Iowa, 1985). In 1983, the Thomases contracted to sell a farm to Mr. Laube. Possession was to pass on March 1, 1984. Although no timber rights were reserved to the Thomases, they removed about 100 walnut trees from the tract between contract and closing. There was no question of liability; in fact, at trial Thomases offered to confess judgment for $1,000. The offer was refused.
The trial court awarded Laube the commercial value of the trees at the tie they were cut. Laube appealed.
Held: The measure of damages used by the trial court was correct.
The walnut trees were timber or forest, not used for a windbreak or ornamental purposes. The trees had stood at two sites on the farm, one a low-level area near a stream and the other in a permanent pasture. The 100 in question were smaller, presumably inferior for marketing purposes. The evidence showed that it was not a practical marketing time for the trees in question. At an age of 20 years, they would not mature so as to reach their reasonable marketing potential for another 20 years. Mr. Laube argued he should be awarded damages that took the current market price, considering the size and quality of trees 20 years hence, then discounting the figure appropriately to reach the present value.
The Supreme Court admitted that “especially [in] the showing of the inappropriateness of cutting the trees at their stage of semi-maturity, there is at first blush an attractiveness in plaintiffs’ contention that a routine allowance of only log value is inadequate. On the other hand their suggested recovery does not conform with any recognized measure of damages for loss of trees.” Where the trees were put to a special purpose, such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use, the measure is usually the difference in value of the realty before and after the destruction of the trees. Where the trees had no such special use, the measure is the commercial market value of the trees at the time of taking. Where the trees can be replaced, damages are the reasonable cost of replacement.
Here, the Court said, the commercial value of the trees was the appropriate measure of damages. It suggested that the law provided for treble damages in Iowa Code § 658.4 to help adjust for the unfairness of situations such as the one in this case. However, it would not take into account future value in setting compensatory damages.
Case of the Day for Monday, March 21, 2016
THE CONTRACT SAYS WHAT?
Sure, spring arrived very early yesterday morning, but it’s cold with snow flurries. On this cold spring day, which makes it a perfect time to talk about what happened on a different cold spring day a few years ago in Utah.
Landscaper Superior Property Management Services, Inc., had been hired by the Waterbury Homeowners Association to landscape and maintain the grounds at beautiful Shanty Acres. The parties had a standard contract, one that – among other things – called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season.” Elsewhere, the contract directs the landscapers to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees.
The contract was just a formality. Superior has been in business since the sequoias were seedlings, and its crews knew what needed to be done. They often went beyond the literal terms of the contract, which – as was typical for landscaping contracts – were not especially detailed. Over the seasons, Superior maintained Shanty Acres very well, and the contract was repeatedly renewed. The Happy Homeowners Association is indeed happy.
Then one cold, spring day (much like this one), condominium resident Colleen Hill ventured outside to walk her dog. When she followed the cavorting canine onto the lawn, she tripped over a basal shoot growing from a tree root, fell, and hurt herself. She sued both Superior and the Association, claiming that Superior owed her a duty of care because of what it agreed to do in the contract. Superior, she alleged, was negligent in not trimming the basal shoots.
But how could Superior owe Colleen Hill a duty? Its contract was with the Association, and the Association thought Superior had done a fine job. True, Superior prided itself on doing more than the contract called for, but that was what a good landscaper did. Thus, Superior’s crews normally trimmed basal roots … but if Colleen’s complaint was to be believed, it appears Superior’s workers may have overlooked the shoots that proved a snare to her feet.
The courts finally concluded that Superior owed Colleen no duty. Its obligations were to the Association, and those obligations were those spelled out in the contract, not what additional services Superior might gratuitously provide. The landscaper won in the end, but only after four years of expensive litigation.
So what does the professional arborist or landscaper learn from Superior’s legal travails? The first lesson is to read the contract form he or she is using. Does it adequately define the services being provided? If the arborist will be performing more services than those described in the contract, those probably should be described in the contract.
At minimum, the contract should clearly provide that any services provided beyond those required by the contract are being provided as a courtesy only, and that the contract does not establish a duty between the arborist and anyone other than the client.
Will this be enough to save the arborist from frivolous lawsuits? Probably not in this society. But an ounce of careful contract drafting now may be worth a pound of lawyers later.
Hill v. Superior Property Management, Inc., Case No. 20120428 (Utah Supreme Ct., 2013). Superior Property Management had held the contract to maintain premises for the Waterbury Homeowners Association for years. The form contract called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season” and to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees. After resident Colleen Hill, while walking her dog one early spring day, tripped on a growth from a tree root, she sued Superior for negligence because it had not trimmed the root.
Held: The landscaper didn’t owe Colleen a duty of care. As the Supreme Court of Utah observed, the “law draws a critical distinction between affirmative acts and omissions. As a general rule, we all have a duty to act reasonably in our affirmative acts; but no such duty attaches with regard to omissions except in cases of a special relationship.”
The Court agreed that sometimes, such a special relationship might be rooted in a contract. But it held that neither specific obligation in the contract – the obligation to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season,” or the obligation to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees – created a duty flowing from the landscaping company and the injured property owner.
The Court noted that “in the first place, it is not at all clear that mere failure to perform would sustain liability in tort. A breach of contract, after all, typically gives rise to liability in contract … Even assuming that Superior’s maintenance contract could sustain a tort duty, moreover, there is still no basis for liability here, as neither of the provisions required Superior to perform the acts it is now charged with omitting.” The Justices analyzed the contract provisions, pointing out that the accident happened in early spring, outside of the “normal growing season.” What’s more, the dictionary definition of “branch” is “a stem growing from the trunk or from a limb of a tree” or a “shoot or secondary stem growing from the main stem.” Therefore, the Court reasoned, “the ‘branches’ to be trimmed under Superior’s maintenance contract are protrusions from the main trunk only, not separate shoots stemming from the tree’s roots. Superior could not be in breach for failing to trim back those shoots.”
Maybe so, argued the homeowner, but regardless of what the contract may have said, the landscaper’s obligations “were not comprehensively detailed in its maintenance contract, but encompassed acts that it habitually engaged in over time.” The Court rejected this dangerous notion, declaring that there “is no room in our law for a tort duty arising from course-of-performance acts that are nowhere provided by contract.” The Justices reasoned that “where a duty is rooted in the express language of a written contract, the parties are on notice of their obligations, and are in a good position to plan their activities around them. That is not at all true for … extracontractual, course-of-performance acts relied on” by Ms. Hill. “If we were to impose a duty in connection with those acts,” the Court said, “we would establish a troubling perverse incentive. A party facing a tort duty in connection with any undertaking not required by contract would be discouraged from such undertaking. And a disincentive for gratuitous service benefiting another is not the sort of conduct that our tort law ought to countenance. In any event, to the extent injuries ensue from negligence in the performance of such activities, liability would properly be governed by a different branch of our tort law – by the standards governing liability for a voluntary undertaking, a theory we … find unavailing.”
Case of the Day for Tuesday, March 22, 2016
ENCROACHMENT, NUISANCE … AND THE MARCH OF TIME
Encroachment – not the football kind, the tree kind. Encroachment governs the rights of adjoining property owners when the trees on one of the properties encroaches on the property of the other. Overhanging branches, invasive root systems, falling debris … those kinds of problems.
Monday, we explored one of the two different approaches to encroachment under American law, the “Massachusetts Rule” that landowners are limited to self-help – but not lawsuits – to stop encroaching trees and roots. Yesterday, we looked at the other end of these 50 United States, and the “Hawaii Rule,” a holding that a landowner could sue for damages and injunctive relief when a neighbor’s tree was causing actual harm or was an imminent danger to his or her property.
Between the two competing rules, Virginia found herself firmly straddling the line. The fair Commonwealth may be for lovers, but it was also for temporizers. The landmark Old Dominion case on the issue, Smith v. Holt, hailed from the 1930s, holding that the Massachusetts Rule applied unless the tree in question was (1) causing actual harm or was an imminent danger; and (2) “noxious.” This holding brings to mind the maxim “a camel looks like a horse designed by a committee.” Frankly, Smith v. Holt had “committee’ written all over it. It seemed to hold that the Massachusetts Rule applied except where it didn’t. And what did “noxious” have to do with anything?
The Virginia Supreme Court finally addressed the confusing situation several years ago in Fancher v. Fagella. There the Court found itself hoisted on its own “noxious” petard. Everyone could agree that poison ivy was noxious, and most people could agree kudzu was noxious. But how about a cute little shade tree? Shade trees are definitely not in the same league with poisonous or entangling pests, but yet, a cute little shade tree can come out of the ground harder and do more damage than poison ivy or kudzu ever could.
Take the tree in Fancher. It was a sweet gum, a favored landscaping tree as well as a valuable hardwood. But for poor Mr. Fancher, it was Hydra covered in bark. Only halfway grown, Fagella’s sweet gum’s roots were already knocking over a retaining wall, kicking up patio stones, breaking up a house foundation and growing into sewers and even the house electrical system. Fancher sued for an injunction, but the trial court felt obligated to follow Smith v. Holt. There was just no way that a sweet gum tree could be noxious, the local court held, and thus, it would not help the frustrated Mr. Fancher. But the Virginia Supreme Court, wisely seeing that the “noxious” standard was of no help in these cases, abandoned the hybrid rule of Smith v. Holt, an unwieldy compromise that had already become known as the “Virginia Rule.” The Court – noting that the “Massachusetts Rule” was a relic of a more rural, bucolic age – decided that the “Hawaii Rule” was the better fit for modern, crowded, helter-skelter suburban life. It sent the case back to the trial court, instructing the judge that the court should consider whether an injunction should issue.
This decision fits neatly into what we have been considering for the past week on negligence and nuisance. Here, the tree had become a nuisance, possibly because Fagella had not cared for the tree before it began damaging the neighbor’s property. All the tree had ever done is what trees do – it grew. And grew and grew. It was healthy, perhaps amazingly so, but Fagella was ordered to shoulder the cost of damages caused not because it was dangerous, or dead, or anything other than an inconvenience.
Like the decision or hate it, you could see this coming. From an age in which trees grew and lived and died, and effects of the life cycle were not chargeable against the landowner, we may be arriving at a point where trees aren’t much more than big, woody pets, with their owners responsible for whatever the tree may naturally do.
Fancher v. Fagella, 650 S.E.2d 519, 274 Va. 549 (2007). Fancher and Fagella were the owners of adjoining townhouses in Fairfax County, Virginia (a largely urban or suburban county west of Washington, D.C., and part of the Washington metropolitan area). Fagella’s property is higher in elevation than Fancher’s, and a masonry retaining wall runs along the property line to support the grade separation. Fancher has a sunken patio behind his home, covered by masonry pavers.
Fagella had a sweet gum tree located a few feet from the retaining wall, about 60 feet high with a 2-foot diameter trunk at its base. Sweet gums are native to the area, and grow to 120 to 140 feet in height at maturity, with a trunk diameter of 4 to 6 feet. The tree was deciduous, dropping spiky gumballs and having a heavy pollen load. It also has an invasive root system and a high demand for water.
In the case of Fagella’s tree, the root system had displaced the retaining wall between the properties, displaced the pavers on Fancher’s patio, caused blockage of his sewer and water pipes and had begun to buckle the foundation of his house. The tree’s overhanging branches grew onto his roof, depositing leaves and other debris in his rain gutters. Fancher attempted self-help, trying to repair the damage to the retaining wall and the rear foundation himself, and cutting back the overhanging branches, but he was ineffective in the face of continuing expansion of the root system and branches. Fancher’s arborist believed the sweet gum tree was only at mid-maturity, that it would continue to grow, and that “[n]o amount of concrete would hold the root system back.” The arborist labeled the tree “noxious” because of its location, and said that the only way to stop the continuing damage being done by the root system was to remove the tree entirely.
Fancher sued for an injunction compelling Fagella to remove the tree and its invading root system entirely, and asked for damages to cover the cost of restoring the property to its former condition. Fagella moved to strike the prayer for injunctive relief. The trial court, relying on Virginia law set down in Smith v. Holt, denied injunctive relief. Fancher appealed.
Held: The Supreme Court abandoned the “Virginia Rule,” adopting instead the “Hawaii Rule” that while trees and plants are ordinarily not nuisances, they can become so when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. Then, injunctive relief and damages will lie. The Court traced the history of the encroachment rule from the “Massachussetts Rule” — which holds that a landowner’s right to protect his property from the encroaching boughs and roots of a neighbor’s tree is limited to self-help, i.e., cutting off the branches and roots at the point they invade his property — through the modern “Hawaii Rule.” The Court noted that Virginia had tried to strike a compromise between the two positions with the “Virginia Rule” set out in Smith v. Holt, which held that the intrusion of roots and branches from a neighbor’s plantings which were “not noxious in [their] nature” and had caused no “sensible injury” were not actionable at law, the plaintiff being limited to his right of self-help.
The Court found the “Massachusetts Rule” rather unsuited to modern urban and suburban life, although it may still work well in many rural conditions. It admitted that the “Virginia Rule” was justly criticized because the classification of a plant as “noxious” depends upon the viewpoint of the beholder. Just about everyone would agree that poison ivy is noxious. Many would agree that kudzu is, too, because of its tendency toward rampant growth, smothering other vegetation. But few would declare healthy shade trees to be noxious, although they may cause more damage and be more expensive to remove, than the poison ivy or kudzu. The Court decided that continued reliance on the distinction between plants that are noxious, and those that are not, imposed an unworkable and futile standard for determining the rights of neighboring landowners.
Therefore, the Court overruled Smith v. Holt, insofar as it conditions a right of action upon the “noxious” nature of a plant that sends forth invading roots or branches into a neighbor’s property. Instead, it adopted the Hawaii Rule, finding that encroaching trees and plants are not nuisances merely because they cast shade, drop leaves, flowers, or fruit, or just because they happen to encroach upon adjoining property either above or below the ground. However, encroaching trees and plants may be regarded as a nuisance when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. If so, the owner of the tree or plant may be held responsible for harm caused to adjoining property, and may also be required to cut back the encroaching branches or roots, assuming the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance. The Court was careful to note that it wasn’t altering existing law that the adjoining landowner may, at his own expense, cut away the encroaching vegetation to the property line whether or not the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance or is otherwise causing harm or possible harm to the adjoining property.
The Court warned that not every case of nuisance or continuing trespass may be enjoined, but it could be considered here. The decision whether to grant an injunction, the Court held, always rests in the sound discretion of the chancellor and depends on the relative benefit an injunction would confer upon the plaintiff in contrast to the injury it would impose on the defendant. In weighing the equities in a case of this kind, the chancellor must necessarily first consider whether the conditions existing on the adjoining lands are such that it is reasonable to impose a duty on the owner of a tree to protect a neighbor’s land from damage caused by its intruding branches and roots. In the absence of such a duty, the traditional right of self-help is an adequate remedy. It would be clearly unreasonable to impose such a duty upon the owner of historically forested or agricultural land, but entirely appropriate to do so in the case of parties, like those in the present case, who dwell on adjoining residential lots.
Case of the Day for Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Does anyone remember Hurricane Katrina? Who could forget the immensity of the storm, the devastation, the lives lost, the agony?
Doctor and Mrs. Hoerner, that’s who. These folks, Big Easy residents for 25 years, sued their neighbor, Beulah Title, under the Louisiana Civil Code article that governed negligence. It seems Ms. Title’s trees were kind of bushy, and the neighbors were always cutting them back. Ms. Title, a better neighbor to the Hoerners than they were to her, always let them trim the trees and even cut down an oak once when the Hoerners asked her to. She was a very a nice neighbor … a kindly lady who learned the hard way that Oscar Wilde was right: no good deed goes unpunished.
When the big blow came, it took down a couple of Ms. Title’s pine trees, damaging the Hoerners’ brick wall, patio and pool. And probably spilled their pitcher of martinis. Imagine the horror! We bet those poor folks in the Lower Ninth Ward didn’t have it any worse than the Hoerners. But the Hoerners had something those victims in the Crescent City’s worst neighborhood didn’t have: a lawyer. He sued Ms. Title, arguing that because she knew the trees were overgrowing the Hoerners and needed trimming, that she was liable for the damage caused when they toppled.
The courts made pretty short work of this. Rather patiently, we think, the Court of Appeals explained to the clueless (or avaricious, take your pick) Hoerners that the trees didn’t fall because of the overhanging branches. They fell because of this Cat 5 hurricane that hit the city, the one the Hoerners must have overlooked.
The Court held that even the branches had been the cause, Ms. Title could avail herself of the force majeure defense, specifically that even if she had exercised reasonable care, the injury couldn’t have been avoided because of the intervention of a greater force unforeseen by the parties.
Hoerner v. Title, 968 So.2d 217 (La.App. 4 Cir., Sept. 26, 2007). Be warned: Beulah Title is a person, not a title insurance company. Beulah Title the person had property right behind the home of Linda and Harry Hoerner. The Hoerners complained that that they had had problems with Ms. Title’s pine trees and other foliage along their brick wall since 1991. Yet, every time Dr. Hoerner sought permission to trim the trees and shrubs back to the property line, Ms. Title allowed him to do so. On many occasions, the Hoerners removed branches from Ms. Title’s trees that were hanging over the brick wall. On one occasion, Ms. Title removed an oak tree from her backyard at the Hoerners’ request. The Hoerners did not allege that the trees in question were defective, just that they were bushy.
During Hurricane Katrina, the trunks of Ms. Title’s trees were blown, damaging the Hoerner’s brick wall, patio, pool and landscaping. The damage was not caused by branches hanging over the wall, and the trees did not fall due to lack of maintenance or improper trimming. Nevertheless, the Hoerners sued Ms. Title for repairs to their property, alleging that she was strictly liable under Article 2317.1 of the Louisiana Civil Code. That provision directed that the owner of a thing (like a tree) was liable for damage occasioned by its defect upon a showing that she knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that she failed to exercise such reasonable care. Ms. Title argued that the trees were not defective and she is entitled to the defense of force majeure. The trial court agreed with Ms. Title, and the Hoerners appealed.
Held: Ms. Title was not liable. Under Article 2317.1, in order to establish liability a plaintiff must demonstrate that the owner of the thing knew, or should have known, in the exercise of reasonable care of the defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that the owner failed to exercise such reasonable care. Here, the Hoerners admitted that the trees were healthy, but they complained they were defective because they were neglected and overgrown and placed too close to the brick wall. The Hoerners cited a case where lack of tree maintenance was considered in finding that the owner had knowledge, but the Court observed that case involved a diseased tree. Ms. Title’s trees, on the other hand, were healthy.
Based on the evidence, the Court said, it did not find that Ms. Title’s trees were defective for lack of maintenance or location. While the Hoerners had shown Ms. Title’s trees had plenty of overgrowth into their yard, the evidence showed that the trees themselves were blown over and into the brick wall, causing all of the damage to the Hoerners’ property. It was not the overgrowth that did the damage. Additionally, Ms. Title was entitled to the defense of force majeure. The Court observed that the winds of Hurricane Katrina caused trees to fall and damage property regardless of maintenance or location all over the Greater New Orleans area. Thus, she could not be liable for the fallen trees under any circumstances.
Case of the Day for Thursday, March 24, 2016
ENCROACHMENT – MASSACHUSETTS STYLE
We had some tree work done recently. Our sugar maple at the corner of the property needed shaping and some deadwood removed, and we had a hawthorne badly in need of care pruned of some winter damage.
While our tree service people were trimming, the neighbor came over to ask the foreman whether he could hire the crew to trim some branches at his place. His request included trimming back a long branch from our oak tree that stuck through his arbor vitae and provided unwanted shade and twig debris to his backyard. The foreman agreed, provided that we approve the trimming of the branch back to the property line.
We were surprised to be asked. “But surely you know the Massachusetts Rule,” we said. “Our neighbor doesn’t need permission to trim the oak branch back to the property line. That’s well settled law!” The foreman was both surprised and a little skeptical. He was sure he couldn’t touch the branch – even though it extended well into the neighbor’s property – without the tree owners’ OK.
Luckily for our tree service, their client happened to blog on the best tree law site in the entire solar system (this one). We gave the foreman the website address and invited him to check in this week. We confidently predicted that the site would be devoting the whole week to encroachment.
Are we ever prescient! As it happens, this week we are going to talk about encroachment … not the neutral-zone penalty that costs a defense five yards. That’s for football season, still one to two months away (depending whether your tastes run to high school, college or pro). The encroachment we care about is different.
Encroachment is what happens when your neighbor’s tree roots break into your sewer system, when leaves and nuts are dumped into your gutters, or when the branches rain down on your car or lawn. The law that governs rights and responsibilities when a neighbor’s tree encroaches on your property only developed in the last 80 years. Before that time, a simpler time perhaps, people didn’t resort to the courts quite so much.
In the beginning, there was the “Massachusetts Rule.” That Rule, something we talk about so much you’d think everyone would have heard of it by now, arose in Michalson v. Nutting, 275 Mass. 232, 175 N.E. 490 (Sup.Jud.Ct. Mass. 1931). This is the granddaddy of all encroachment cases, the Queen Mother. The Massachusetts Rule is the self-help mantra of neighbors everywhere.
In Michalson, roots from a poplar growing on the Nuttings’ land had penetrated and damaged sewer and drain pipes at Michalson’s place. As well, the roots had grown under Michalson’s concrete cellar, causing cracking and threatening serious injury to the foundation. Michalson wanted the Nuttings to cut down the tree and remove the roots. They said “Nutting doing.”
Michalson sued, asking the court to permanently enjoin the Nuttings from allowing the roots to encroach on his land. Besides an order that the Nuttings essentially stop the tree from growing, Michalson wanted money, too, to ease the pain of leaf raking and root cutting. The trial judge found the Nuttings were not liable merely because their tree was growing. He threw Michalson’s lawsuit out, and Michalson appealed.
Held: In what has become known as the “Massachusetts Rule,” the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that a property owner’s remedies are limited to “self help.” In other words, a suffering property owner may cut off boughs and roots of neighbor’s trees which intrude into another person’s land. But the law will not permit a plaintiff to recover damages for invasion of his property by roots of trees belonging to adjoining landowner. And a plaintiff cannot obtain equitable relief — that is, an injunction — to compel an adjoining landowner to remove roots of tree invading plaintiff’s property or to restrain such encroachment.
Our takeaway today, therefore, would be the two concepts embodied in the Massachusetts Rule. The first is that you, the neighbor, need no permission from the tree owner to trim away roots and branches that overhang your property. That rule survives to this day just about everywhere. The second – which has been questioned to a much greater extent (as we shall see later this week) – is that you can’t sue your neighbor for the effects of encroachment by one of his or her trees.
Hold those concepts close, because tomorrow, we’ll see how things on the other end of the country – Hawaii – developed very differently, all because of a tree that was a little too much for the court to ignore.
Case of the Day for Friday, March 25, 2016
YESTERDAY CHOCOLATE, TODAY VANILLA
The law of encroaching trees runs a continuum from total self-help to the exclusion of any judicial remedy (the “Massachusetts Rule,” which we discussed yesterday) – to tree owner liability (the “Hawaii Rule”), with many variations in between. If the law of encroachment were administered by Baskin Robbins, the Massachusetts Rule would be chocolate ice cream, and the Hawaii Rule would be vanilla.
In Whitesell v. Houlton, a Hawaiian appellate court first adopted what is generally known as the “Hawaii Rule,” which held that when there is imminent danger of overhanging branches causing “sensible” harm to property other than plant life, the tree owner is liable for the cost of trimming the branches as well as for the damage caused.
Maybe the court’s holding that the Whitesell v. Houlton tree was a nuisance arose from the hard facts of the case: the tree was a massive banyan tree, with a 12-foot trunk and 90 foot height. There is an old legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law,” and the banyan tree in this case was pretty clearly monster flora, sort of the kudzu of trees. Perhaps it was that the laid-back political and cultural nature of the Sandwich Islands is far removed from the flintier New Englanders and the type of self-reliance embraced by the “Massachusetts Rule.”
For whatever reason, if a branch from a healthy tree in Massachusetts is in danger of falling into a neighbor’s yard, that neighbor may trim it at his or her own expense … but that’s it. In Hawaii, overhanging branches or protruding roots constitute a nuisance when they actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit. Then, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may either use self-help to cut back on the encroaching tree, or may require the owner of the offending tree to pay for damages and to cut back endangering branches or roots. If such is not done within a reasonable time, the neighbor may even have the trimming done at tree owner’s expense.
As we said, nothing in this ruling prevents a landowner — at his or her own expense — from cutting any part of an adjoining owner’s trees or other plant life up to his property. It’s just that the Massachusetts Rule says that’s all a landowner may do. Hawaii thinks differently. Tomorrow, we’ll see that Hawaii may be on the right side of history in this debate.
Whitesell v. Houlton, 632 P.2d 1077 (App. Ct. Hawaii, 1981). The Whitesells and Mr. Houlton lived next to each other. Mr. Houlton owned a 90-foot tall banyan tree with foliage extending 100 to 110 feet from the trunk. The tree overhung the Whitesells’ property. and the two-lane street fronting both properties. The Whitesells asked Mr. Houlton repeatedly over a two-year period to trim the tree, and they took it upon themselves to do so at various times. Their VW microbus – probably chartreuse – was damaged by low-hanging branches, their garage roof was damaged by some intruding branches from the tree, and they identified branches damaged in a storm that were in danger of falling.
Despite their entreaties, Mr. Houlton did nothing. Finally, the Whitesells hired a professional tree trimmer who cut the banyan’s branches back to Houlton’s property line, and then sued Mr. Houlton to get him to pay.
The trial court sided with the Whitesells, and ruled that Mr. Houlton had to pay. He appealed.
Held: Mr. Houlton had to pay. The court surveyed different approaches taken by other states, identifying the “Massachusetts Rule” holding that Mr. Houlton had no duty to the Whitesells, or the “Virginia Rule” that said Mr. Houlton had a duty to prevent his tree from causing sensible damage to his neighbor’s property.
The Court agreed with Mr. Houlton that “the Massachusetts rule is ‘simple and certain’. However, we question whether it is realistic and fair. Because the owner of the tree’s trunk is the owner of the tree, we think he bears some responsibility for the rest of the tree. It has long been the rule in Hawaii that if the owner knows or should know that his tree constitutes a danger, he is liable if it causes personal injury or property damage on or off of his property . . . Such being the case, we think he is duty bound to take action to remove the danger before damage or further damage occurs.” This is especially so, the Court said, where the tree in question was a banyan tree in the tropics.
Thus, the Court adopted what it called “a modified Virginia rule.” It held that “overhanging branches which merely cast shade or drop leaves, flowers, or fruit are not nuisances; that roots which interfere only with other plant life are not nuisances; that overhanging branches or protruding roots constitute a nuisance only when they actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit; that when overhanging branches or protruding roots actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may require the owner of the tree to pay for the damages and to cut back the endangering branches or roots and, if such is not done within a reasonable time, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may cause the cutback to be done at the tree owner’s expense.”
The Court pointed out that this rule did not strip a landowner of the right, at his or her expense, to trim a neighbor’s overhanging tree or subterranean tree roots up to the property line. It’s just where the Massachusetts Rule limits you to helping yourself, the Hawaii Rule lets you enlist the courts to do the heavy lifting.
Case of the Day for Monday, March 28, 2016
ONE STATE’S TREE IS ANOTHER STATE’S PEST
Long before the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Fancher v. Fagella, a little-noticed New Mexico decision grappled with the problems caused by cottonwood trees. Cottonwoods can be majestic, and they were welcome enough to the tired and thirsty pioneers that the cottonwood became the state tree of Kansas. But at the same time, there are some arborists (and more than a few homeowners) who label them as dangerous, messy and a tree that should “be removed from most residential property.”
Mr. Fox had a cottonwood tree he loved dearly. His neighbors didn’t fall into the same category, however. They hated the constantly shedding tree with the invasive and prolific root system. Like the banyan tree in Whitesell v. Houlton, there was a lot about Mr. Fox’s cottonwood not to like.
A few days ago, we mentioned the time-honored legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law.” It bears repeating here. Like the Whitesell v. Houlton banyan tree, Mr. Fox’s cottonwood generated sufficient horror stories in the trial transcript to explain the trial court’s decision that Mr. Fox’s tree had to go. A more level-headed weighing of the competing property and societal interests was undertaken by the Court of Appeals.
None of that changed the outcome for Mr. Fox. He had to pay damages, and Abbinetts were free to hack away at the tree’s root system to the full extent of the Massachusetts Rule. But for those of us who admire the process, the Court of Appeals’ thoughtful opinion was a breath of fresh air.
Abbinett v. Fox, 103 N.M. 80, 703 P.2d 177 (Ct.App. N.M. 1985). The Abbinetts and Fox formerly owned adjoining residences in Albuquerque. The Abbinetts sued, alleging that while Fox owned his place, roots from a large cottonwood tree on his property encroached onto their land and damaged a patio slab, cracked the sides of a swimming pool, broke a block wall and a portion of the foundation of their house, and clogged a sprinkler system.
The Abbinetts asked for an injunction against Fox. The trial court found against Fox for $2,500, but denied injunctive relief to force Fox to remove the tree roots. Instead, the Court entered an order authorizing the Abbinetts to utilize self-help to destroy or block the roots of the cottonwood trees from encroaching on their land. The Foxes appealed the decision.
Held: The New Mexico Court of Appeals grappled for the first time with the Massachusetts Rule, the Hawaii Rule and the Smith v. Holt-era Virginia Rule. Instead, it adopted a modification of all of these, finding that when overhanging branches or protruding roots of plants actually cause – or there is imminent danger of them causing – “sensible harm” to property other than plant life, the damaged or endangered neighbor may require owner of the tree to pay for damages and to cut back the endangering branches or roots. Such “sensible harm” has to be something more than merely casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers or fruit. In so doing, the New Mexico Court anticipated the Virginia Supreme Court’s Fancher v. Fagella holding by about 22 years.
The New Mexico Court also opined that it is duty of a landowner to use his property in a reasonable manner so as not to cause injury to adjoining property. This is the Hawaii Rule. And the landowner who suffers encroachment from the tree of another may — but is not required to — “abate it without resort to legal proceedings provided he can do so without causing breach of peace.” This, of course, is the heart of the Massachusetts Rule. The New Mexico Court called all of these holdings a “modified Virginia Rule,” as indeed it was.
The Court held that a trial court may grant both damages for already incurred injuries and injunctive relief to prevent future harm, where there is showing of irreparable injury for which there is no adequate remedy at law.
Case of the Day for Tuesday, March 29, 2016
A PRÉCIS ON ENCROACHMENT
Well, campers, it’s been a great week here at treeandneighborlawblog exploring the law of encroachment. And who better to wrap it up than our friends on the North Dakota Supreme Court, here in camp for some R & R after an exhausting term?
At least until the bottom fell out of the oil market, North Dakota was a pretty happenin’ place. It was the No. 2 oil producer in the country, unemployment there was at a measly 2.6%, 18,000 more people moved there in 2013 than left … and the state had so much natural gas that it was flaring $100 million in natural gas a month that it couldn’t use.
Now, you can’t give away houses there, equipment firms are saddled with bulldozers they can’t use, and boom towns are going bust. But we’re not here to talk about fracking. The natural resources we care about around here are underground only to the extent of their root systems – root systems that, along with branches, can occasionally encroach on the neighbors. And that can be a real pain in the neck.
Recently, our guest justices from the North Dakota Supreme Court took time from deciding mineral rights, liability for train derailments, mobile home park regulation and the like, to consider the law of tree encroachment. They did a bang-up job of summarizing the history, policy bases and goals of the various rules, before thoughtfully consigning the Massachusetts Rule’s proscription against lawsuits to what we here at treeandneighborlawblog call the “wood chipper of history.”
Back to the pain-in-the-neck tree. Dr. Richard Herring knows something about pains in the neck. They’re his livelihood, as long as they’re found in his patients. But this chiropractor had to deal with another pain the neck, too. The property next door, on which sat an apartment building, had a large tree with branches that were overhanging Dr. Herring’s bone-crunching office. He fought back with self-help, trimming branches, cleaning up the debris that clogged his gutters, and raking up the mess the tree made every fall. But he couldn’t keep ahead. Finally, the branches damaged his building, and the debris created an ice dam on his roof that flooded the place.
The absentee owners and hired managers at the apartment house next refused his entreaties to care for the tree. So he sued, claiming that they had a duty to manage the tree so it didn’t mess up his place. The trial court threw the suit out, telling the good doctor that he could trim the parts of the tree that were overhanging his place, but that was his only remedy.
“Wait,” you say, “that’s the Massachusetts Rule.” Right you are. But, as the North Dakota Supreme Court decided, there are other rules out there as well, including some that it thinks are a whole lot better than the doddering relic from Michalson v. Nutting. It reversed the trial court, holding that a tree owner does indeed have a duty to care for his or her trees so as to avoid damage to others.
In its thoughtful opinion, the Court wrote perhaps as fine a roundup on tree encroachment rules as has yet been written.
Herring v. Lisbon Partners Credit Fund, Ltd., 2012 N.D. 226, 823 N.W.2d 493 (Sup.Ct. N.D., 2012). Dr. Herring owned a commercial building in Lisbon housing his chiropractic practice. The apartment building next door is owned by Lisbon Partners and managed by Five Star. Branches from a large tree located on Lisbon Partners’ property overhang Herring’s property and brush against his building. For many years, Dr. Herring trimmed back the branches and cleaned out the leaves, twigs, and debris that would fall from the branches and clog his downspouts and gutters. He claimed that the encroaching branches caused water and ice dams to build up on his roof, and eventually caused water damage to the roof, walls, and fascia of his building. Herring contends that, after he had the damages repaired, he requested compensation from Lisbon Partners and Five Star but they denied responsibility for the damages.
Dr. Herring sued Lisbon Partners and Five Star for the cost to repair his building, claiming the companies had committed civil trespass and negligence, and maintained a nuisance by breaching their duty to maintain and trim the tree so that it did not cause damage to his property. The district court granted Lisbon Partners and Five Star’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing Herring’s claims. The court held Lisbon Partners and Five Star had no duty to trim or maintain the tree, and Herring’s remedy was limited to self-help. He could trim the branches back to the property line at his own expense, but that was it.
Held: The trial court’s dismissal was reversed, and Dr. Herring was given his day in court.
The North Dakota Supreme Court began its analysis by observing that the Massachusetts Rule was the original common law on tree law in the United States, holding that a landowner has no liability to neighboring landowners for damages caused by encroachment of branches or roots from his trees, and the neighboring landowner’s sole remedy is self-help: the injured neighbor may cut the intruding branches or roots back to the property line at his own expense. The basis for the Massachusetts Rule is that it is “wiser to leave the individual to protect himself, if harm results to him from the exercise of another’s right to use his own property in a reasonable way, than to subject that other to the annoyance and burden of lawsuits, which would likely be both countless and, in many instances, purely vexatious.
The Hawaii Rule, on the other hand, rejected the Massachusetts approach as overly simplistic. Instead, it held that the owner of a tree may be liable when encroaching branches or roots cause harm, or create imminent danger of causing harm, beyond merely casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit. When overhanging branches or protruding roots actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may require the owner of the tree to pay for the damages and to cut back the endangering branches or roots and, if such is not done within a reasonable time, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may cause the cutback to be done at the tree owner’s expense.
The Restatement Rule, based upon the Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 839-840 (1979), distinguishes between natural and artificial conditions on the land. Under the Restatement Rule, if the tree was planted or artificially maintained it may be considered a nuisance and its owner may be liable for resulting damages, but there is no liability for a naturally growing tree that encroaches upon neighboring property.
The Virginia Rule, adopted in 1939, makes a distinction between noxious and non-noxious trees. Under the old Virginia rule, a tree encroaching upon neighboring property will be considered a nuisance, and an action for damages can be brought, if it is a “noxious” tree and has inflicted a “sensible injury.”
The district court concluded that under N.D.C.C. § 47-01-12, Herring had a “right” to do as he wished with the overhanging branches and underlying roots of the tree, and therefore this portion of the tree was “just as much the responsibility of the adjacent landowner as it is the owner of the trunk.” In effect, the district court concluded that because Herring had the “right” to the branches above his property, he therefore had the responsibility to maintain them as well.
The state Supreme Court complained that the district court had essentially nullified N.D.C.C. § 47-01-17. That statute expressly provides that when the trunk of the tree is wholly upon the land of one owner, the tree “belong[s] exclusively to that owner.” The district court’s holding that Herring in effect owned the branches above his property was thus contrary to statute. Statutes must be construed as a whole and harmonized to give meaning to related statutes, and are to be interpreted in context to give meaning and effect to every word, phrase, and sentence. The interpretation adopted by the district court did not give meaning and effect to that portion of N.D.C.C. § 47-01-17 which provides that the owner of the tree’s trunk “exclusively” owns the entire tree.
Contrary to the district court’s conclusion that the Massachusetts Rule was more consistent with North Dakota statutory law, the Supreme Court held that the Hawaii Rule more fully gives effect to both statutory provisions. The Hawaii Rule is expressly based upon the concept, embodied in N.D.C.C. § 47-01-17, that the owner of the trunk of a tree which is encroaching on neighboring property owns the entire tree, including the intruding branches and roots. And because the owner of the tree’s trunk is the owner of the tree, the Supreme Court thought he or she should bear some responsibility for the rest of the tree. The Court said “we think he is duty bound to take action to remove the danger before damage or further damage occurs.”
The Supreme Court also observed that “the Hawaii Rule is the most well-reasoned, fair, and practical of the four generally recognized rules. We first note that the Restatement and Virginia rules have each been adopted in very few jurisdictions, and have been widely criticized as being based upon arbitrary distinctions which are unworkable, vague, and difficult to apply … In fact, the Supreme Court of Virginia has … abandoned the [old] Virginia rule in favor of the Hawaii Rule [in] Fancher …”
The Court also complained that the Massachusetts Rule has been widely criticized as being “unsuited to modern urban and suburban life.” The Massachusetts Rule fosters a “law of the jungle” mentality, the Court said, because self-help effectively replaces the law of orderly judicial process as the only way to adjust the rights and responsibilities of disputing neighbors. The Court observed that while self-help may be sufficient “when a few branches have crossed the property line and can be easily pruned by the neighboring landowner himself, it is a woefully inadequate remedy when overhanging branches break windows, damage siding, or knock holes in a roof, or when invading roots clog sewer systems, damage retaining walls, or crumble a home’s foundation.”
Accordingly, the North Dakota Supreme Court held that “encroaching trees and plants are not nuisances merely because they cast shade, drop leaves, flowers, or fruit, or just because they happen to encroach upon adjoining property either above or below the ground. However, encroaching trees and plants may be regarded as a nuisance when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. If so, the owner of the tree or plant may be held responsible for harm caused by it, and may also be required to cut back the encroaching branches or roots, assuming the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance.” The rule does not prevent a landowner, at his or her own expense, from cutting away the encroaching vegetation to the property line whether or not the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance or is otherwise causing harm or possible harm to the adjoining property.
Case of the Day for Wednesday, March 30, 2016
BE ALERT, PEOPLE!
The Pitts ran smack into that problem. They owned a nice piece of undeveloped land in the outback of Utah, next to the Pine Meadows Ranch. Mr. and Mrs. Pitts weren’t exactly obsessive about checking on their land. Why bother? What could possibly go wrong with a chunk of meadow and pine trees?
Well, some lousy neighbors, for one thing. While the Pitts lived in the city, the people at Pine Meadows Ranch turned the Pitts’ rural paradise into … well, the pits. Pine Meadows Ranch dumped its trash on the land, drilled a well — for what, we don’t know, but it probably wasn’t to extract lemonade — and cut down a number of trees.
When the Pitts finally discovered the perfidy of their adjoining landowner, they sued. Apparently, Pine Meadows Ranch had as much respect for the judicial system as it had for property boundaries, because it never answered the suit. The trial court — after waiting a suitable period of time — granted default judgment.
Default judgment is almost painless for a plaintiff, but even when the defendant doesn’t show up, the court won’t just hand the plaintiff whatever amount he or she asks for. Otherwise, someone who, say, sued Satan for $8 trillion just might get a judgment when the devil doesn’t show up in court. Instead, a court has to hear some evidence supporting damages. In today’s case, the court only heard a little: Howard Pitts took the stand to say that the land was worth $16,000 before the trespass but was “totally ruined” afterwards. That was good enough for the trial court, which promptly granted judgment for $36,000. The judge observed that $36,000 seemed a bit much, but he thought that maybe it would get the non-appearing Defendant’s attention.
It did. On appeal, Pine Ranch – which decided maybe it shouldn’t ignore summonses after all – complained that it shouldn’t have been defaulted. The Ranch said the dog ate its answer (or some such nonsense). The Utah Supreme Court didn’t forgive the Ranch’s non-appearance, but it did reverse the damages.
The court thought Pitts’ conclusory testimony about the value of the trees and land was a little to bereft of fact to support a $36,000 award. Additionally, from the trial court’s observation that the $36,000 seemed a little steep, the Court of Appeals suspected that maybe the district court judge court assessed $36,000 in damages as a way to punish a no-show.
The Utah Supreme Court sent the case back down for a new damages hearing, but there’s an important lesson here anyway: not showing up does not endear a defendant to a court.
Pitts v. Pine Meadow Ranch, Inc., 589 P.2d 767 (Utah Supreme Court, 1978). The Pitts alleged that Pine Meadows Ranch or its agents intentionally and willfully trespassed on their unimproved real property, used it as a junkyard and a garbage dump, drilled a well in the middle of it, and destroyed a number of beautiful trees. The Pitts claimed damages in the amount of the full market value of the real property, being $16,000, of which $5,000 was the value of the trees, for which they claimed treble damages under Utah Statute § 78-38-3, together with punitive damages of $10,000.
The Ranch didn’t answer the complaint, and the trial court granted default judgment. After that, the court took Howard Pitts’ testimony under oath, and granted judgment in the amount prayed for, $36,000. The Ranch moved to vacate the judgment, which was denied, and it appealed.
Held: The default judgment could not be attacked, but the damage award had to be set aside. There was no evidence of market value of the plaintiffs’ property after trespass on which to base a finding of malice or wanton destruction of property. The Court observed that the measure of damages for trespass on real property and destruction of the property is generally the difference between the value of the property before and after the trespass. Where there was no evidence of market value of plaintiffs’ property after trespass except a statement that the property was “totally ruined,” nor where any evidence had been provided upon which to base finding of malice or wanton destruction of property, the defendants were entitled to new hearing on damages issue.
The Supreme Court said that Mr. Pitts’ bare statement that the destroyed trees constituted $5,000 of the value of the property is all the evidence to support the treble damage award. Under these circumstances, the Court said, it did not find sufficient credible evidence to support the judgment of $36,000.
The record showed that the trial court thought the $36,000 to be too much, but said, “Well, if they respond to a judgment of this size, if they are faced with a collection problem maybe they will respond.” The Supreme Court found that the trial court entered judgment in that amount because the defendants had been dilatory, and the judge thought a large judgment would bring them into court. When exactly that happened, the trial court refused to overturn the judgment because at that time, the judge thought that to do so would be an injustice to the plaintiff. Damages must stand on stronger evidence than that.
Case of the Day for Thursday, March 31, 2016
What happens when landowners can’t get along? Not like husbands and wives — that kind of “not getting along” will always be with us. Rather, what happens when heirs end up owning property together, with each having a fractional piece and no one being able to agree with anyone else about anything?
When that happens – as it did in today’s case – the law provides that land may be partitioned, that is, divided among the owners according to statute. Where reasonable division isn’t feasible, the land is sold and the proceeds divided.
There’s another legal concept important for today’s case, and that’s what’s commonly known as the statute of frauds. The statute of frauds was intended to prevent frauds by requiring that certain types of agreements be in writing. Traditionally, the statute of frauds requires a signed agreement for
• contracts in consideration of marriage (including prenuptial agreements);
• contracts that by their terms cannot be performed within one year;
• contracts relating to an interest in land (including contracts of sale, mortgages and easements);
• contracts by the executor of a will to pay a debt of the estate with his or her own money;
• contracts for the sale of goods totaling $500 or more; or
• contracts in which one party becomes a surety for another party’s debt or other obligation.
The contracts covered by the Statute of Frauds can be remembered by using the mnemonic device “MY LEGS”: Marriage, contracts for more than one Year, Land, Executor (or Estate), Goods ($500 or more), Surety.
In today’s case, one landowner – called a co-tenant because the owners owned the land as a tenancy in common (an expression having nothing to do with rental) – wanted to cut down trees on two of the parcels. When the other co-tenants complained, the first (we’ll call him Greedy Gus) said he was taking the two lots on which the trees were located anyway, and letting the other owners have the more expensive, better parcel. The other owners (think of them as Sloppy and Hasty) agreed with his oral proposal, and even made a $16,000 equalization payment as part of the understanding. But when they finally got around to signing an agreement, Greedy Gus wanted to change the deal. Now he sought a whopping big equalization payment, one Sloppy and Hasty wouldn’t pay.
No deal was signed, and Gus then sued for partition under the statute (which would have valued the entire property and given him a much larger stake than what the others said he had agreed to). Sloppy and Hasty counter-claimed, but the trial court granted summary judgment for Gus. S & H appealed, and the Court of Appeals sided with them.
The appellate panel held that there were enough facts in play to require the matter to go to a jury, but the Arizona Supreme Court had the last word. Both the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court warned the Sloppy and Hasty, the two co-tenants who were arguing for the existence of an agreement, that the alleged voluntary partition agreement was subject to the statute of frauds, and the amount of paper evidencing an agreement was pretty sparse. Partial performance of a contract will exempt it from the statute of frauds: if I sell you a lot, and accept your payment but refuse to give you a deed, the partial performance — your payment — excuses non-compliance. Here, the Court of Appeals was pretty clearly unimpressed with the suggestion that the tree cutting was enough performance to excuse the lack of paper. It offered Sloppy and Hasty their day in court, but the day didn’t look too promising.
The day turned out to be anything but promising. The Arizona Supreme Court held that in order to constitute partial performance, the act had to unequivocally prove the existence of the unwritten contract. In other words, “part performance must consist of acts that ‘cannot, in the ordinary course of human conduct, be accounted for in any other manner than as having been done in pursuance of a contract’. The Supreme Court said that “in addition to providing an equitable basis for ordering specific performance, acts of part performance serve an important evidentiary function – they excuse the writing required by the statute because they provide convincing proof that the contract exists. So that this exception does not swallow the rule, the acts of part performance take an alleged contract outside the statute only if they cannot be explained in the absence of the contract.”
Here, the Supreme Court ruled, the acts that Sloppy and Hasty called evidence of part performance were really acts that were as consistent with their one-third co-tenancy interest as they were of anything else. With no partial performance, the unwritten contract went unenforced, too.
Owens v. M.E. Schepp Ltd. Partnership, 182 P.3d 664 (Supreme Court of Arizona, 2008). The parties owned undivided interests as tenants in common in contiguous residential lots. Hal Owens had a two-thirds interest and Schepp Partnership had a one-third interest. Two of the three lots were vacant, and a residence and guest house were on the third. The guest house was rented to third parties, but one of the Schepp partners lived in the residence.
Hal sued for partition of the lots and an accounting for rents and profits. Schepp Partnership answered and counterclaimed for specific performance of an alleged voluntary partition agreement or, alternatively, damages for a purported reduction in value of two of the lots caused by Hal’s removal of mature trees. Schepp Partnership argued that statutory partition was not available to Hal because he had entered into the voluntary partition agreement.
While meeting with the Schepps over a City notice to clean up the lots, Hal had said he wanted to remove a row of mature, 65-foot tamarack trees along the northern edge the lots. Thomas Schepp objected, saying the neighbors would be upset. Hal responded that he would decide what to do because he was taking two lots and leaving the most developed one to Schepp Partnership. He also told the partners that because Schepp Partnership would be getting the more valuable lot, it might cost the partners some money.
The parties agreed to divide the lots in this manner but did not reach agreement on any equalization payment. The Schepp brothers understood, however, that Hal might make a future claim for such payment. Soon after the meeting, Hal removed the trees. He told one of the Schepps that because he had paid a great deal of money for the two lots, the choice to remove the trees was his alone. Hal and Thomas Schepp then agreed a second time that Hal would take two lesser-value lots and Schepp Partnership would take the developed one. Based on this agreement to split the lots, the Schepps allowed Hal to remove the mature trees. Schepp Partnership later paid Hal $16,600, one-third of the total removal cost, as compensation to Hal in light of Schepp Partnership’s receipt of the more valuable lot.
A few months later, the Schepp Partnership sent a partition agreement to Hal for execution, but he returned it unsigned objecting to the lack of an equalization payment provision. Hal proposed that Schepp Partnership pay him $233,333 and grant him an access easement as equalization. The parties negotiated but never reached agreement regarding whether additional compensation. The trial court granted partial summary judgment for Hal, ordering statutory partition and appointment of commissioners, and dismissing the counterclaim for specific performance, holding that there was never an agreement as to how the property is to be divided between the parties. The Schepps appealed.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court , but the Schepps couldn’t find much solace in that fact. Partition is a means of dividing real property among certain types of owners. Property may be partitioned by agreement, or — if agreement cannot be reached — according to the requirements of state law. Voluntary agreements to partition real property are preferred to and controlling over involuntary partition proceedings.
A contract is formed when there is a bargain, consisting of promises exchanged, and consideration. To be enforceable, a contract must be reasonably certain and definite. Agreements leaving material terms for future resolution can be enforceable nevertheless if the parties sufficiently manifested mutual assent to be bound by those agreements. Where terms are missing, extrinsic evidence can be used to establish the meaning of the parties’ contract and supply omitted terms.
Here, the Court of Appeals said, a genuine issue of fact existed as to whether the co-tenants mutually agreed to be bound by an oral partition agreement. That issue of fact precluded summary judgment. But any alleged agreement between the co-tenants to partition the lots constituted an agreement for sale of their respective interest in the other’s remaining real property for purposes of the statute of frauds. And in order to satisfy the statute of frauds, the agreement must be in writing.
Subsequently, the Arizona Supreme Court disagreed, reinstating the original trial court decision. It held that no trial was necessary because neither the Partnership’s withdrawal of its objection to the tree removal nor its payment of one-third of the landscaping contractor’s bill was “unequivocally referable” to the alleged contract. Put differently, neither act is of such character as not to be reasonably explicable on other grounds. While it is true that partial performance of an oral contract is enough to take the agreement outside of the Statute of Frauds, Partnership did nothing that proved with partial performance the contract that should have been – but was not – put in writing.