Trespass … the concept has been around for a long time. The Israelites trespassed in the Promised Land. Just ask the residents of Jericho. The Romans trespassed throughout the known world. The Pilgrims trespassed on some prime real estate, as the descendants of the Wampanoag tribe will attest. Piglet, Winnie the Pooh’s sidekick, explained to the befuddled bear that his ancestor, “Trespassers William,” was remembered in the Hundred Acre Wood by a memorial sign emblazoned with “Trespasser Will.”
Most famously, Jesus advised us to forgive those who have trespassed against us. Alas, as today’s case illustrates, that advice – like much of His teachings – is honored in the breach.
Trespass is most readily defined as an unauthorized personal intrusion on land in possession of another by a wrongdoer, or by his failure to leave such land, or by throwing or placing something on such land, or by causing the entry of some other person onto such land. Because the law of trespass pops up time and again in tree cases – where some canny lawyer tries to turn the intrusion of branches over or roots under the property of another person into a trespass – it’s a good idea to brush up on the doctrine every now and then.
So pour yourself a glass of Soda Rock cabernet sauvignon, vintage 2010, and consider a recent case involving a boundary dispute between Napa Valley vineyard and adjacent winery operators. About 15 years ago, Ken and Diane Wilson bought a decrepit century-old winery building north of San Francisco. Over a decade, they restored it into a thriving winery, complete with tasting rooms and amusements for oenophiles.
The rear of the winery building backs up to a vineyard belonging to Belle Terre Ranch, with a pathway or “avenue” between. A line of oak trees runs behind the winery within about four feet of the building. Thanks to the ubiquity of satellites (look up and smile!), we are able to easily understand the layout, and thus the nature of the Wilsons’ problem with the neighbors.
During the reconstruction, the Wilsons regularly used the “avenue” behind the winery building for deliveries and to allow access for heavy equipment involved in the reconstruction. Belle Terre also used the avenue for maneuvering its equipment in tending to the vineyard. Belle Terre didn’t complain, because it was just trying to be neighborly. Belle Terre’s permission to use the avenue was not intended to be perpetual, but rather just “to repair the winery.”
When the Wilsons applied for permits to complete the winery renovation, Belle Terre raised concerns with the county about trespass by wine-tasting patrons. One of its concerns was that a “survey should be done before a permit is issued.”
Knowing they would need a survey to plan the reconstruction, in January 2003 the Wilsons commissioned a surveyor. His survey showed the Belle Terre-Soda Rock boundary was approximately 12 to 13 feet behind the rear wall of the winery building.
Five years later, Belle Terre complained to the Wilsons that a cement truck involved in the winery renovation was trespassing, kicking up too much dust on the avenue, dust that was settling on the grapevines and damaging the grapes. Wilson replied that the property line was about nine feet out from the winery, saying he had had it surveyed. After this confrontation, Belle Terre hired a different surveyor to find the boundary. The new survey concluded the property line was approximately 9.4 feet closer to the back of the Wilsons’ winery than the 2003 Story survey had shown, a line that closely corresponded to the line of oak trees.
Belle Terre’s attorney wrote a letter to the Wilsons in August 2008, telling them to stop trespassing on Belle Terre’s property. When the Wilsons continued to use the avenue, Belle Terre filed suit to quiet title to the disputed strip of land and for trespass. Belle Terre sought a permanent injunction barring the Wilsons from trespassing, as well as attorney fees and costs. The complaint did not request damages.
The Wilsons claimed they owned the nine-foot strip of land and denied they were claiming any interest in Belle Terre’s property. At trial, however, the Wilsons claimed in the alternative a prescriptive easement over the disputed strip of land.
The trial was a battle among the surveyors. When the dust settled (on the grape leaves, no doubt), the trial court found in favor of Belle Terre and issued judgment quieting title and granting permanent injunctive relief against further trespass by the vintners. The court also awarded $1.00 in nominal damages for past trespass, and upon that basis awarded Belle Terre its attorney fees in the amount of nearly $117,000 under Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.9.
On appeal, the Wilsons argued vociferously against the propriety of the $1.00 in damages, for the very good reason that if there were no damages awarded, there could be no attorney’s fees awarded.
The California Court of Appeals upheld the judgment in favor of Belle Terre Ranch, ruling that the Wilsons were permanently enjoined from trespassing in Belle Terre’s vineyard. Likewise, the Court said, where there’s a trespass, there are always damages, even if they’re not proven. Property owners possess a “dignitary interest in the inviolability” of their property rights, the Court said. Thus, “every trespass is an invasion of a legal right of another and carries with it the right to nominal damages,” even if actual damages weren’t proven.
Such damages were not proven, in this case, probably because damages were an afterthought to Belle Terre – it started out the case just wanting a court to tell Wilsons to swill their wine somewhere besides on the “avenue.” We suspect that only when their lawyers’ bills started skyrocketing past $10,000 to $50,000 to north of $100,000, did the notion of getting someone else to pay the mouthpiece take hold.
About then, we surmise, one of Belle Terre’s lawyers found a provision in California law that held that in “any action to recover damages to personal or real property resulting from trespassing on lands either under cultivation or intended or used for the raising of livestock, the prevailing plaintiff shall be entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees in addition to other costs, and in addition to any liability for damages imposed by law.” The law was intended to give farmers and ranchers a meaningful remedy for damage caused by trespassers breaking through fences to take motor vehicles onto private property. The statute was designed “to enhance the ability of ranchers to sue trespassers for damages, particularly in those cases where the rancher must now either compromise a significant portion of a valid claim by suing in small claims court… or by spending a major share of the recovery to pay his or her attorney.” Sweet! Suddenly, money became a driver in the case, at least enough money to pay learned counsel.
Because Belle Terre did not focus on damages, the trial court just found nominal damages of a buck. That was enough, the judge said, to assess the $117,000 in legal fees against the Wilsons.
Not so, the Court of Appeals held. After a lengthy opinion that appeared to be thoroughly crushing the Wilsons’ grapes, the Court reversed the legal fees holding, thus turning a Mad Dog 20/20 opinion into a Clos Des Papes Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2012. The Court concluded that Cal. CCP § 1021.9 permitted the award of attorney fees only where there had been real damages, not just nominal or assumed damages.
Here, the Court said, the parties were primarily litigating a boundary dispute upon which a trespass claim depended, not the classic trespass case that an aggrieved rancher on a budget might need Cal. CCP § 1021.9 in order to pursue. There was no evidence of actual damage to the Belle Terre vineyards, and thus, while the $1.00 nominal damages stood, the attorney fees did not.
The lesson here – never overlook the benefit of proving actual damages. No doubt Belle Terre started out disclaiming any interest in proving damages. Had it proved even a dollar’s worth of damage from dust on the vines, ruts in the avenue, or anything else, its legal fees would have been covered.
Belle Terre Ranch, Inc. v. Wilson, Case No. A137217 (Ct.App.Cal. 1st Appel. Div., Jan. 13, 2015): Ken and Diane Wilson bought a rundown century-old winery building near Healdsburg, California, in 2001. Over a 10-year period, they restored it and opened a winery and retail operation.
The winery building backs up to a vineyard belonging to Belle Terre Ranch, with an unpaved “avenue” between them. A line of oak trees stands behind the winery within about four feet of the building. During the reconstruction, the Wilsons used the “avenue” behind the winery building for deliveries and to allow access for heavy equipment. At the same time, Belle Terre used the avenue for maneuvering its equipment in tending to the vineyard. Belle Terre didn’t complain about the Wilsons’ usage for construction, but the permission was not intended to be perpetual.
The Wilsons commissioned a survey in order to plan the reconstruction of the winery. The survey showed the boundary was approximately 12 to 13 feet behind the rear wall of the winery building.
In about 2008, Belle Terre complained to the Wilsons that a cement truck involved in the winery renovation was trespassing, kicking up too much dust on the avenue, which was settling on the grapevines, damaging the crops. At this time, Belle Terre hired a different surveyor to find the boundary. The new survey concluded the property line was approximately 9.4 feet closer to the back of the Wilsons’ winery than the 2003 Story survey had shown, and it closely corresponded to the line of oak trees.
After Belle Terre’s demands that the Wilsons stop using the avenue went unheeded, Belle Terre filed suit to quiet title to the disputed strip of land and for trespass. Belle Terre sought a permanent injunction barring the Wilsons from trespassing, as well as attorney fees and costs. The complaint did not request damages. The trial court found for Belle Terre, rejecting the Wilsons’ survey as flawed. It quieted title and granting permanent injunctive relief against further trespass by the vintners. The court also awarded $1.00 in nominal damages for past trespass, and upon that basis awarded Belle Terre its attorney fees of about $117,000.
Napa Valley – idyllic, except when litigation rears its ugly head.
The Court of Appeals upheld the judgment in favor of Belle Terre Ranch, enjoining the Wilsons from trespassing in Belle Terre’s vineyard. It held that Belle Terre met its burden of proving the Wilsons intentionally, recklessly or negligently entered Belle Terre’s property or caused another to do so. There was evidence the Wilsons continued to trespass on Belle Terre’s property even after Belle Terre’s lawyer sent them a letter demanding that they cease. Trucks engaged in the Wilson remodel were photographed trespassing on Belle Terre’s property even past the nine-foot disputed area, and a dumpster used for the Wilson construction was placed over the nine-foot line. Belle Terre testified that the Wilsons discharged what appeared to be “gray water” onto Belle Terre’s property and also destroyed a wildlife habitat. A construction worker from Soda Rock also was seen trespassing into Belle Terre’s vineyard. The Wilsons argued there was “no evidence” linking the work performed by “unidentified construction workers” with the Wilsons’ land or improvements, but the court called this argument “patently absurd.”
The Court held that for every trespass upon real property the law presumed nominal damages where actual damages are not shown. “Because property owners possess a ‘dignitary interest in the inviolability’ of their property rights. The Court said that damages, even though nominal, are considered necessary to support a judgment in a trespass tort action since it is essentially an action for damages.
However, the nominal damages will not support an award of legal fees. Here, nominal damages were awarded without proof of actual injury to real or personal property. Based on the plain language of the statute, the Court concluded an award of attorney fees is not available on the facts before us.
Nominal damages have been described as “symbolic” and are often awarded “[w]here there is no loss or injury to be compensated but where the law still recognizes a technical invasion of a plaintiff’s rights or a breach of a defendant’s duty.” In this case, Belle Terre did not present any evidence of damages to personal or real property nor were compensatory damages claimed in the prayer for relief. The Court said that award of nominal damages in the trespass action was intended to redress intangible harm to the “dignitary interests” of the landowner personally, and not injury to the land or to his personal property. In this case, the parties were primarily litigating a boundary dispute upon which the trespass claim depended. Although the Wilsons’ acts of trespass onto Belle Terre’s land arguably supported an award of nominal damages, the Court said, there is no evidence of any actual damage to Belle Terre’s property that would trigger the provisions of section 1021.9.
In cases falling within the intent of the statute, there must be some tangible harm done to real or personal property as a result of the trespass.
– Tom Root