Case of the Day – Tuesday, October 13, 2020


Here’s a strange little case from Big Sky Country. Landowner Wilber (who, if we read between the lines correctly, was an impatient man who preferred to reap that which he did not sow, if you get our meaning) was unhappy that his downhill neighbor had a tree which had grown tall, and thus interfered with his view.

Wilbur found a lawyer, to whom he complained, “I can’t see for miles.” The lawyer, Who was happy enough to take Wilbur’s money, whispered delusions of legal grandeur in Wilbur’s ear. “If the neighbors’ tree kept you from seeing the July 4th fireworks,” the attorney whispered, “then the tree is a nuisance. And if the neighbors did not remove the tree to suit you, then they’re malicious! If the tree is overhanging your yard, your neighbors are trespassers!”

Believing his highly-paid but under-informed counsel, Wilbur sued. The trial court bounced the suit, because (1) Wilbur had no common-law right to a view; (2) a naturally growing tree cannot be a nuisance; and (3) the neighbors are not trespassers because their tree’s roots and branches have encroached.

Wilbur appealed, and at last the Montana Supreme Court heard the case. And that’s where the strangeness arose. The Supreme Court agreed that Wilbur had no right to a view, and that the healthy, naturally growing tree was no nuisance. But it held that Wilbur’s trespass claim, because the tree was encroaching, had been adequately pled and would survive early dismissal.

We tend to think that the Court agreed only that Wilbur’s claim that the neighbors had caused the tree to encroach was, if true, a good claim. If Montana suggests that a tree’s encroachment itself constitutes a trespass if an owner does not take active steps to stop the encroachment, the holding goes far beyond even the Hawaii Rule or Fancher v. Fagella.

If, on the other hand, Montana suggests that such encroachment, if not halted by an owner with knowledge of the encroachment and damage to the property of another, is trespass, this may be not a lot different than the Hawaii Rule, just worded differently. After all, an encroaching tree that damages the neighbor’s property may well be a nuisance. Trespass or nuisance, the responsible landowner is liable for the damage. That is how the Hawaii Rule operates.

Martin v. Artis, 366 Mont. 513 (Mont. 2012). Wilbur Martin resides in the South Hills subdivision in Missoula. Keith and Gloria Artis’s property lies immediately below and abuts Wilbur’s property, with a boundary fence separating the properties.

The Artises had a tree, a nice large tree that had grown over the years so that it blocked a substantial portion of Wilbur’s view of the city, valley and mountains. In fact, horror of horrors, on Independence Day 2010, for example, Wilbur and his guest could see virtually none of the South Gate Mall fireworks display solely because of the Artis tree blocking the view. Wilbur said the tree’s obstruction of his views was “offensive to his senses, was an infringement upon the free use of his property, interfered with his comfortable enjoyment of his property, and diminished the aesthetic and monetary value of his property.” He said the tree was a nuisance, and in fact the Artises intended that it be a nuisance.

If that were not enough, Wilbur alleged that the tree’s roots were encroaching onto his property and were starting to buckle the boundary fence and that, in fact, branches from the tree encroached onto his property, overhanging the common boundary fence. He declared the encroachment to be a trespass.

The Artises had tried to accommodate. Wilbur admitted that after he contacted them about the tree, they had “cut a few branches from the tree,” but he nonetheless asserted that Artises “know their tree is growing over the fence onto Wilbur’s property and is buckling his fence, but refuse to do anything to stop it; that such trespass is continuing.”

Finally, alleging that Artises had notice and knowledge of the alleged facts, Wilbur accuses them of actual malice, and demands punitive damages.

Artises filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that a naturally growing tree is not a nuisance or trespass as a matter of law. The district court agreed, and dismissed Wilbur’s feverish litany of abuse.

Wilbur appealed, ending up in Montana’s Supreme Court.

Held: Wilbur had no right to an unobstructed view, and a naturally growing tree cannot constitute a nuisance. However, Wilbur had adequately pled a trespass because he claimed the tree was encroaching and the Artises knew it.

The statutory definition of nuisance provides that anything which is injurious to health, indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, is a nuisance.” Section 27-30-101(1), MCA (2009). While it is possible under § 27-30-101(1), MCA, for anything to constitute a nuisance, a nuisance claim must nonetheless plead a factual foundation that satisfies governing legal standards. “A nuisance action may be based upon conduct of a defendant that is either intentional, negligent, reckless, or ultrahazardous,” the Court said. A nuisance may either be a nuisance per se or a nuisance per accidens. A nuisance per se or at law is an inherently injurious act, occupation, or structure that is a nuisance at all times and under any circumstances, without regard to location or surroundings. A nuisance per accidens or in fact “is one which becomes a nuisance by virtue of circumstances and surroundings.”

Likewise, the Court said, a nuisance may also be classified as either absolute or qualified. An absolute nuisance is ” a nuisance, the substance… of which is not negligence, which obviously exposes another to probable injury.” A qualified nuisance, on the other hand, is a nuisance dependent on negligence that consists of anything lawfully but so negligently or carelessly done or permitted as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm, which, in due course, results in injury to another.

Montana law has never held that a nuisance claim would lie for any obstruction of view whatsoever. Here, Wilbur alleges that a tree, in the course of its natural growth, has risen tall enough to obstruct his view. Although the complaint broadly claims that Artises’ tree has reduced the aesthetic and monetary value of Wilbur’sproperty, interfered with his comfortable enjoyment of his property, and offended his senses, the entire factual basis of the claim is that a tree has obstructed his view because of natural growth. The assertion that Artises’ naturally growing tree has obstructed Wilbur’s view does not constitute, as a matter of law, “conduct of a defendant that is either intentional, negligent, reckless, or ultrahazardous,” the Court said, or “an inherently injurious act or a condition which “obviously exposes another to probable injury.” The District Court properly granted the Artises’ motion to dismiss Martin’s nuisance claim.

The trespass is another matter, the Court held. Trespass is “the entry of another person or thing obstructs a property owner’s exclusive possession. A party need not establish actual harm or damages in a traditional trespass action.” One is subject to liability to another for trespass, irrespective of whether he thereby causes harm to any legally protected interest of the other, if he intentionally (a) enters land in possession of the other, or causes a thing or third person to do so, or (b) remains on the land, or (c) fails to remove from the land a thing which he is under a duty to remove.

The “intent” element of trespass is fulfilled when an actor desires to cause consequence of his act, or when he believes that the consequences are substantially certain to result from his act. Here, the Court said, Wilbur’s complaint alleges a trespass because the Artises’ tree extends over the shared fence and the roots grow onto his property. The complaint alleges that the roots of the tree have damaged Wlbur’s property. Regarding intent, Wilbur claims alleges that the Artises “know their tree is growing over the fence onto the property and is buckling his fence but refuse to do anything to stop it,” that Artises’ conduct is motivated by malice or is in willful, wanton and reckless disregard of Wilburs’ rights,” and that Artises are guilty of actual malice “because they had notice and knowledge of the alleged facts.”

Although the Artises argue that Wilbur’s complaint fails to plead an intention to trespass by way of their tree, the Supreme Court concluded that, “for purposes of a M.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, intent was adequately pled.”

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Friday, October 9, 2020


bell160125A young girl and her friend sneaked onto church property to play. While they were doing whatever young kids do when they’re where they shouldn’t be, the girl pushed on a bell. The bell fell, injuring her foot. When kids trespass and do stupid things, how do the parents respond? Why, they sue the landowner, of course.

In this case it was a local Catholic Church, getting sued – unusually enough – for something that had nothing to do with sex abuse. Despite the Diocese’s obvious relief at being sued on behalf of a child plaintiff who wasn’t complaining about a priest, the Church nonetheless argued that under Wisconsin’s recreational use law, it enjoyed immunity.

In a strange analysis, the Court of Appeals disagreed. Reba was hurt when she pushed on the bell, and the Court held that her pushing the bell wasn’t related to the game she and her friend had been playing. This, the Court said, was mischief. Plus, the Court said, the Church wasn’t really a recreational property, and the Church didn’t invite people to use it as such. In fact, it took steps to keep kids from playing there. So because Reba was engaging in mischief as a trespasser, and because the Church was arguably acting responsibly in trying to keep this kind of conduct from occurring, it owed Reba a greater duty than had it left the place wide open. This is probably a correct application of the recreational use statute, but it certainly seems — as a matter of public policy — not to make a lot of sense.

"Trespasser William" the kid was not ...

            Remember Winnie the Pooh? “Tres-passer William” young Reba was not …

Fortunately, under Wisconsin law, the Church only would have owed a duty to a trespasser to refrain from willful, wanton, or reckless conduct, about the same result the Church would have gotten from application of the recreational use statute. Unfortunately, a jury found the Church had engaged in such conduct, and it awarded the plaintiff money damages.

You might think that you have no duty to a trespasser wandering onto your property. Guess again.

Fargo ex rel. MacArthur v. United Nat. Ins. Co., 739 N.W.2d 490 (Wis.App., 2007). A child playing house on church property was injured when she tried to push on a bell, which fell and injured her. Through her parents, the girl sued the St. Ignatius Catholic Church for negligence, and a jury awarded her damages. St. Ignatius appealed, arguing that it was entitled to immunity under the Recreational Use law, Wis. Stat. §892.52.

Daffy160125Held:  The award of damages to young Miss Fargo was affirmed. The recreational immunity statute limits the liability of property owners toward others who use their property for recreational activities. The statute defines recreational activity to include “any outdoor activity undertaken for the purpose of exercise, relaxation or pleasure…” The statute lists 29 specific activities that constitute recreational activities, but instructs that “recreational activity” should be liberally construed in favor of property owners to protect them from liability.

To determine whether a person was engaged in a recreational activity under the statute, the Court said, a fact-finder should consider the totality of circumstances surrounding the activity, examining the intrinsic nature of the activity, the purpose of the activity — including the injured person’s subjective assessment of the activity — and consequences of the activity. A court should also consider the nature of the property, including whether the owner intended the property to be used for recreational activities, and the reason the injured person is on the property.

The Church should have posted this sign. Er ... on second thought, maybe not .

     The Church should have posted this sign.  Um … on second thought, maybe not .

Here, St. Ignatius argued it was entitled to immunity because young Reba Fargo was injured while playing house with a friend on church property, and this was a recreational activity. The Court disagreed. Instead, it ruled, Reba was injured when she pushed the bell, which then fell on her foot. The Court held that her act of pushing the bell wasn’t related to the game she had been playing. Rather, viewing the activity objectively, she was attempting to move a large, stationary object by pushing very hard.

The Court concluded that this independent act was mischievous, because Fargo was trying to move an object that was not designed to move. Wisconsin law holds that mischievous conduct is not a recreational activity. What’s more, considering the nature of the property, St. Ignatius was a church, not a playground or other place where recreational activity would usually occur. The church made attempts to limit children playing on its property. While not determinative, that fact was an appropriate factor bearing on the recreational use analysis.

Considering all of the factors, the Court concluded that Reba Fargo was not engaged in a “recreational activity” within the meaning of the Recreational Use statute. Thus, St. Ignatius was not entitled to immunity.

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Thursday, October 8, 2020


the-muffin-man-07So who was it who lived on Byrum Lane-O?

No, it wasn’t the Muffin Man, but the Clarks. They had assembled several parcels of land into a pretty nice cattle spread and homestead along the Jefferson River. And they had always used Byrum Lane. The road passed across their land, across the Dwyer Place and ultimately back to some more of their land and up to their house.

Back in the 1960s, the land around the Byrums’ cow palace had been subdivided in smaller lots for homes, almost none of which (other than the Clarks’ place) had been built. Meanwhile, all the landowners and their guests used Byrum Lane, and had for a long while. The County had even maintained the road sporadically.

But then came the legal drama. When the Clarks completed their new home, the Dwyers (or maybe the Dwyers’ descendants, who were the parties to the case), told the Clarks they couldn’t use the road anymore. The Clarks sued, arguing they had a prescriptive easement. A prescriptive easement is much like adverse possession (the doctrine that lets an especially brazen and long-term trespasser gain title to your land). However, unlike adverse possession, the prescriptive easement isn’t about ownership: rather, it’s about the right to use someone else’s property. If you have used someone else’s driveway openly, notoriously, adversely, continuously and without interruption for the period of time required by statute, an easement in your favor has been created just by force of your chutzpah.

In this case, the Clarks had used Byrum Lane without permission for years, as had their predecessors, and as had just about everyone else. The County had even maintained it for awhile, seemingly uncertain whether it was a public right-of-way or not. The specific issue before the Supreme Court was whether the prescriptive easement extended to the Clarks’ use of Byrum Lane to reach a house on a parcel that didn’t exist when the prescriptive easement came into being. The Court said they could. The land had been subdivided before the prescriptive easement came into being, so the Dwyers had reason to think that if an easement had come into being prescriptively, it could be used to reach one of the homes which were contemplated on the vacant lots.

private160122 Clark v. Heirs and Devisees of Dwyer, 339 Mont. 197, 170 P.3d 927 (Mont. Supreme Court, 2007). The Clarks owned real estate, which they had acquired as several tracts over a seven-year period beginning in 1979. The Dwyers owned real property that bordered a piece of the Clark land with railroad tracks acting as a visible property line. The Dwyer property was bordered on the east by a county road named “Waterloo Road” and on the north by a roadway known as “Byrum Lane.”

Byrum Lane extended from Waterloo Road, across the Dwyer property, and across the northern border of the Clarks’ property – which lay between the Dwyer land and property owned by George and Virginia Byrum – before continuing onto the Byrums’ property lying to the southwest of the Clarks’ land. In essence, Byrum Lane dissects the Clarks’ land.

The Byrums used Byrum Lane by virtue of two recorded easements in their favor. The portion of Byrum Lane crossing the Clarks’ land is a recorded 60-foot wide roadway and utility easement. The portion of Byrum Lane traveling from Waterloo Road over the Dwyer property is a road and utility easement for a 30-foot wide roadway. This portion of Byrum Lane crosses the Dwyer property from Waterloo Road for a distance of about 834 feet before reaching the Clarks’ property.

Historically, Byrum Lane was used by the Clarks and their predecessors to access the tracts the Clarks had purchased. During the period of 1979 to 1986, Byrum Lane served as the Clarks’ sole access to their house. From the period of 1986 to 1991 the Clarks used Byrum Lane to feed livestock, load hay, and move equipment. Later, after they built a new house in 1988 on one of their tracts that previously had no residence, the Clarks continuously used Byrum Lane (although they also had access to their house by way of a roadway from Waterloo Road.)

The Clarks claimed a prescriptive easement along Byrum Lane, allowing them access over the Dwyer property to their land. Following trial, the court found that Byrum Lane had been used by the public and Clarks’ predecessors since the early 1900s, had been maintained by the county road department on occasion, was generally known as a public road which the public had a right to use long before the Dwyers purchased their property, and had been used without permission by the Clarks and Byrums (as well as others) since the time the Dwyers bought their land. The Dwyers and Byrums argued that the Clarks didn’t have the right to use the road to reach a residence on a tract that hadn’t had one when the prescriptive easement came into existence.

The trial court disagreed, saying that all owners of the road were put on notice in the 1960s that the road was intended to service residences when the subdivision of the property into various tracts took place. The court concluded that the Clarks established the elements of a prescriptive easement, an open, notorious, exclusive, adverse, continuous, and uninterrupted use of the roadway for at least five years. The Dwyers appealed.

barricade160122Held: The Supreme Court upheld the trial judge. The Dwyers complained that the trial court had no business making findings about the public-use nature of the road. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that although the action involved an alleged private easement, the public-use findings served only to give credibility to the private-easement claim and had no other legal effect.

To establish a private prescriptive easement, the Court said, a party must show open, notorious, exclusive, adverse, continuous, and uninterrupted use of the easement claimed for the full statutory period of five years required by Montana Code § 70-19-404. An open and notorious use is a distinct and positive assertion of a right that is hostile to the rights of the owner and brought to the attention of the owner. Once a prescriptive easement is established, the owners of the easement are limited to the use and frequency of use that was established during the prescriptive period. If an easement is not specifically defined, it is considered to be of a size that is reasonably necessary and convenient for the purpose for which it was created, and not more. And once established, a prescriptive easement “runs with the land,” which means that the benefit or burden passes automatically to successors.

Applying these principles, the Supreme Court found that the Clarks had a prescriptive easement to use Byrum Lane. The right to use the private prescriptive roadway easement provided subdivision access extended to the Clarks’ and other tracts, lands that never had residences. The tracts were subdivided before the prescriptive easement came into being, the Court said, and the act of subdividing the tracts of land put all landowners on notice that the disputed roadway was intended to service all residences. Furthermore, the disputed roadway had been used to service parcels for several decades.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Wednesday, October 7, 2020


Easements are fairly easy to grant. A blank piece of paper, a wild notion that some right should be given to your neighbor, a notary public to make it all legal, and maybe a fifth of good whisky to make you sufficiently reckless, and you can blot your title for a good long time.

How long, you ask? How about “perpetually,” the answer usually goes. But not always. Normally, one would hope that the easement was drafted precisely enough to specify its duration, or at least leave the intent of the grantor clear. But not always.

Young law students learn quickly enough in contract law that where a time for performance is not specified, a “reasonable” period of time is assumed. A “reasonable time” varies according to subject. If I promise the neighbor kid I will pay $20.00 to have my lawn cut, the little layabout cannot wait two months before showing up with the mower and expect the deal to still apply. On the other hand, if I agree with a neighbor that if he plants an apple tree on my land for me, he can have half of the apples, he can wait 15 years before showing up with a basket, and I have no beef with him.

So it is with easements. In today’s case, neighbors granted mutual easements a half century before, relating to maintain a fence, letting the one cross the property of the other, and letting one party cut timber on the other’s land. No term was specified. When the fence maintenance and property crossing continued for 50 years, the court had no problem. But the timber harvest was clearly, according to the court, intended to be accomplished in the short term. The holder of the timber harvesting right could not wait two score and ten before arriving with his saw.

You snooze, you lose.

Lewison v. Axtell, 195 N.W. 622 (Supreme Court, Iowa, 1923). Ollie Lewison and Oscar Axtell owned tracts of land on both sides of the Iowa River. The prior owners of both properties had signed a contract many years before, in fact 20 years before the predecessors sold their land to Ollie and Oscar, that granted easements for construction and maintenance of a fence along Ollie Lewison’s tract, as well as a right for Oscar Axtell to pass through Lewison’s property. In exchange for the fence, the prior owner of Oscar Axtell’s tract was given the right to trim timber and brush from certain areas of the Ollie Lewison’s property.

When each of Ollie and Oscar took possession of his respective tract, no mention of the easement contract was made in either deed.

The fence remained in place for many years, during which time Ollie Lewison had allowed Oscar Axtell to cross his property. However, when Oscar Axtell decided to remove timber from Ollie Lewison’s property, Ollie sued to prevent Oscar from doing so, claiming that too much time had elapsed for him to exercise that right. The trial court found in favor of Ollie.

Oscar Axtell appealed.

Held: Oscar was not permitted to cut any timber on Ollie’s land.

The Supreme Court of Iowa defined the sole issue as being “whether the [defendant] now has a right to remove timber or brush from [the plaintiff’s property].” In Iowa, the Court said, “contracts for the purchase of growing trees must remove the same within the time specified, and, if the contract is silent as to time, then within a reasonable time after the contract becomes effective.” In this case, the Court found that Oscar Axtell was required to have removed the trees within a reasonable time, and – given that he had been in possession of his tract for more than 30 years without doing so – his attempt to do so was no longer reasonable.

The Supreme Court conceded that the question could have gone either way, but its conclusion was buttressed by the fact that some rights in the contract – such as the right to build a fence and for Oscar Axtell to pass across Lewison’s land – were described as “perpetual,” but the right to cut the timber was devoid of any language suggesting the original parties had foreseen, when signing the contract a half century earlier, that the timber harvesting would extend into perpetuity as well.

– Tom Root



Case of the Day – Tuesday, October 6, 2020


All right, I’m not from Missouri, but I have passed through the “Show Me State” a few times, and it’s a pretty nice place. But, given their reputation for being hard to convince, how would Missourians treat encroachments to their properties from trees not their own?

On one hand, there’s the state nickname. The most well-known and widespread story features Missouri’s United States Congressman, Willard Duncan Vandiver, who gave a speech in 1899 to some Philadelphians in which he said:

”I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

The underlying meaning of his statement may be interpreted as being a claim that Missourians are not naïve: If you want one to believe you, you better have convincing evidence . 

On the other hand, Missouri’s official motto is “salus populi suprema lex esto,” which my late sainted Latin teacher Emily Bernges would have told us translates to “the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” All right, let’s run with that.

When Pete Hasapopoulos’s driveway started crumbling from neighbor Joyce Murphy’s Chinese elms, was his good the supreme law? Or, because Missourians are not naïve, should he have known that Joyce’s Chinese elms were going to grow? After all, a natural tree largely does what it wants to do. It may sit on one owner’s property, but above ground, the branches may spread over the neighbor’s property, and leaves or fruit or even deadfall may make a mess of the neighbor’s house, outbuildings or yard. Underground, the root systems may spread until they meet retaining walls, basements, septic systems and underground utilities.

This phenomenon is called “encroachment.”

Traditionally, the rule has been that any property owner has the right to trim back branches and root systems to the property line, at his or her own expense. This “self-help” doctrine is known as the Massachusetts Rule, so called because it was first articulated in a Massachusetts case known as Michalson v. Nutting. The dark side of the Massachusetts Rule was that no matter how destructive the neighbor’s tree was to your property, you had no right to sue your neighbor to force him or her to trim the tree or roots, or to get any financial help from your neighbor for costs you incurred in doing it.

As American society became more urbanized, other courts took a more liberal view. When a neighbor’s banyan tree – a monstrosity of a tree – began overgrowing Mr. Whitesell’s property in Honolulu, he sued his neighbor to get a court order to force the neighbor to take care of the problem. Impressed by the sheer magnitude of the nuisance caused by the tree, the Hawaii court held that in Whitesell v. Houlton that while anyone had the right of self-help as described in the Massachusetts Rule, when a tree caused sensible harm to a neighbor, the owner of the offending tree could be ordered to trim the tree or roots at his or her own expense. This is called the Hawaii Rule.

The Hawaii Rule has gained traction in a number of states over the past 20 years. Tennessee, New Mexico, North Dakota, Arizona and New York follow it. Several other states follow the rule with variations.

But not in Missouri. What’s that? “Show me,” you demand? All right, you’re from Missouri. We will.

Hasapopoulos v. Murphy, 689 S.W.2d 118 (Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, 1985). Pete Hasapopoulos experienced problems from overhanging branches and cracking of his driveway caused by the roots of two Chinese elm trees owned by the next-door neighbor, Joyce Murphy. The trial court held that Joyce was not liable, and Pete appealed.

Held: Joyce prevailed.

The Court of Appeals, agreeing with other jurisdictions “which find no cause of action for damages to neighboring property caused by encroachment of the roots or branches of healthy trees,” found that Joyce was not liable. At the same time, it held that Pete retained a right of self-protection by cutting off the offending roots or branches at the property line.”

The Court observed that Missouri is “squarely among those jurisdictions which find no cause of action for damages to neighboring property caused by encroachment of the roots or branches of healthy trees, but leaves the plaintiff to his right of self-protection by cutting off the offending roots or branches at the property line.” And here, Pete had no proof the chinese elms were defective.

Application of the Massachusetts Rule, the Court, results in no injustice in this case. “Neither plaintiffs nor defendant committed a wrongful act. We are not inclined to find defendant acted unreasonably in permitting perfectly healthy trees to grow, and certainly defendant intended no harm thereby. The trees and their proximity to plaintiffs’ land existed when plaintiffs purchased their residence. They must be charged with awareness of the potential effects of growing trees. Recourse to self-help to protect from damage and to eliminate annoyance from overhanging branches was available to plaintiffs for 15 years before they had the branches cut off at the property line. Imposition of liability upon the tree owner under such circumstances would create the potential for continuous controversy between neighbors and could promote harassment and vexatious litigation, disruptive of neighborhood serenity. Possible exposure to liability would warrant the uprooting of trees and shrubbery in proximity to boundary lines resulting in non-aesthetic barrenness.”

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, October 5, 2020


It’s hard to muster up a lot of sympathy for hard-nosed businessman Henry Tyler. When he wanted to build a commercial building, but his neighbors rightly refused to let him cut down some of their trees, Hank just yanked the trees anyway.

But the neighbors, the Johnsons, were not a couple of patsies who would roll over and play dead. They got a lawyer, who cranked on Hank big time. By the time the dust settled, Hank owed the Johnsons for the trees he cut down, for additional damages his trespass caused, for treble damages under the statute, and for punitive damages. The $1,400 worth of Johnson trees that Hank butchered ended up costing him over $11,500.

But there’s truth to the maxim that little pigs go back to the trough, but big pigs get slaughtered. (Mark Cuban is credited with the most common variation on this old saw, but I recall my securities law professor, the late Morgan Shipman, using the line often back in the 70s. Like Abraham Lincoln famously said, you just can’t trust the Internet).

Treble damages are intended to punish the malefactor by providing a simple statutory punitive remedy for a wronged party. Common-law punitive damages likewise are intended to punish the malefactor, but without a set formula (thereby permitting a jury to make a symbolic gesture or run wild, as it wishes.

In today’s case, the plaintiffs’ silver-tongued lawyer talked the jury into awarding both treble damages and common-law punitive damages. When the trial judge wisely struck one, reasoning that a defendant could be punished once but not twice, the plaintiffs – who were big piggies by this time – appealed.

The Johnsons should have accepted the court’s offer when it first made it. The Iowa Supreme Court tanked their punitive damage award, and sent the whole case back to be retried.

Johnson v. Tyler, 277 N.W.2d 617 (Supreme Court, Iowa, 1979). The Johnsons, who bought their home in 1952, planted trees and shrubs around the premises, particularly along the west line of their property. Genco Distributors, Inc., bought the property next to the Johnsons’ land to the west, intending to put a commercial building there. Genco’s president, Henry E. Tyler, asked the Johnsons for permission to remove the trees along the west boundary in preparing for the construction work. They refused. Hank nevertheless instructed the contractor to bulldoze the trees.

The Johnsons sued under Iowa Code § 658.4 for damages resulting from Hank’s deliberate and willful removal of a number of trees and shrubs from their property. The jury found for the Johnsons, fixing the value of the destroyed trees and shrubs at $1,400.00, which were trebled to $4,200.00, adding other sundry damages of $2,100.00, and assessing punitive damages of $5,250.00. That was too much for the trial court, which set aside the verdict for punitive damages.

The Johnsons refused their adjusted judgment of $6,300.00, which still was more than double the total amount of damage they suffered. They appealed the trial court’s striking of punitive damages, and the case ended up in the Iowa Supreme Court.

Held:  Punitive damages cannot be assessed.

The Supreme Court said that the paramount issue here was the question of whether the Johnsons could have both treble damages under the statute and punitive damages at common law.

The relevant statute provides that “[f]or willfully injuring any timber, tree, or shrub on the land of another… the perpetrator shall pay treble damages at the suit of any person entitled to protect or enjoy the property.” The Court held that by bringing the action under Iowa Code § 658.4, the Johnsons chose the remedy afforded by that statute, which is itself punitive.

The Johnsons argued that the statute did not abrogate their right to punitive damages, but instead just provided an additional statutory remedy. The Court disagreed, holding that letting a plaintiff have both treble damages under the statute and punitive damages under common law “would violate the basic prohibition against double recovery.” The Supreme Court ordered that the case be retried, with the jury being instructed that it should only find compensatory damages.

Not all the news was bad for the Johnsons, however. The Supreme Court clarified one question, whether “loss of enjoyment resulting from destruction of the trees and shrubs” was part of the damages that could be tripled under the statute. The trial court  said they were not.

The Supreme Court held that the treble damage statute “allows treble damages for loss resulting from willfully injuring any timber, trees, or shrubs. It does not limit recovery to damage to the trees or shrubs themselves. Loss of enjoyment resulting from such conduct is an element of damage. If properly proved, this item, too, comes within the treble damage provision of § 658.4.

Tom Root