Case of the Day – Friday, October 5, 2018

I’M FROM MISSOURI

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

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Thursday, October 4, 2018

HANK YANKED, JOHNSONS CRANKED, SUPREME COURT TANKED

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

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Wednesday, October 3, 2018

HE SAID, SHE SAID…

This is probably the right time, what with the “I know what you did in high school” drama being played out in Washington, to run with our own “he said, she said” case, a peculiar turn-of-the-last-century trespass to timber case from New Jersey.

The defendant farmer was accused of trespassing onto the plaintiff’s land without permission and cutting down 32 trees. He said he only cut 13 trees, and anyway, he had permission from the plaintiff’s father (the plaintiff being a fair damsel who, back then, couldn’t be worrying her pretty little head about real property management).

The plaintiff’s dad, unsurprisingly, denied giving permission.

It seemed pretty clear that the jury bought the plaintiff’s version of events. The damages awarded could not have been for just 13 trees, implying the jury must have believed that Farmer Ruddy had taken all 32. The fact that the jury found a trespass meant that it necessarily disbelieved Farmer Ruddy’s story about looking at the trees with plaintiff’s father and making a deal.

After the obligatory denial that it was not second-guessing the jury, the court of appeals held that punitive damages were not proper where the case was nothing more that “an honest dispute as to permission for the act found to be a trespass…” Sure, and Bonnie and Clyde thought they had permission to take money that wasn’t theirs from the bank. So their offense was really just “an honest dispute as to permission for the act” found to be a robbery accompanied by lots of gunfire.

If Farmer Ruddy did not have permission (as the jury found he did not), then his entire story about walking the boundary with Ms. Hollister’s father was a woof story. And necessarily, then, Farmer Ruddy’s conduct in trespassing and taking the trees was wanton and malicious.

The court of appeals was simply substituting its own conclusions for those of the jury, rewriting the verdict as best it could by reducing the damages by about half.

This is not only an old decision, it’s an awful one. The Court may have been swayed by George Ruddy’s motive, to remove shade from his field and thereby make it more productive. It may have preferred George’s detailed testimony over getting permission to plaintiff Minnie Hollister’s dad, whose hot denials may have sounded hollow. It may have figured that some woods belonging to a mere girl should not be favored over a field owned by a man.

Who knows (but the Court)? The point is, those conclusions are factual, and in this country, findings of fact are made by the jury, not an appeals court. This is raw judicial encroachment on the jury function, 19th-century style.

And some think that judicial activism is a recent phenomenon.

Hollister v. Ruddy, 66 N.J.L. 68 (N.J. 1901). Farmer George Ruddy had a problem. Minnie Hollister’s trees that stood along the boundary with his field threw so much shade that a healthy part of the cropland was not healthy at all. George cut down some trees, the exact number being an issue, some of which were boundary trees.

Minnie claimed that George had no permission to remove any trees at all. George testified that he had obtained permission from Minnie’s father, who had authority to approve tree removal. George gave convincing testimony that he had driven the elder Hollister from town to the field, that they discussed the trees and shade problems they caused, that the trees were only fit for firewood, and that George even offered to sell the wood and give all of the proceeds to Minnie (because his only interest was in making the field more productive). Farmer Ruddy said he had cut only 13 trees on the boundary, not the 32 trees Minnie claimed were gone.

No matter. The jury believed Minnie Hollister, and found that George had trespassed. Miss Minnie recovered $400.00 in damages to the trees, and punitive damages of $350. George appealed.

Held: Minnie was not due any punitive damages.

The trial court had instructed the jury that after it figured out the value of the timber that was improperly taken, “if you believe that the action of this defendant, in entering upon the plaintiff’s land and cutting the trees, was wanton, willful and malicious, and that he meant to take property that he knew was not his own, and cut down the trees maliciously and carried them away without the plaintiff’s knowledge or consent, you may add such damages as you think is proper punishment for a man who willfully does an illegal act of trespass of that character.”

The court of appeals agreed with the jury instruction, but found that the clear weight of the evidence showed that Farmer Ruddy had not cut or authorized the cutting of more than the 13 trees that stood on or near the boundary line, and that the trees he cut were fit only to be cut for cordwood. Their value, based on the trial court testimony, was about $20.00. But even if the jury thought that George Ruddy had cut all 32 trees, the most they could have been worth was about $400.00. So plainly, the appellate court concluded, the jury must have allowed punitive damages.

The Court ruled that the right to award punitive damages rests, primarily, upon a single ground – wrongful motive. But here, the Court said, there was no competent evidence that George had authorized the cutting of anything more than the trees on or along the boundary line, and he claimed that his reason for cutting those was that they shaded his field so as to prevent the raising of full crops. He also claimed that he had procured permission from the elder Hollister, who was in charge of the property, for the cutting of those trees, although Mr. Hollister hotly denied this.

The Court conceded that “the verdict determined that permission was not given, and on that point alone we would not disturb it; but it seems to us quite plain that the jury were not justified in finding the defendant’s conduct wanton or malicious. Without conceding that for a mere trespass on lands and the cutting of trees that have no special value in themselves, and the cutting of which inflicts no peculiar injury on the landowner, punitive damages can ever be properly awarded, we see no ground for their allowance on the testimony above cited.”

The Court characterized the trespass case as “an honest dispute as to permission for the act found to be a trespass. It is true that some of the trees cut were exactly on the boundary line, and it is argued that that fact gave them a peculiar value. No such value was contended for or submitted to the jury. The line was not obliterated, for the stumps of the trees remained in the earth, and the line itself was shown by a post and wire fence, which, though considerably fallen into decay, still left the boundary line between the parties clearly discernible. There was no peculiar injury or any indignity inflicted on the plaintiff. It will be enough if she gets just compensation, which, of course, may include the value, if any, of any of the trees as line trees.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Tuesday, October 2, 2018

THE EAGLE HAS LANDED

 

Unlike the kid above, our Ralph wasn't quick like a bunny when the branch fell.

Unlike the kid above, our Ralphie wasn’t quick like a bunny when the branch fell.

When the elder Mr. Eagle volunteered to help trim a tree at his church, his son tagged along. It seems that Ralphie was anxious to help Daddy.

Ah, the brashness of youth. The lad (he was 50 years old, but he still lived with mom and dad, so he was unquestionably a kid, albeit a big one), shouldered the three septuagenarians out of the way and climbed the ladder himself. Well, one thing led to another, and the group of tree-trimming amateurs lost control of a limb. The limb fell, the 70-year old man holding the ladder jumped out of the way to avoid being hit, and the falling limb knocked the ladder out of the way. Ralphie fell off the ladder and he landed — hard.

Having his eye on the collection plate, the litigious Eaglet sued the Church, the other retirees and, of course, his own father (with whom he resided) for negligence. He claimed that the volunteers were acting as agents of the church, making the church liable.

The trial court would have none of this, and threw the case out. The Court of Appeals agreed, finding that as volunteers, the tree trimming crewmembers owed each other reasonable care at most. And it wasn’t reasonable to believe the man holding the ladder would stand and take a hit when the limb fell. There wasn’t evidence that any of the trimmers were negligent, so the Church couldn’t be liable.

As for premises liability, the Court said, the evidence showed Eagle had volunteered to help three old men do something dangerous: he should have seen it coming. In reading the decision, one gets the impression that neither the trial court nor the appellate panel thought much of the young Eagle, who horned in on the volunteer effort, ignored his father’s request that he not participate, and then — after getting hurt — suing everyone involved.

FallingMan15101Eagle v. Owens, Case No. C-060446 (Ct.App. Hamilton Co., 2007). A small church needed some tree trimming performed. During a Sunday service, the pastor had asked for volunteers to perform the tree-trimming task. The church typically relied on volunteers for landscaping work, including potentially dangerous work such as trimming trees. Merida and Owens volunteered for the task. Both had performed similar tasks for the church on several occasions in the past without incident.

Before leaving the church that day, the two volunteers stood by the tree to examine what had to be done. When Eagle’s father walked by, they recruited him to help them. Eagle’s father was a deacon of the church, an unpaid, rotating position that required him to make decisions for the church’s benefit with the four other deacons. Ultimately, the three men, all over the age of 70, agreed to meet the next morning to perform the task.

When the elder Eagle arrived the next day, he brought his 50-year old son with him. The son thought the other volunteers were too old, so he took over trimming from a ladder perch. Before the younger Eagle began sawing, his father insisted on changing the position of the rope around the limb. Merida remembered telling Eagle’s father that he did not like the change, but he claimed that he deferred to him because he was a deacon. The limb did not fall cleanly, and its branches knocked over the ladder the younger Eagle was standing on. One of the men who had been holding the ladder ran to avoid being struck by the limb. Eagle fell and was injured.

He sued everyone who was there, as well as the church, alleging that they had “carelessly and negligently caused a tree limb to fall and strike” him. He also alleged that his father, Owens, and Merida were acting as agents or employees of the church when the accident occurred, and that the church was responsible for the acts of its agents. The individual defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis that Eagle had assumed the risk of any injury by participating in such an inherently dangerous activity. The church moved for summary judgment on the respondeat superior claim, arguing that it could not be liable where the individual defendants were not negligent and were not agents of the church, and where Eagle had assumed the risk.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants without giving any reasons or issuing a decision. The younger Eagle appealed.

Held: The young Eagle’s wings were clipped. The Court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal, holding that as nonprofessional volunteers, the defendants at most owed Eagle a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances. Eagle did not present any testimony, expert or otherwise, to demonstrate how his father’s, Merida’s, or Owens’ conduct fell below a standard of reasonable care. No one foresaw that the branches on the limb would strike Eagle after breaking off from the trunk, and no one expected Owens to hold the ladder if it swayed while Eagle was on it, because it was obvious that he was physically unable to do so. And if he had stayed to steady the ladder, he likely would have been struck and injured by a large limb.

fallsign150114The Court held that the duty of reasonable care did not require such a foolish act of bravery, despite Eagle’s assertion that he would have steadied the ladder and suffered the blow of the limb if the roles had been reversed. To establish a claim against the church under the doctrine of respondeat superior, the record must demonstrate that a principal-agent relationship existed, and that the tortious conduct was committed by the agent while in the scope of his agency.

Here, the Court said, it did not need to determine whether reasonable minds could have concluded that any of the three men were agents of the church and whether Eagle was injured by acts taken within the scope of that agency, because the individual defendants did not act tortiously towards Eagle in carrying out the task. Where there is no actionable conduct by an agent, there can be no vicarious liability for the principal. Finally, on the claim of premises liability, the Court held that in determining the duty the church owed to Eagle, it had to focus on Eagle’s status as a participant in the tree-trimming task, because his injury resulted from his participation in this task and not from his status as a person present on the church’s property in general.

It was undisputed that Eagle was warned of the danger; that the church had always used volunteers, including Merida and Owens, to perform similar tree-trimming tasks in the past; and that these volunteers had performed in the past without incident. Eagle did not present any testimony from a tree-trimming professional to attack the church’s decision to use these same volunteers to remove this limb. The Court concluded that reasonable minds could come to but one conclusion, and that conclusion was that the church did not breach a duty of care owed to Eagle.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Monday, October 1, 2018

TALKIN’ ‘BOUT THE BIG “D”

fence150113Nothing can come between brothers… except maybe an angry ex.

As brothers, Jerry and Kenneth were tight, just good ‘ol boys down on the farm. Their folks had given them 20 acres each, two small farms next to each other.

Ken got his farm first, and he put up a rickety, crooked fence, one good enough to keep cows penned up but not much as a boundary marker. A few years later, he gave brother Jerry permission to put up his own cattle pen, which attached to Ken’s own wandering fence. The upshot of all this sloppy fence building was that a 2.6-acre parcel belonging to Ken was on Jerry’s side of the fence. So what? They were brothers, after all. Ken didn’t mind, and he and Jerry both used the little piece of land. Jerry built a pond on part of it. Ken harvested some of the timber standing on it, and sold the lumber for profit.

So the boys lived side by side, happily ever after. Well, not quite. Seems after about 20 happy years, Jerry’s wife had had enough of the cows, enough and the ponds, and mostly, enough of Jerry. So it was the big “D” for Jerry, and when the smoke cleared, his ex owned a good chunk of his place.

She didn’t much like the ambiguous status of the 2.6 acres, so she sued Ken. Why not? She had just sued his brother, and look how well it turned out for her! The ex claimed the 2.6 acres by adverse possession. However, it turned out that her ex brother-in-law wasn’t the pushover Jerry had been. The trial court agreed that it couldn’t be adverse possession unless Jerry had held the 2.6 acres in a manner hostile to his brother’s rights. And, after all, they were family.

Divorce150113Simply put, there was no evidence that Jerry had fenced in his brother’s land except with his brother’s permission. Permissive possession, simply put, is not adverse.

Cleveland v. Killen, 966 So.2d 848 (Miss.App., 2007). Ken and Jerry each owned a 20-acre tract of land located next to each other in Neshoba County. Ken’s tract was directly north of Jerry’s, and there was a straight property line dividing the two parcels.

Ken received his land from his folks in the 1960s. When Jerry got his in 1970, he wanted to build a fence for some cows. Jerry got Ken’s OK to “tie on” additional fencing to a fence that Ken had built on his own property, a crooked thing that was sort of parallel to the boundary line, but not intended to represent the boundary line. In fact, it seemed none of the parties knew where the exact boundary line was when Jerry built the fence. Since Ken’s fence spanned the middle of the property, Jerry began at the corners and added fencing eastward and westward to the edges of the property. Combined with Kenneth’s portion, this let Jerry fence his cattle without building a fence across the entire property. But because Ken’s original fence was north of the actual property line, the completed fence separated the 2.6 acres in dispute from the remainder of Ken’s property.

split150113For a long time, there was no conflict about who owned the 2.6 acres now in dispute. Jerry used the land for gardening and for animals, and Ken cut timber on the land and built a gate in the fence so he could run his cattle over to Jerry’s pond. But some 20 years after Jerry built the original fence, he put in a pond, about a third of which was on Ken’s land but on Jerry’s side of the fence. There was no conflict over the pond until Jerry’s wife divorced him and got a remainder interest in his 20 acres. Ex-wife Tommie sued Ken when he hired a surveyor to mark the property and then built a fence that represented the true property line. By then, Jerry was suffering from dementia and didn’t testify. The trial court found for Ken, and Tommie appealed.

Held: The land was not lost to Tommie by adverse possession, the Court of Appeals held, affirming the trial court. The Court found that the evidence was sufficient to show that Jerry had had Ken’s permission to use the 2.6-acre parcel in question. The landowners were brothers who had lived side by side with their families for 35 years with no disputes, there was evidence that Jerry had asked for Ken’s OK to build a fence (which Ken had given), the brothers thereafter used each other’s property, Ken brought his cattle across the land to use the pond, and that Ken even cut down some trees located in the disputed area and kept the profit he received from selling the timber.

As a rule, permissive possession of lands — even if continued for a long time — doesn’t confer title on the person who possesses them until a positive assertion of a right hostile to the owner has been made. If there never had been a request or a grant of permission to use land, the use would not have been permissive, but rather would have been adverse. When a close family relationship is involved, proof of adverse possession is not ordinarily as easily established as it is when the parties are strangers.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Friday, September 28, 2018

SNAP, CRACKLE AND POP

An arborist defendant's nightmare - the troop of Brownies your client's tree toppled onto.

An arborist defendant’s nightmare – the troop of Brownies your client’s tree toppled onto.

Arboriculture professionals pride themselves at being expert at what they do, which is – generally put – to manage trees. Management may include trimming, preservation, or in many cases, removal of trees. Often, how the tree is to be treated depends on the arborist’s expert opinion of the condition of the tree, and the threat (if any) that the tree poses to persons or property.

A lot can depend on the arborist’s opinion. If an examination of a tree misses a defect or disease, and the tree ends up falling on a troop of Brownies who happen by on the public sidewalk at just the wrong time, the unlucky arborist will end up with a lot of ‘splainin to do.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit handed down a decision in fall 2014 that involved not a single tree. Nevertheless, the decision should serve as a caution to arborists, landscapers and tree trimmers – not to mention those who hire them.

It seems that small-time grain handler ConAgra Foods, Inc. (January 15th market cap – $16.9 billion) had a problem with a wheat pellet storage bin. Grain can be tricky stuff, generating a lot of dust as well as carbon monoxide. Both of these like to explode with little provocation. The technical people call it “deflagration,” more of a low-level snap and crackle than a high-level detonation “pop” – but to the man or woman on the street, it’s an fairly destructive bang.

ConAgra knew just what to do when one of its grain bins in Chester, Illinois, started heating up spontaneously. It called in an expert in “hot bins,” a sort of a Red Adair of wheat silos. The company, West Side Salvage, went to work on the unstable grain bin, but only after a delay occasioned by contracting procedures and West Side’s other business commitments.

The delay proved the project’s undoing. West Side tried to salvage some of the wheat pellets in the bin, but removal of the grain let more oxygen into the bin, and the instability increased. West Side’s supervisor called firefighters to stand by, but while he awaited their arrival, he sent several workers for one of West Side’s subcontractors into the bin through a tunnel to retrieve tools. While they were doing so, the grain dust exploded, seriously injuring them.

Everyone knows that an owner is not responsible for the negligence of an independent contractor. Everyone also knows that the owner may be liable if it does not provide the independent contractor with a safe place to work. The district court agreed that ConAgra had done just that, and that West Side was negligent in sending the employees into the dangerously unstable grain bin. It smacked ConAgra and West Side jointly with $18 million in damages for negligence.

ConAgra appealed, arguing that it was not liable for any damages to the subcontractor employees, because West Side knew what it was getting into. Besides, its contract with West Side provided that west Side would indemnify ConAgra from any West Side negligence. West Side, anxious to have a company with ConAgra’s deep pockets around to share the $18 million, retorted that ConAgra failed to reveal material information to it about the unstable grain bin. Furthermore, West Side’s indemnification of ConAgra may have been written into the contract, but West Side had never signed the document.

Your customer hired you because you're an expert at what you do. You have to act like one.

Your customer hired you because you’re an expert at what you do. You have to act like one. If something goes wrong, you’ll surely be judged like one.

The Seventh Circuit was baffled. The injured workers complained that ConAgra had provided them with a dangerous workplace? Of course it did, the Court said. The whole point of hiring a “hot bin” expert was that the bin was dangerous. The Court held that where an owner hires an independent contractor to remedy a dangerous situation, the owner would not be held liable if the feared disaster came to pass. Such a policy would only discourage people with serious or dangerous problems to hire experts to get them fixed.

The Court has just as little patience with West Side’s complaint that ConAgra had failed to disclose information to it about the grain bin’s condition. West Side didn’t exactly say that ConAgra had provided false information. In fact, it admitted that ConAgra adequately answered all of the questions it had put to its client. The problem, West Side argued, was that ConAgra had other information about the dangerous grain bin – specifically, temperature readings from earlier in the month – that it failed to volunteer.

The 7th Circuit expressed incredulity at the claim. West Side was a self-professed expert in “hot bins.” ConAgra was not. An owner like ConAgra was entitled to assume that when an expert like West Side is hired, the expert will ask for all the information it deems important. In this case, ConAgra did not end up sharing liability with West Side simply because it didn’t answer questions that were never asked.

The Court seemed almost perplexed by West Side’s argument that it had never gotten around signing the contract with ConAgra, so it wasn’t bound by the provision that it indemnify ConAgra from damages resulting from its negligence. That hardly mattered, the Court said. West Side began the work, whether it signed the contract or not. That was enough to signify that it had accepted the contract terms.

So what’s the takeaway for arboriculture professionals? First, be sure the contract is completely negotiated and signed the way you want it. If you leave it for later but begin work now, a court may conclude you had accepted terms you thought were still being negotiated. Second, you’re an expert at what you do. Be certain to gather all of the information you need for the job. When the tree falls on that Brownie troop, you can’t hide behind the owner’s failure to give you information about the condition of the tree that you never asked for.

Jentz v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 767 F.3d 688 (7th Cir. 2014). A grain bin in Chester, Illinois, exploded in April 2010, injuring three workers. The month before, ConAgra Foods – the owner of the bin, which was part of a flour mill – discovered a burning smell coming from the storage vessel, which contained wheat pellets. ConAgra hired West Side, which claimed expertise in handling “hot bins.” When work began, West Side hired A&J Bin Cleaning to do some of the tasks. Two of the injured workers, John Jentz and Robert Schmidt, were employees of A&J. The third, Justin Becker, was employed by West Side itself.

ConAgra wanted to salvage as much of the grain as possible, but as pellets were removed from the top more oxygen reached wheat composting at the bin’s bottom. West Side decided to remove some grain via side tunnels. On April 27 West Side detected smoke coming from the bin. Its crew sprayed water on the pellets and used an air lance to try to discover the smoke’s source; the effort failed. Mel Flitsch, West Side’s foreman, told ConAgra to call the fire department. Waiting for firefighters to arrive, Flitsch sent Jentz and Becker into a tunnel, instructing them to remove tools that might impair firefighters’ access. While they were there, the explosion occurred. They were severely injured but survived. Schmidt, who was in an elevator nearby, also was injured, but less seriously.

A Federal district court jury awarded $180 million in damages against ConAgra Foods and West Side Salvage. ConAgra contended that liability rested on West Side, which it had hired to address problems in the bin. For its part, West Side did not contest liability to the workers but contended that it does not have to reimburse ConAgra for the cost of repairing the facility. The injured workers contend that both ConAgra and West Side must pay the full verdict.

The dust may just deflagrate and not really detonate - but it's mighty impressive nonetheless.

The dust may just deflagrate and not really detonate – but the distinction probably makes no difference if you’re the one caught in the fireball..

Held: The Court of Appeals held that ConAgra was not liable. Normally, the appellate panel said, employees of an independent contractor cannot obtain damages from the owner of the premises at which the contractor was working. The injured workers contended that ConAgra nevertheless was liable for failing to provide West Side with a safe place to work. ConAgra responded that of course the grain bin was unsafe — that’s why West Side had been hired to begin with. ConAgra relied on the principle that someone who engages an independent contractor to redress an unsafe condition is not liable when the feared event occurs.

The Court agreed, pointing out that Illinois law held that “in a case involving negligent rendition of a service [by an independent contractor] … a factfinder does not consider any plaintiff’s conduct that created the condition the service was employed to remedy.” Here, ConAgra may have delayed in hiring West Side (it rejected other companies for lack of liability insurance), and it may not have provided all of the information about the bin it had, but that does not matter. The evidence showed that West Side was hired to deal with a hot bin, and all liability therefore is on its account. Having hired a self‑proclaimed expert in hot bins, ConAgra was entitled to assume that West Side would ask for whatever information it needed. The Court said that “[p]eople who hire lawyers rely on them to ask for information material to the situation, and no court would hold a client liable to his lawyer for failing to reveal spontaneously something that the lawyer never asked about; similarly people who hire specialists in controlling the risks of grain storage are entitled to rely on them to know what matters and ask for the material information.”

Finally, ConAgra signed and tendered to West Side a contract containing a promise by West Side to indemnify ConAgra for any damage caused by West Side’s negligence. The jury concluded that West Side is liable under this promise, but West Side argued that it did not return a signed copy of the contract to ConAgra. It agreed to undertake the job, and set to work, but did not sign on the dotted line. The district judge thought this irrelevant, because performance usually is as good as a signature as a way to accept a proposed written contract. The Court of Appeals agreed. Knowing the proposed terms, West Side began the work. That was as good as a signature on the dotted line.

– Tom Root

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