Case of the Day – Monday, October 19, 2020

WE ALWAYS MEANT IT

An entire e-cottage industry has grown up around the notion that there are some areas of the law – incorporation, wills, real estate transactions, contracts, divorce – where all you need to do is download some PDF fillable forms, answer a few simple questions, and save yourself a ton of money by representing yourself. When we complain about it, our admonitions are written off as self-interest.

But we always meant it. So, using an argument you might correctly characterize as reductio ad absurdum, we give you Nellie Francis.

Nellie believed she was suffering from some encroaching trees belonging to her neighbor. So she did what any red-blooded American would do: she sued.

After all, how hard can this be? Nellie filed a complaint, sent off a few motions, and called some witnesses. That’s all that a real lawyer would do, after all, and he or she would charge you $10,000 to do it.

Whoa, Nellie! She filed all sorts of motions, kept trying to amend her complaint, and even added damages for which she had been paid, which never happened, or – in one case – which happened to someone else, but she claimed it anyway.

The trial court sanctioned Nellie, requiring her to pay the defendant’s legal fees for a particularly egregious and frivolous filing. Undaunted, Nellie filed a demand that he pay her legal fees as well, not the least inconvenienced by the fact that she was representing herself, that is, was pro se, and so she had no fees.

For that matter, at trial, she could not even prove that the fallen branches came from defendant Joshua’s trees. That seems kind of basic, the notion that you don’t sue unless you have some proof that the defendant is the one who caused you harm.

Those are the kind of technicalities that lawyers worry about. That’s why, Legal Zoom or not, they continue to be a necessary evil. Just ask Nellie…

Francis v. Brown, 836 A.2d 206 (R.I. 2003). A simple dispute between two abutting landowners and allegations of negligence in maintaining trees running along the property line between them brought Nellie S. Francis, representing herself (never a good idea) and Joshua Brown into court.

Nellie S. Francis lives at 16 Miller Avenue in Providence. The rear of her property is bordered by a 100’ fence, part of which abuts Joshua Brown’s place at 21-23 Verndale Avenue. A row of mature maple trees stands along the boundary between Nellie’s and Josh’s.

Nellie sued Josh, contending he was negligent for failing to maintain the trees or to prune rotted limbs that constantly fell into her backyard, causing injury to herself, her children, her dog and her elderly mother, as well as damages to her fence, two cars, a concrete floor of a torn-down garage, a swing set, and a doghouse. Josh denied all of Nellie’s allegations.

In February 2000, Josh moved to enter on to Nellie’s land to remove any trees belonging to him. She objected to his entry, unless he assumed the liability for any damage done by work crews. Nell filed her own motion to compel Josh to cut down the trees on his property. As a result, Josh filed a motion for sanctions based on Nellie having proposed orders inconsistent with prior court rulings, and having filed frivolous motions to compel Josh to do that which she simultaneously had opposed. The hearing justice agreed and further found that Nell had caused unnecessary delay and increased Josh’s cost of litigation. She was ordered to pay $350 to defense counsel by June 9, 2000.

Along with her blizzard of pretrial motions, Nellie found time to move to amend her complaint on more than one occasion to add further damages. She also appealed to try to review an order denying her motion for reconsideration of an order granting Joshua’s motion for assessment of legal fees against Nellie. Undaunted by the prospect of the trial court sanctioning her for her vigorous and unschooled courtroom antics, Nellie sought leave to amend her complaint for a second time, this time incorporating diverse and sundry damages not included in her first amended complaint. The trial court turned her motion down, finding the motion “too late [and] inappropriate,” and prohibiting her rom bringing forth any incidents not referred to in her first amended complaint. What’s more, the trial justice ruled that Nellie would be precluded from presenting any medical evidence relating to animals or persons not named as complainants. Finally, he ruled that no information regarding insurance coverage would be given to the jury so that the jury would decide the matter on the merits and not on defendant’s ability to pay.

Neophyte Nellie fared little better at trial. She presented several witnesses, including herself and her daughters, but conceded that she did not know what caused the branches to fall, nor could she state with certainty whether branches shown to her in photo exhibits had come from Joshua’s property or that of the vacant property next door. She admitted that she did not own the two vehicles damaged by trees for which she sought compensation. Neither of her daughters could pinpoint from whose property the fallen branches originated and neither offered testimony as to what caused the branches to fall. Louis Bobola, the director of forestry for the City of Providence testified that the trees were not on city property. He also said that the trees needed pruning, but that he did not see any decay on the trees.

Joshua’s lawyer introduced evidence that six years before, Nellie’s insurance carrier had already paid her for some of the tree damage she had now claimed. At the end of the trial, the judge granted Joshua judgment as a matter of law, holding that Nellie had utterly failed to prove her claim:

“The problem with the entire case is there is no evidence before the jury with regard to any damages sustained in this case by the plaintiff or her property… [T]here is not a scintilla of evidence before this court as to what tree or trees occasioned the alleged injury, on whose property they were located, were they on the defendant’s property or were they on the abutting property on the boarded-up house. And throughout the case while there are certain inferences that can be drawn that branches do not fall on their own from trees, it simply in this [c]ourt’s view is not sufficient to be able to predicate a finding of negligence on the part of the defendant simply because this event has occurred… Mere ownership of trees that may or may not have caused damages does not impute negligence to the owner.”

The unsinkable Nellie filed for reconsideration, which the judge treated as a motion for a new trial. The court, charitably noting that Nellie had undertaken a difficult task by representing herself in the matter, found that the record was devoid of any objective damage for the jury to consider even if she had satisfied the first two requirements of negligence and proximate cause.

Nellie appealed to the Supreme Court.

Held: The trial court was upheld in every regard.

After reciting a litany of Nellie’s failings, the Court upheld the trial court’s evidentiary rulings, refusal of Nellie’s repeated amendments and judgment for Joshua. As for Nellie’s amendments, the Court agreed with the trial judge that she had been allowed to amend once, the trial date was upon the parties, and the amendment was flawed, with “many of the proposed incidents that plaintiff sought to add occurred several years previously. We believe that plaintiff was aware of their occurrence well before she filed her original complaint.”

After all of that, the trial court’s modest $350.00 sanction of Nellie seemed restrained. Noting that Joshua “was awarded $350 in fees as a sanction against plaintiff for filing motions and making pretrial objections for inappropriate purposes,” the Supreme Court held that “the trial justice awarded a reasonable fee, well below the amount requested by defendant, for the purpose of giving “a warning” to plaintiff. We believe the sanction was justified and well within the trial justice’s discretion.”

Nellie had made her own demand that Joshua pay her a “pro se” fee for the work she had done on her own case. The Court drily said, “We decline to address the plaintiff’s appeal from the denial of her motion for an award of pro se fees. The plaintiff has not supplied this Court with an adequate record on which to review the issue, and therefore, we deny and dismiss her appeal on this issue.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Friday, October 16, 2018

SO WAS MARY ANNE AN EMPLOYEE?

mmma160129Every red-blooded American boy (and girl, for that matter) knows the story of Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne. Work had dried up for the pipe-smoking Mike and his redoubtable steam shovel, so they took a job in Popperville digging the basement for the new town hall. Mike pitched the town’s selectmen (this happened back in the day when steam shovels were female but governing officials were not) by promising to dig the new town hall cellar in only one day, a task that everyone involved agreed would take 100 shovel-wielding men at least a week to complete.

The selectmen — especially one named Henry B. Swap — were dubious of Mike’s claim that Mary Anne could dig the basement so quickly, so they made a deal with Mike that he wouldn’t get paid unless he completed the work in the time allotted.

Mike didn’t make the deadline, but the story had a happy ending anyway. Such was not the case for Terry W. Henry. Terry, an experienced timber harvester, needed work. He asked Bobby Hubbard, who ran a timber company working several tracts of leased land, for a job. Now Bobby appears to be one of those kinds of employers, you know, the kind of guy who “tries out” people and then finds them deficient, not hiring them and, for that matter, not paying them for the “tryout” period. On top of that, Hubbard made everyone an independent contractor, paying them in cash without any withholding and without any tax reporting whatsoever.

While Terry Henry was on his one-day “tryout” — the deal being that he would get paid if Hubbard found his work acceptable —  a tree branch fell on him. Of course, Bobby “Captain All-heart” Hubbard refused to pay him for the day’s work and fought Henry’s workers’ compensation claim. The Board found that under the law, Henry was an employee, despite the conditional promise of payment. Hubbard argued that Henry would have become, at best, an independent contractor and been ineligible for workers’ comp. But he abandoned his argument at the Workers’ Comp board level, and the Supreme Court wouldn’t let his lawyer resurrect the argument when the Court of Appeals hadn’t heard it. If he had made the independent contractor argument, he might have been off the hook, but it’s hard to see the “independent contractor” argument as anything more than a tax and responsibility dodge.

work160129Still, Hubbard’s lawyer flubbed the case procedurally by not keeping the issue alive. Maybe Hubbard had his mouthpiece working under a “tryout” deal, too, and he won’t have to pay his solicitor.

Hubbard v. Henry, 231 S.W.3d 124 (Sup.Ct. Ky., Aug. 23, 2007). Henry had operated a bulldozer and cut timber for about ten years. He responded to an ad that Hubbard, a licensed master logger who leased the right to harvest timber from landowners, had placed. Hubbard usually employed four workers to operate a bulldozer and cut and load the timber under written employment contracts. The workers were independent contractors and supplied their own saws, chaps, and safety equipment, while he provided the bulldozer, skidder, gasoline, chains, and files.  Hubbard  paid them weekly in cash for days worked, and he did not withhold taxes or issue a Form 1099 for their pay.

Henry B. Swap

     Henry B. Swap had nothing on Bobby Hubbard …

Because Hubbard wanted to be certain that Henry could do the job, Henry agreed to work on a trial basis for a couple of days and to receive no pay unless Hubbard was satisfied with his work. Henry recalled that they discussed pay of either $10.00 per hour or $100.00 per day (which Hubbard disputed) and said Hubbard never told him he would be hired as an independent contractor. Henry cut a number of poplars, one of which fell into a sycamore tree. Another worker then showed Henry how to do a hinge cut, and a branch from the sycamore struck him on the head, injuring him severely.

Henry later asked Hubbard to pay him for the day that he worked, but Hubbard refused, but gave him some money later but did not say that it was payment for the work. Henry filed for workers compensation payments, asserting he had been hired and was working as an employee when he was injured.  Hubbard countered that Henry had not been hired and was working on a trial basis only or — even if he had been hired — he was an independent contractor rather than as an employee. The ALJ found Henry was working on a trial basis when he was injured. Noting that state law premised employee status on the existence of a contract for hire, the ALJ also found that Henry failed to show a meeting of the minds sufficient to impute an implied contract for hire or to show that he expected to be paid for the work that he performed on the date of his injury.

Henry asserted to the Board that the ALJ erred by concluding that there was no implied contract for hire, by concluding that he worked on a trial basis but was not hired, and by failing to determine that he worked as an employee. The Board held as a matter of law that Henry was Hubbard’s employee, noting the undisputed evidence that Hubbard’s outfit was a logging company in the business of harvesting lumber for profit and that, at the time of Henry’s injury, he was harvesting timber at a job site that Hubbard controlled.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, and Hubbard appealed.

pinno160129Held: Henry got his workers compensation benefits. The workers’ compensation statute defines “employee,” for coverage purposes, to include every person performing service in the course of the trade, business, profession, or occupation of an employer at the time of the injury. It is intended to protects workers who are injured while performing work in the course of an employer’s business by considering them to be “employees,” despite the lack of a formal contract for hire, unless the circumstances indicate that the work was performed with no expectation of payment.

Under the statute, Henry was an “employee” when he was injured during his tryout for employment as a timber cutter, despite the fact Hubbard would owe Henry nothing if Hubbard was dissatisfied with the work. There was a contract of sorts, one which held that Henry would be hired and paid for work unless Hubbard was dissatisfied with his work. A co-worker did not state that he would have discouraged Hubbard from hiring Henry, and Hubbard did not indicate that he was dissatisfied with Henry’s work or would not have hired him had he not been injured.

Hubbard did not preserve the issue of whether Henry was an independent contractor in the course of an employer’s trade, business, profession, or occupation — who by law had effectively elected not to be covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act — so that matter could not be considered.

– Tom Root
TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Thursday, October 15, 2020

EXPERT TESTIMONY

expert150115

I spent the better part of yesterday trying to line up a couple of expert witnesses for a Virginia case. The eye-glazing episode left me contemplating Mark Twain’s aphorism that “an expert is just somebody from out of town.”

As I was reminded in my quest for some experts in rather arcane disciplines, it’s a little more complicated than what Twain may have thought. But not that much: certified arborists, operators of tree trimming services, even just guys from out of town – just about anyone can be qualified by courts as expert witnesses.

And what good is an expert witness? Primarily, experts testify not to facts, but rather to opinions. Juries like opinions. Opinions sway juries.

In today’s case from Arkansas, a frolicking bulldozer operator wiped out a bunch of a neighbor’s trees. Clearly, she was entitled to damages. But how much would the damages be? She hired the county extension agent to testify as to the value of the trees that had been cut down. The defendant complained that the expert relied on timber sales reports written by others, but the Court of Appeals accepted his opinion, and in the process explained what type of research process it wanted to see as a basis for an expert opinion.

Of course, the state’s treble damages statute, which multiplied the value of the lost timber by threefold, made the expert’s opinion all that more important to both sides. Incidentally, the defendant tried to argue that there was no proof that the bulldozer operator was his agent, but that was a mere sideshow: the evidence was overwhelming on that point.

Expert150116Jackson v. Pitts, 93 Ark.App. 466, 220 S.W.3d 265 (Ct.App. Ark. 2005). Richard Jackson owns land just north of land owned by Nora Pitts. Pitts claimed that Jackson or people acting for him bulldozed trees on her land where it borders that of the Jackson. Lloyd Pitts,

Nora’s son, saw John Moore operating a bulldozer in the area of the destroyed timber, which was located on Pitts’s property line with Jackson’s land. Lloyd said he walked along his mother’s land shortly afterward and saw holes where trees had been removed from the bulldozed ground. Another witness saw the bulldozer activity on Pitts’ property, and said that the bulldozer operator told him that he had been directed by Jackson to perform the work. The trial court found that the Jackson and Moore trespassed Pitts’ land and destroyed marketable timber, setting the value of the destroyed timber at $1,157.20. Treble damages allowed under §18-60-102 of the Arkansas Code increased the judgment of $3,471.60. Jackson appealed.

Held: The trial court judgment was upheld. Jackson claimed that treble damages were unjustified, but the Court disagreed. The imposition of treble damages in a trespass action for trees damaged, broken, destroyed, or carried away requires a showing of intentional wrongdoing, although intent may be inferred from the carelessness, recklessness, or negligence of the offending party.

Here, the Court said, the evidence was sufficient to support a finding that an agency relationship existed between Jackson and the bulldozer operator such that Jackson was liable for the operator’s damage to Pitts’ timber. Lloyd Pitts saw the bulldozer on his mother’s property operating in the area of the damaged timber, and saw Moore operating it. Another witness said Moore said he was working for Jackson. Jackson admitted he had hired Moore to work on his property with a bulldozer, and that if any trees had been removed from Pitts’ property, it would have been done by Moore.

Mark Twain says there are none of these ...

Mark Twain says there are none of these …

As for the amount of damages, the Court said, the evidence in each trespass case determines what measure of damages should to be used to value trees damaged, broken, destroyed, or carried away. Timber is generally valued according to its “stumpage value,” which is the value of the timber standing in the tree. Here, Pitts’ expert witness gave testimony of the estimated number of trees destroyed by Moore, and their market value at the time. The evidence was admissible, the Court said, even though the opinion relied in part on hearsay. The expert described the methodology he used to compute timber value within a specified area, which included diameter measurements of randomly-selected trees, an estimate of the timber volume multiplied by the number of trees within a specified area, and the use of a university timber market report to obtain an estimated market value.

What’s more, the Court observed, the expert testified he personally walked the area to conduct his measurements and testified he walked off the area that was bulldozed, and then went into the woods next to that area to measure a similar amount of land and counted the trees within it. The Court said an expert witness may base an opinion on facts or data otherwise inadmissible, as long as the facts or data are of the type reasonably relied on by experts in that particular field.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Wednesday, October 14, 2020

ALWAYS SHOW UP

Not showing up may not make you all that interesting ... but it could lighten your wallet.

Not showing up may not make you all that interesting … but it could lighten your wallet.

The Pitts had 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. After all, 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, the decision doesn’t mention — and cut down a number of trees. When the Pitts finally discovered the perfidy of their adjoining landowner, they sued.

Pine Meadows Ranch never answered the suit, and the trial court — after waiting a suitable period of time — granted default judgment. The court then took the testimony of Howard Pitts — who said the land was worth $16,000 before the trespass but was “totally ruined” afterwards, the trees constituting $5,000 of the total — and granted judgment for $36,000. The 36 large ordered in the judgment finally got the Ranch’s attention.

On appeal, the Ranch complained that the dog ate its summons or some such nonsense. The Court of Appeals 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 too light on fact to support the award. Additionally, the trial court had observed during the damages hearing that the $36,000 was probably too much, but maybe it would get the non-appearing Defendant’s attention. From that aside the Court of Appeals suspected that maybe the trial judge had assessed $36,000 to punish a no-show.

The case went back down for a new hearing, but there’s an important lesson her anyway: not showing up does not endear a defendant to a court.

Mr. Pitts wasn't sure how many trees had been cut, but he said the property was ruined.

Mr. Pitts wasn’t sure how many trees had been cut, but he said the property was ruined.

Pitts v. Pine Meadow Ranch, Inc., 589 P.2d 767 (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.

After the Pitts started trying to collect on their judgment, the Ranch 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.

showup160126The 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 was the only 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 he thought a large judgment would bring them into court. When the defendants did respond to the big judgment, the trial court refused to overturn it because at that time to do so would be an injustice to the plaintiff.

Damages have to be based on stronger evidence than that.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Tuesday, October 13, 2020

I CAN’T SEE FOR MILES AND MILES…

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

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Friday, October 9, 2020

SHE SURE GOT HER BELL RUNG

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
TNLBGray