Case of the Day – Thursday, May 4, 2017

ENCROACHMENT – MASSACHUSETTS STYLE

The tree crew we hired seemed sort of smallish, but they had really cool trucks ...

The tree crew our neighbor hired seemed sort of smallish, but they were always smiling and had these really cool trucks …

We’ve got some new neighbors, nice folks who bought a house that, while substantial, has been badly neglected. Since moving in a few months ago, they’ve been working like beavers to fix the place up.

Today, they had a tree service cut down a number of trees, large and small. We have a couple of big pine trees – which I love but my wife doesn’t – that have branches overhanging the new neighbors’ back yard.

Our neighbor came over to inquire whether we minded that he trim some of the long, spindly branches encroaching over the stockade fence into his yard. We were surprised to be asked.

“But surely you know the Massachusetts Rule,” we said. “You don’t need permission to trim the oak branch back to the property line. That’s well settled law!” Our neighbor was pleased if a little skeptical. He was sure he couldn’t touch the branch – even though it extended well into his property – without our OK.

To assuage our neighbors’ concern (and that of their tree service), we provided the foreman with the web address of the most comprehensive tree law site in the entire solar system it – this one. We confidently predicted that the site just happened to plan to cover encroachment issues the very next day.

Are we ever prescient! As it happens, today we are going to talk about encroachment… not the neutral-zone penalty that costs a defense five yards. That’s for football season, still three months away (depending whether your tastes run to high school, college or pro). The encroachment we care about is different.

Beginning140714Encroachment is what happens when your neighbor’s tree roots break into your sewer system, when leaves and nuts are dumped into your gutters, or when the branches rain down on your car or lawn. The law that governs rights and responsibilities when a neighbor’s tree encroaches on your property only developed in the last 80 years. Before that time, a simpler time perhaps, people didn’t resort to the courts quite so much.

In the beginning, there was the “Massachusetts Rule.” That Rule, something we talk about so much you’d think everyone would have heard of it by now, arose in Michalson v. Nutting, 275 Mass. 232, 175 N.E. 490 (Sup.Jud.Ct. Mass. 1931). This is the granddaddy of all encroachment cases, the Queen Mother. The Massachusetts Rule is the self-help mantra of neighbors everywhere.

In Michalson, roots from a poplar growing on the Nuttings’ land had penetrated and damaged sewer and drain pipes at Michalson’s place. As well, the roots had grown under Michalson’s concrete cellar, causing cracking and threatening serious injury to the foundation. Michalson wanted the Nuttings to cut down the tree and remove the roots. They said “Nutting doing.”

Encroaching tree roots can sometimes be unsightly

Encroaching tree roots can sometimes be unsightly…

Michalson sued, asking the court to permanently enjoin the Nuttings from allowing the roots to encroach on his land. Besides an order that the Nuttings essentially stop the tree from growing, Michalson wanted money, too, to ease the pain of leaf raking and root cutting. The trial judge found the Nuttings were not liable merely because their tree was growing. He threw Michalson’s lawsuit out, and Michalson appealed.

Held: In what has become known as the “Massachusetts Rule,” the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that a property owner’s remedies are limited to “self help.” In other words, a suffering property owner may cut off boughs and roots of neighbor’s trees which intrude into another person’s land. But the law will not permit a plaintiff to recover damages for invasion of his property by roots of trees belonging to adjoining landowner. And a plaintiff cannot obtain equitable relief — that is, an injunction — to compel an adjoining landowner to remove roots of tree invading plaintiff’s property or to restrain such encroachment.

Our takeaway today, therefore, would be the two concepts embodied in the Massachusetts Rule. The first is that you, the neighbor, need no permission from the tree owner to trim away roots and branches that overhang your property. That rule survives to this day just about everywhere. The second – which has been questioned to a much greater extent – is that you can’t sue your neighbor for the effects of encroachment by one of his or her trees.

Hold those concepts close, because tomorrow, we’ll see how things work on the other end of the country – Hawaii – where the law developed somewhat differently. Some say that size matters. We’ll see how true that is when the tree is a little too much for the court to ignore.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, May 3, 2017

DRIVE-BY INSPECTIONS, FEDERAL STYLE

Delaware Water Gap National Park

Delaware Water Gap National Park

Yesterday, we looked at the Federal Tort Claims Act, the king’s way of saying, “Go ahead, sue me.”  Like it’s that easy…

In yesterday’s case, the Forest Service evaded liability because how it followed the guidelines for maintaining a bike trial was considered to be a discretionary function. Today, we’re going to see how something so quotidian as tree inspection can be considered discretionary, too.

Ms. Merando and a friend had been enjoying the scenery of Delaware Water Gap National Park – a beautiful place – one summer day, when a tree (which had previously been topped) fell from an embankment and crushed the car, killing Ms. Merando and her young daughter, Kaylyn.

It was a tragedy, and sometimes tragedies drive the bereaved to push hard. That happened here, where Ms. Merando’s husband sued the National Park Service for not having removed this topped tree before it fell. The tree was a disaster waiting to happen, a dead, previously-butchered hulk leaning over the road like an ogre waiting to pounce.

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, as alert readers may recall from yesterday, you can’t sue the government if it failed to perform a discretionary act. Whether hazard tree removal is a discretionary function is at the heart of this case.

The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court, dismissing Mr. Merando’s case. The National Park Service, it appears, had written guidelines that essentially directed every park to adopt a hazard tree removal policy that makes sense for the individual park. The result is a patchwork of unwritten policies. That sounds like a prescription for chaos.

Actually, it’s a prescription to avoid liability. If the Service had a written hazard tree removal policy and the local rangers hadn’t adhered to it with the tree in questions, then liability on the part of the government would be pretty clear. But, as some sharp National Park Service lawyer undoubtedly figured out — and yes, even Smokey the Bear has his own mouthpiece — if you don’t write it down, it’s that much harder for a plaintiff to prove that you failed to follow it.

The Delaware Water Gap National Park had a rather amorphous “drive-by” inspection policy, and Mr. Merando was unable to demonstrate that anyone had violated it. The lesson seems to be that “the less you do, the safer you are.”

Some hazard trees are easier to spot than others ...

Some hazard trees are easier to spot than others …

Merando v. U.S., 517 F.3d 160 (3rd Cir., 2008). Janine Noyes, Kathleen Merando and Kathleen’ daughter, Kaylyn, were sightseeing in Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. While traveling in Ms. Noyes’s car along the New Jersey side of the Park, a large dead oak tree fell from an embankment and crushed the vehicle. Mrs. Merando and her daughter were killed instantly. The tree was approximately 27 feet in length, and had been had “topped” and delimbed, leaving it standing in a “Y” shape with no bark or branches and with the dead tree pole leaning toward the roadway.

The 63,000-acre Park lies along four miles of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It is mainly forested land, and is accessed by approximately 169 miles of roadways, 68 miles of trails, and several streams. As with other national parks throughout the country, the National Park Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, is responsible for maintaining the Park, including the area where the accident in question occurred. The Government took title to the land where the oak tree was situated in 1969 and to the roadway itself in 1996.

Plaintiff, as administrator of the estates of Ms. Merando and her daughter, sued the Government for negligence, alleging that the Government negligently pruned the tree causing it to die and eventually collapse, and that the tree constituted a hazardous and extremely dangerous condition of which the Government knew or should have known and that it negligently failed to act to remove the tree. The Government moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis of the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Government also argued that the New Jersey Landowners Liability Act barred the action. The trial court dismissed on the basis that the FTCA stripped the court of jurisdiction to hear the case. Mr. Merando appealed.

Held: The district court’s dismissal was affirmed. The federal, as a sovereign, is immune from suit unless it consents to be sued. That consent, and the extent of the consent, is set out in the Federal Tort Claims Act, and it is a plaintiff’ burden to prove that the FTCA has waived the immunity. Generally, the government is immune from a suit claiming negligence in the discharge of a discretionary function.

The purpose of the discretionary function exception is to prevent judicial second-guessing of legislative and administrative decisions grounded in social, economic, and political policy. In determining whether the discretionary function exception applies in any particular case, a court must first determine whether the act giving rise to the alleged injury involves an element of judgment or choice. The requirement of judgment or choice is not satisfied if the law, a regulation, or policy specifically prescribes a course of action for an employee to follow, because the employee has no rightful option but to adhere to the directive. – But even if the challenged government conduct involves an element of judgment, the court must determine whether that judgment is of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield. The focus of the inquiry is on the nature of the actions taken and on whether they are susceptible to policy analysis.

In this case, determining whether the discretionary function exception applied to a tort action arising when the dead tree fell on the passing car, the relevant conduct was not the National Park Service’s alleged violation of its mandatory policy not to “top” trees, because there was no evidence that the Government was involved in or consent to the topping of the tree. Instead, the relevant conduct was the Service’s decisions that comprised its hazardous tree management plan and its execution of that plan. The issue was whether the controlling statutes, regulations, and administrative policies required the Park Service to locate and manage hazardous trees in any specific manner. The Court concluded that the Service’s unwritten tree management plan did not mandate any particular methods of hazardous tree management, and its choice to use “windshield inspections” in low usage areas of the park was a discretionary decision — driven by limited resources — not to individually inspect every potentially hazardous tree in the park.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Tuesday, May 2, 2017

IT’S GOOD TO BE KING

One good thing about being king – you can’t be sued.

Anyone with kids of a certain age will remember the strutting, youthful Simba in The Lion King, singing about how he’d be “free to run around all day… free to do it all my way…

The stripling cub might have been singing about the wonder of sovereign immunity, that quaint concept that no one may sue the government. Of course, people do sue the government – this is the US of A, where people sue everyone, sometimes even suing themselves – but in order to do so, the government must grant permission first.

Such a notion may seem peculiar, that the government would give private citizens the right to sue. But the government has done so implicitly and explicitly. The explicit permission of interest to readers of this blog is the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The FTCA allows people to sue the officers and employees of the federal government for negligence. There are strings attached: generally, a rather inflexible administrative exhaustion procedure must be followed first, the statute of limitations is brutally short, and the types of conduct that may justify a suit are limited.

A federal employee runs into you with a dump truck? You may sue. But, as we’ll see today, if your injury results from something more esoteric, you may be foreclosed by the “discretionary function” doctrine.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the FTCA applies to the duty to inspect trees (of which the US Forest Service owns a few).

Gonzalez v. United States, Case No. 16-60062 (5th Cir., Mar. 22, 2017). Teresa Gonzalez and her friend were riding mountain bikes on some trails in the De Soto National Forest of Mississippi. Teresa did not bother to check the bulletin board at the head of the trails. If she had, she would have seen the sign warning that the Couch Loop Trail was closed.

The U.S. Forest Service had some problems with the Couch Loop Trail. A local bicycle club liked to build dangerous structures on the trail to enhance their fun. Most recently, Park employees found an unauthorized bridge on the trail, and closed the route to remove the offending span.

Ramp-jumping: not for amateurs…

Teresa and her friend careered down the trail. At some point, they took an “alternate route” to the left of the main trail. On their ersatz path, they found a teeter-totter and a ramp. Wisely, they did not try to ride over the teeter-totter. Unwisely, they did decide to jump the ramp.

Neither had ever tried riding over a ramp before. You can see where this is going. Teresa experienced what the kids call an epic fail, and suffered serious injuries.

De Soto National Forest, about 600 square miles in size, had two technicians charged with maintaining the bike trails. That work included identifying hazards, such as trees, and performing repair work. The worker would “bush hog the trail pretty much every year,” which includes clearing and cleaning the trail, but they were not sure it had been done in 2012.

Teresa filed an FTCA action, alleging that the United States failed to keep its premises safe, failed to perform inspections, and failed to warn of a dangerous condition. The District Court found that the discretionary function exception to the FTCA waiver of sovereign immunity applied., and threw out the lawsuit. She appealed.

Held: The “discretionary function exception,” prevented Theresa’s suit. That function “preserves the federal government’s immunity . . . when an employee’s acts involve the exercise of judgment or choice.” The exception covers only acts that “involve an element of judgment or choice.” It is the nature of the conduct, rather than the status of the actor, that governs whether the exception applies.

The Circuit Court said a two-prong test determines whether the exception applies: (1) “the conduct must be a matter of choice for the acting employee, and (2) the “judgment must be of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield.”

With respect to the first prong of the test, “if a statute, regulation, or policy leaves it to a federal agency to determine when and how to take action, the agency is not bound to act in a particular manner and the exercise of its authority is discretionary.” Regarding the second prong, a court considers “whether the actions taken are susceptible to policy analysis.” Whether the employee actually did any policy analysis when reaching his or her decision doesn’t matter: it’s whether he or she could have done so that matters. The question of whether the government was negligent or not is irrelevant.”

In this case, the USFS handbook contemplated an “element of choice as to how USFS employees inspect and maintain the trails.” The manual instructed employees to “manage each trail to meet the trail management objectives identified for that trail, based on applicable land management plan direction, travel management decisions, trail-specific decisions, and other related direction, as well as management priorities and available resources.” The Court said the language ordered employees to “meet” the identified objectives, but gave them room for choice based on the evaluation of various factors. Although the objectives listed specific goals, the Court held they did “not prescribe a certain course employees must take to reach those goals. In this way, the provisions… contain generalized, precatory, or aspirational language that is too general to prescribe a specific course of action for an agency or employee to follow.”

So whether the technicians were negligent by not doing a better job of marking the trail as closed, removing the ramp, or not putting training wheels on Theresa’s bike, she had nothing coming.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, May 1, 2017

FORCE MAJEURE

Does anyone remember Hurricane Katrina? Who could forget the immensity of the storm, the devastation, the lives lost, the agony?

Ms. Title spent a lot of money in court defending herself against the Hoerners ... but she won this chic tote bag. She should read its message ... every day.

Ms. Title spent a lot of money in court defending herself against the Hoerners … but she won this chic tote bag. She should read its message … every day.

Doctor and Mrs. Hoerner, that’s who. These folks, Big Easy residents for 25 years, sued their neighbor, Beulah Title, under the Louisiana Civil Code article that governed negligence. It seems Ms. Title’s trees were kind of bushy, and the neighbors were always cutting them back. Ms. Title, a better neighbor to the Hoerners than they were to her, always let them trim the trees and even cut down an oak once when the Hoerners asked her to. She was a very a nice neighbor … a kindly lady who learned the hard way that Oscar Wilde was right: no good deed goes unpunished.

When the big blow came, it took down a couple of Ms. Title’s pine trees, damaging the Hoerners’ brick wall, patio and pool. And probably spilled their pitcher of martinis. Imagine the horror! We bet those poor folks in the Lower Ninth Ward didn’t have it any worse than the Hoerners. But the Hoerners had something those victims in the Crescent City’s worst neighborhood didn’t have: a lawyer. He sued Ms. Title, arguing that because she knew the trees were overgrowing the Hoerners and needed trimming, that she was liable for the damage caused when they toppled.

The courts made pretty short work of this. Rather patiently, we think, the Court of Appeals explained to the clueless (or avaricious, take your pick) Hoerners that the trees didn’t fall because of the overhanging branches. They fell because of this Cat 5 hurricane that hit the city, the one the Hoerners must have overlooked.

The Court held that even the branches had been the cause, Ms. Title could avail herself of the force majeure defense, specifically that even if she had exercised reasonable care, the injury couldn’t have been avoided because of the intervention of a greater force unforeseen by the parties.

Hoerner v. Title, 968 So.2d 217 (La.App. 4 Cir., Sept. 26, 2007). Be warned: Beulah Title is a person, not a title insurance company. Beulah Title the person had property right behind the home of Linda and Harry Hoerner. The Hoerners complained that that they had had problems with Ms. Title’s pine trees and other foliage along their brick wall since 1991. Yet, every time Dr. Hoerner sought permission to trim the trees and shrubs back to the property line, Ms. Title allowed him to do so. On many occasions, the Hoerners removed branches from Ms. Title’s trees that were hanging over the brick wall. On one occasion, Ms. Title removed an oak tree from her backyard at the Hoerners’ request. The Hoerners did not allege that the trees in question were defective, just that they were bushy.

Katrina During Hurricane Katrina, the trunks of Ms. Title’s trees were blown, damaging the Hoerner’s brick wall, patio, pool and landscaping. The damage was not caused by branches hanging over the wall, and the trees did not fall due to lack of maintenance or improper trimming. Nevertheless, the Hoerners sued Ms. Title for repairs to their property, alleging that she was strictly liable under Article 2317.1 of the Louisiana Civil Code. That provision directed that the owner of a thing (like a tree) was liable for damage occasioned by its defect upon a showing that she knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that she failed to exercise such reasonable care. Ms. Title argued that the trees were not defective and she is entitled to the defense of force majeure. The trial court agreed with Ms. Title, and the Hoerners appealed.

Force majuere - not a French superhero group - rather, a rational legal concept.

Force majeure – not a French superhero group – rather, a rational legal concept.

Held: Ms. Title was not liable. Under Article 2317.1, in order to establish liability a plaintiff must demonstrate that the owner of the thing knew, or should have known, in the exercise of reasonable care of the defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that the owner failed to exercise such reasonable care. Here, the Hoerners admitted that the trees were healthy, but they complained they were defective because they were neglected and overgrown and placed too close to the brick wall. The Hoerners cited a case where lack of tree maintenance was considered in finding that the owner had knowledge, but the Court observed that case involved a diseased tree. Ms. Title’s trees, on the other hand, were healthy.

Based on the evidence, the Court said, it did not find that Ms. Title’s trees were defective for lack of maintenance or location. While the Hoerners had shown Ms. Title’s trees had plenty of overgrowth into their yard, the evidence showed that the trees themselves were blown over and into the brick wall, causing all of the damage to the Hoerners’ property. It was not the overgrowth that did the damage. Additionally, Ms. Title was entitled to the defense of force majeure. The Court observed that the winds of Hurricane Katrina caused trees to fall and damage property regardless of maintenance or location all over the Greater New Orleans area. Thus, she could not be liable for the fallen trees under any circumstances.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, April 28, 2017

ENCROACHMENT, NUISANCE … AND THE MARCH OF TIME

camelhorse140429Encroachment – not the football kind, the tree kind. Encroachment governs the rights of adjoining property owners when the trees on one of the properties encroaches on the property of the other. Overhanging branches, invasive root systems, falling debris … those kinds of problems.

Monday, we explored one of the two different approaches to encroachment under American law, the “Massachusetts Rule” that landowners are limited to self-help – but not lawsuits – to stop encroaching trees and roots. Yesterday, we looked at the other end of these 50 United States, and the “Hawaii Rule,” a holding that a landowner could sue for damages and injunctive relief when a neighbor’s tree was causing actual harm or was an imminent danger to his or her property.

Between the two competing rules, Virginia found herself firmly straddling the line. The fair Commonwealth may be for lovers, but it was also for temporizers. The landmark Old Dominion case on the issue, Smith v. Holt, hailed from the 1930s, holding that the Massachusetts Rule applied unless the tree in question was (1) causing actual harm or was an imminent danger; and (2) “noxious.” This holding brings to mind the maxima camel looks like a horse designed by a committee.” Frankly, Smith v. Holt had “committee’ written all over it. It seemed to hold that the Massachusetts Rule applied except where it didn’t. And what did “noxious” have to do with anything?

hoist140715The Virginia Supreme Court finally addressed the confusing situation several years ago in Fancher v. Fagella. There the Court found itself hoisted on its own “noxious” petard. Everyone could agree that poison ivy was noxious, and most people could agree kudzu was noxious. But how about a cute little shade tree? Shade trees are definitely not in the same league with poisonous or entangling pests, but yet, a cute little shade tree can come out of the ground harder and do more damage than poison ivy or kudzu ever could.

Take the tree in Fancher. It was a sweet gum, a favored landscaping tree as well as a valuable hardwood. But for poor Mr. Fancher, it was Hydra covered in bark. Only halfway grown, Fagella’s sweet gum’s roots were already knocking over a retaining wall, kicking up patio stones, breaking up a house foundation and growing into sewers and even the house electrical system. Fancher sued for an injunction, but the trial court felt obligated to follow Smith v. Holt. There was just no way that a sweet gum tree could be noxious, the local court held, and thus, it would not help the frustrated Mr. Fancher. But the Virginia Supreme Court, wisely seeing that the “noxious” standard was of no help in these cases, abandoned the hybrid rule of Smith v. Holt, an unwieldy compromise that had already become known as the “Virginia Rule.” The Court – noting that the “Massachusetts Rule” was a relic of a more rural, bucolic age – decided that the “Hawaii Rule” was the better fit for modern, crowded, helter-skelter suburban life. It sent the case back to the trial court, instructing the judge that the court should consider whether an injunction should issue.

This decision fits neatly into what we have been considering for the past week on negligence and nuisance. Here, the tree had become a nuisance, possibly because Fagella had not cared for the tree before it began damaging the neighbor’s property. All the tree had ever done is what trees do – it grew. And grew and grew. It was healthy, perhaps amazingly so, but Fagella was ordered to shoulder the cost of damages caused not because it was dangerous, or dead, or anything other than an inconvenience.

Like the decision or hate it, you could see this coming. From an age in which trees grew and lived and died, and effects of the life cycle were not chargeable against the landowner, we may be arriving at a point where trees aren’t much more than big, woody pets, with their owners responsible for whatever the tree may naturally do.

Fancher v. Fagella, 650 S.E.2d 519, 274 Va. 549 (2007). Fancher and Fagella were the owners of adjoining townhouses in Fairfax County, Virginia (a largely urban or suburban county west of Washington, D.C., and part of the Washington metropolitan area). Fagella’s property is higher in elevation than Fancher’s, and a masonry retaining wall runs along the property line to support the grade separation. Fancher has a sunken patio behind his home, covered by masonry pavers.

treeonhouse160322Fagella had a sweet gum tree located a few feet from the retaining wall, about 60 feet high with a 2-foot diameter trunk at its base. Sweet gums are native to the area, and grow to 120 to 140 feet in height at maturity, with a trunk diameter of 4 to 6 feet. The tree was deciduous, dropping spiky gumballs and having a heavy pollen load. It also has an invasive root system and a high demand for water.

In the case of Fagella’s tree, the root system had displaced the retaining wall between the properties, displaced the pavers on Fancher’s patio, caused blockage of his sewer and water pipes and had begun to buckle the foundation of his house. The tree’s overhanging branches grew onto his roof, depositing leaves and other debris in his rain gutters. Fancher attempted self-help, trying to repair the damage to the retaining wall and the rear foundation himself, and cutting back the overhanging branches, but he was ineffective in the face of continuing expansion of the root system and branches. Fancher’s arborist believed the sweet gum tree was only at mid-maturity, that it would continue to grow, and that “[n]o amount of concrete would hold the root system back.” The arborist labeled the tree “noxious” because of its location, and said that the only way to stop the continuing damage being done by the root system was to remove the tree entirely.

Fancher sued for an injunction compelling Fagella to remove the tree and its invading root system entirely, and asked for damages to cover the cost of restoring the property to its former condition. Fagella moved to strike the prayer for injunctive relief. The trial court, relying on Virginia law set down in Smith v. Holt, denied injunctive relief. Fancher appealed.

Held: The Supreme Court abandoned the “Virginia Rule,” adopting instead the “Hawaii Rule” that while trees and plants are ordinarily not nuisances, they can become so when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. Then, injunctive relief and damages will lie. The Court traced the history of the encroachment rule from the “Massachussetts Rule” — which holds that a landowner’s right to protect his property from the encroaching boughs and roots of a neighbor’s tree is limited to self-help, i.e., cutting off the branches and roots at the point they invade his property — through the modern “Hawaii Rule.” The Court noted that Virginia had tried to strike a compromise between the two positions with the “Virginia Rule” set out in Smith v. Holt, which held that the intrusion of roots and branches from a neighbor’s plantings which were “not noxious in [their] nature” and had caused no “sensible injury” were not actionable at law, the plaintiff being limited to his right of self-help.

Invasive_rootsThe Court found the “Massachusetts Rule” rather unsuited to modern urban and suburban life, although it may still work well in many rural conditions. It admitted that the “Virginia Rule” was justly criticized because the classification of a plant as “noxious” depends upon the viewpoint of the beholder. Just about everyone would agree that poison ivy is noxious. Many would agree that kudzu is, too, because of its tendency toward rampant growth, smothering other vegetation. But few would declare healthy shade trees to be noxious, although they may cause more damage and be more expensive to remove, than the poison ivy or kudzu. The Court decided that continued reliance on the distinction between plants that are noxious, and those that are not, imposed an unworkable and futile standard for determining the rights of neighboring landowners.

Therefore, the Court overruled Smith v. Holt, insofar as it conditions a right of action upon the “noxious” nature of a plant that sends forth invading roots or branches into a neighbor’s property. Instead, it adopted the Hawaii Rule, finding that encroaching trees and plants are not nuisances merely because they cast shade, drop leaves, flowers, or fruit, or just because they happen to encroach upon adjoining property either above or below the ground. However, encroaching trees and plants may be regarded as a nuisance when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. If so, the owner of the tree or plant may be held responsible for harm caused to adjoining property, and may also be required to cut back the encroaching branches or roots, assuming the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance. The Court was careful to note that it wasn’t altering existing law that the adjoining landowner may, at his own expense, cut away the encroaching vegetation to the property line whether or not the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance or is otherwise causing harm or possible harm to the adjoining property.

The Court warned that not every case of nuisance or continuing trespass may be enjoined, but it could be considered here. The decision whether to grant an injunction, the Court held, always rests in the sound discretion of the chancellor and depends on the relative benefit an injunction would confer upon the plaintiff in contrast to the injury it would impose on the defendant. In weighing the equities in a case of this kind, the chancellor must necessarily first consider whether the conditions existing on the adjoining lands are such that it is reasonable to impose a duty on the owner of a tree to protect a neighbor’s land from damage caused by its intruding branches and roots. In the absence of such a duty, the traditional right of self-help is an adequate remedy. It would be clearly unreasonable to impose such a duty upon the owner of historically forested or agricultural land, but entirely appropriate to do so in the case of parties, like those in the present case, who dwell on adjoining residential lots.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, April 27, 2017

THE CONTRACT SAYS WHAT?

springsnow160321The days are warmer, but our early morning dog walks can still be nippy. Before the warm days of May are upon us next week, we should talk about what happened during a dog walk on a different cold spring day a few years ago in Utah.

Landscaper Superior Property Management Services, Inc., had been hired by the Waterbury Homeowners Association to landscape and maintain the grounds at beautiful Shanty Acres. The parties had a standard contract, one that – among other things – called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season.” Elsewhere, the contract directs the landscapers to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees.

The contract was just a formality. Superior has been in business since the sequoias were seedlings, and its crews knew what needed to be done. They often went beyond the literal terms of the contract, which – as was typical for landscaping contracts – were not especially detailed. Over the seasons, Superior maintained Shanty Acres very well, and the contract was repeatedly renewed. The Happy Homeowners Association was indeed happy.

Then one cold, spring day, condominium resident Colleen Hill ventured outside to walk her dog. When she followed the cavorting canine onto the lawn, she tripped over a basal shoot growing from a tree root, fell, and hurt herself. She sued both Superior and the Association, claiming that Superior owed her a duty of care because of what it agreed to do in the contract. Superior, she alleged, was negligent in not trimming the basal shoots.

But how could Superior owe Colleen Hill a duty? Its contract was with the Association, and the Association thought Superior had done a fine job. True, Superior prided itself on doing more than the contract called for, but that was what a good landscaper did. Thus, Superior’s crews normally trimmed basal roots … but if Colleen’s complaint was to be believed, it appears Superior’s workers may have overlooked the shoots that proved a snare to her feet.

Superior should have trimmed the exposed roots, Colleen said, whether the contract said it should or not ...

Superior should have trimmed the exposed roots, Colleen said, whether the contract said it should or not …

The courts finally concluded that Superior owed Colleen no duty. Its obligations were to the Association, and those obligations were those spelled out in the contract, not what additional services Superior might gratuitously provide. The landscaper won in the end, but only after four years of expensive litigation.

So what does the professional arborist or landscaper learn from Superior’s legal travails? The first lesson is to read the contract form he or she is using. Does it adequately define the services being provided? If the arborist will be performing more services than those described in the contract, those probably should be described in the contract.

At minimum, the contract should clearly provide that any services provided beyond those required by the contract are being provided as a courtesy only, and that the contract does not establish a duty between the arborist and anyone other than the client.

Will this be enough to save the arborist from frivolous lawsuits? Probably not in this society. But an ounce of careful contract drafting now may be worth a pound of lawyers later.

Hill v. Superior Property Management, Inc., Case No. 20120428 (Utah Supreme Ct., 2013). Superior Property Management had held the contract to maintain premises for the Waterbury Homeowners Association for years. The form contract called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season” and to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees. After resident Colleen Hill, while walking her dog one early spring day, tripped on a growth from a tree root, she sued Superior for negligence because it had not trimmed the root.

Held: The landscaper didn’t owe Colleen a duty of care. As the Supreme Court of Utah observed, the “law draws a critical distinction between affirmative acts and omissions. As a general rule, we all have a duty to act reasonably in our affirmative acts; but no such duty attaches with regard to omissions except in cases of a special relationship.”

The Court agreed that sometimes, such a special relationship might be rooted in a contract. But it held that neither specific obligation in the contract – the obligation to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season,” or the obligation to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees – created a duty flowing from the landscaping company and the injured property owner.

Lesson: No contract is the ultimate contract, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try for comprehensiveness in drafting ...

Lesson: No contract can plan for every contingency, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try for comprehensiveness in drafting whenever possible …

The Court noted that “in the first place, it is not at all clear that mere failure to perform would sustain liability in tort. A breach of contract, after all, typically gives rise to liability in contract … Even assuming that Superior’s maintenance contract could sustain a tort duty, moreover, there is still no basis for liability here, as neither of the provisions required Superior to perform the acts it is now charged with omitting.” The Justices analyzed the contract provisions, pointing out that the accident happened in early spring, outside of the “normal growing season.” What’s more, the dictionary definition of “branch” is “a stem growing from the trunk or from a limb of a tree” or a “shoot or secondary stem growing from the main stem.” Therefore, the Court reasoned, “the ‘branches’ to be trimmed under Superior’s maintenance contract are protrusions from the main trunk only, not separate shoots stemming from the tree’s roots. Superior could not be in breach for failing to trim back those shoots.”

Maybe so, argued the homeowner, but regardless of what the contract may have said, the landscaper’s obligations “were not comprehensively detailed in its maintenance contract, but encompassed acts that it habitually engaged in over time.” The Court rejected this dangerous notion, declaring that there “is no room in our law for a tort duty arising from course-of-performance acts that are nowhere provided by contract.” The Justices reasoned that “where a duty is rooted in the express language of a written contract, the parties are on notice of their obligations, and are in a good position to plan their activities around them. That is not at all true for … extracontractual, course-of-performance acts relied on” by Ms. Hill. “If we were to impose a duty in connection with those acts,” the Court said, “we would establish a troubling perverse incentive. A party facing a tort duty in connection with any undertaking not required by contract would be discouraged from such undertaking. And a disincentive for gratuitous service benefiting another is not the sort of conduct that our tort law ought to countenance. In any event, to the extent injuries ensue from negligence in the performance of such activities, liability would properly be governed by a different branch of our tort law – by the standards governing liability for a voluntary undertaking, a theory we … find unavailing.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, April 26, 2017

COUNT YOUR SILVERWARE

condiments150309You know people like this. They leave restaurants with their pockets bulging from stolen packets of sugar, jelly or ketchup. They return from a vacation with a valise full of shampoo, conditioner, soap and teabags, boosted from every hotel on their itinerary. When they move from a house, they be sure to pick it clean of light bulbs, curtains, and even the unused toilet paper rolls left on the dispensers. In rare cases, they even uproot garden plants as they leave.

When you have folks like this over for dinner, you should audit your silverware before they leave.

The late Mr. Thomas was that kind of guy, probably a man with a closet full of mini-shampoo bottles, Bob Evans jelly tubs, and McDonald’s sugar packets. He was quite a thrifty guy. Maybe there’s a better word to use than “thrifty.” A word like “light-fingered.”

However you would describe him, after he signed the deal to sell his Iowa farm to Mr. Laube, but before he surrendered possession, Mr. Thomas thought he just might thin the timber a bit by cutting down and selling about a hundred walnut trees. True, the walnuts weren’t really ready for harvest – the 20-year old trees were only about halfway to an age where they should be harvested – but Mr. Thomas could hardly see the sense of leaving all of that nice hardwood for Mr. Laube to cash in on a couple decades after closing.

Mr. Laube sued. Sadly, while he won the case, he was butchered on damages. There was no question that Mr. Thomas was liable. After all, the contract of sale didn’t reserve any timber rights to the seller. But the issue was the value of the trees that had been removed.

Generally, there are several ways to figure damages for loss of trees. Where the trees are for a special purpose, such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use, the measure is usually the difference in value of the real estate before and after the destruction of the trees. Where the trees have no special use beyond being marketable timber, the measure of damages is the commercial market value of the trees at the time of taking. Where the trees can feasibly be replaced, the measure of damages is the reasonable cost of replacement.

The Court ruled that the value of the 100 immature walnut trees was their present-day value at the mill, despite Mr. Laube’s lament that they would have been worth so much more had they been 20 years older. The Iowa Supreme Court admitted that Mr. Laube had a point – he had been deprived of trees that had great potential value, something that giving him present commercial value didn’t recognize. But the Court said that the law had never allowed such damages, and it didn’t intend to do so here. The Court speculated – and that’s exactly what it was – that it “was perhaps to address this criticism that the legislature provided for treble damages in Iowa Code section 658.4.”

When taking all of the lightbulbs from your just-sold house, be sure to wear gloves so as to avoid being burned. The only one who should be burned by this process is the unwitting buyer.

     When taking all of the lightbulbs from your just-sold house, be sure to wear gloves so as to avoid being burned. The only one who should be burned by this process is the unwitting buyer.

Poppycock. Punitive damages are intended to punish, not make up for deficiencies in the law of compensatory damages. Farmer Thomas did not profit from his selling of the walnut trees on his way out the door, but Mr. Laube was hardly made whole.

Laube v. Estate of Thomas, 376 N.W.2d 108 (Sup.Ct. Iowa, 1985). In 1983, the Thomases contracted to sell a farm to Mr. Laube. Possession was to pass on March 1, 1984. Although no timber rights were reserved to the Thomases, they removed about 100 walnut trees from the tract between contract and closing. There was no question of liability; in fact, at trial Thomases offered to confess judgment for $1,000. The offer was refused.

The trial court awarded Laube the commercial value of the trees at the tie they were cut. Laube appealed.

Held: The measure of damages used by the trial court was correct.

The walnut trees were timber or forest, not used for a windbreak or ornamental purposes. The trees had stood at two sites on the farm, one a low-level area near a stream and the other in a permanent pasture. The 100 in question were smaller, presumably inferior for marketing purposes. The evidence showed that it was not a practical marketing time for the trees in question. At an age of 20 years, they would not mature so as to reach their reasonable marketing potential for another 20 years. Mr. Laube argued he should be awarded damages that took the current market price, considering the size and quality of trees 20 years hence, then discounting the figure appropriately to reach the present value.

It's he present-day value of the commercial timber that matters.

It’s the present-day value of the commercial timber that matters.

The Supreme Court admitted that “especially [in] the showing of the inappropriateness of cutting the trees at their stage of semi-maturity, there is at first blush an attractiveness in plaintiffs’ contention that a routine allowance of only log value is inadequate. On the other hand their suggested recovery does not conform with any recognized measure of damages for loss of trees.” Where the trees were put to a special purpose, such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use, the measure is usually the difference in value of the realty before and after the destruction of the trees. Where the trees had no such special use, the measure is the commercial market value of the trees at the time of taking. Where the trees can be replaced, damages are the reasonable cost of replacement.

Here, the Court said, the commercial value of the trees was the appropriate measure of damages. It suggested that the law provided for treble damages in Iowa Code § 658.4 to help adjust for the unfairness of situations such as the one in this case. However, it would not take into account future value in setting compensatory damages.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407