Case of the Day – April 4, 2017

WOODMAN, SPARE THAT TREE!

woodman150203“… touch not a single bough …”, Mrs. Chinn, the plaintiff, cried in this California case on wrongful tree cutting.

The plaintiff, Mrs. Chinn, agreed with her neighbor, Ms. Hess, to build a common fence. The worker hired to construct it found he had to trim the branches of one of Mrs. Chinn’s plum trees to make the fence fit. And that’s where the problems arose.

Mrs. Chinn’s tenants, the Schmidts, told the worker to go ahead and cut down the tree. Of course, they denied this, but the trial court found the testimony of the worker and four neighbors who watched the timber harvest unfold. Mrs. Chinn sued Forrest and Hess for trespass and for treble damages for wrongful tree cutting under California statute.

The issue was whether Forrest and Hess reasonably believed the Schmidts had the authority to speak for Mrs. Chinn. The trial court found that the authority Mrs. Chinn had given them, coupled with her own ignoring of the goings-on in the fence and tree project, gave the defendants a reasonable basis to believe that the Schmidts could give Forrest the right to cut down the tree.

Thus, there was no trespass. And, of course, no trees left standing, either.

A common fence

A common fence

Chinn v. Hess, Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2007 WL 1430192 (Cal.App. 1 Dist., May 16, 2007). Chinn and Hess owned adjoining properties. Chinn rented her place to the Schmidts. Chinn and Hess had agreed to build a new fence, which they had hired Forrest to complete. While he was building it, he cut down a plum tree on Chinn’s land which obstructed the planned fence. Chinn sued Hess and Forrest for trespass and wrongful tree cutting under California Code of Civil Procedure §733. Forrest claimed he had begun merely by trimming the tree, but the Schmidts came outside and agreed with him the tree should come down. The Schmidts denied this, but the weight of the evidence caused the trial court to believe Mr. Forrest.

The trial court found for Hess and Forrest.  Chinn appealed.

Held: The plum tree remained cut down (of course, it would have at any rate), but Mrs. Chinn was not entitled to treble damages under California Code of Civil Procedure 733. The trial court had found that Mrs. Chinn hadn’t proved that Forrest had proceeded without consent, but Mrs. Chinn complained that it wasn’t her obligation to prove lack of consent, it was Forrest’s and Hess’s duty to prove they had consent.

The plum tree was very severely pruned.

The plum tree was very severely pruned.

The Court of Appeals held that lack of consent is an element of the tort of trespass, meaning that it was one of the issues Mrs. Chinn had to prove in order to establish a trespass. Still, whether she carried her burden of proof wasn’t important here, the Court said, because the trial court had concluded that Forrest and Hess had proven that the defendants reasonably believed the Schmidts were Mrs. Chinn’s agents. Mrs. Chinn had given the Schmidts authority to speak to Ms. Hess about the tree and the fence. Once the Schmidts were empowered to speak for Plaintiff, Plaintiff chose not to communicate with Defendant Marilyn Hess, and when the issue of the plum tree arose, Mrs. Chinn did not respond to messages and did not drive two miles to see the fence. Rather, Mrs. Chinn relied solely on the Schmidts to represent her regarding the fence and tree issue, just as she relied upon them to take care of the garden on the property they were renting.

The combination of her intentional conduct and her want of ordinary care, Mrs. Chinn caused Forrest and Hess to believe reasonably that the Schmidts had authority to consent to removal of the tree. Ostensible authority in an agent is established by showing that the principal, intentionally or by want of ordinary care has caused or allowed a third person to believe the agent possesses such authority. It authority must be established through the acts or declarations of the principal and not the acts or declarations of the agent. Where the principal, like Mrs. Chinn, knows that the agent holds himself out as clothed with certain authority, and remains silent, such conduct on the part of the principal may give rise to liability.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, April 3, 2017

WHEN YOU CAN’T SEE THE FOREST FOR THE GOODS

You can see why Hocking Hills is a good place for a park.

You can see why Hocking Hills is a good place for a park.

We’re always looking for ideas, and we’re rather shameless about appropriating them. So when an Ohio lawyer friend of ours, himself from a timber-harvesting family, mentioned an case to us that delineated when trees were attached to the real estate and when they were “goods,” we chased the decision down.

Speaking of “appropriating,” that was exactly the context in which the case was decided. It seems that Dudley DeBolt had a pretty nice place in Hocking County, beautiful Appalachian foothill country. In fact, Dudley’s place was so nice the government wanted it for a park. Governments being what they are, the appropriate agency – an entity called the Board of Park Commissioners of the Columbus and Franklin County Metropolitan Park District – sued Dudley to take 40 acres of his wooded land for its purposes.

Under the laws governing eminent domain, not to mention the 5th Amendment, when the government takes private property for public purposes, it must pay just compensation. But it seems that the Park Board didn’t want to pay Dudley for the timber contract he had already signed with a local timber merchant, one for the select cutting of about 150,000 board feet of hardwood. The land itself was worth $58,000, Dudley claimed, but there was also the timber contract that he now would be unable to fulfill, for an additional $14,000.

woodpile150202Nope, the Park Board argued, the trees are attached to the land and had no value separate from the land. That had been Ohio law prior to the adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code. The trial court agreed with the Park Board.

The Court of Appeals did not. Rather, it held that the UCC had changed everything, and as a result, Dudley was given a chance to prove to the jury the existence and value of the timber contract. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed, and the case went back to the trial court.

Board of Park Comm’rs v DeBolt, Not Reported in N.E.2d, 1984 WL 4248 (Ct.App. Ohio, 1984). The Board of Park Commissioners of the Columbus and Franklin County Metropolitan Park District sued landowner Dudley DeBolt, Jr., appropriate 40 acres of his land. Mr. DeBolt believed the fair market value for the land to be $73,970, including $32,000 for the land at $800 an acre, $26,000 for the home and $14,000 for his profit from the removal of certain timber on the property. The trial court agreed with the Park Board that Mr. DeBolt was not allowed to calculate the value of his standing timber separately from the land, and it refused to allow Mr. DeBolt to put in any further evidence of the value of his timber. The jury returned a verdict of $58,000 as compensation for the land and improvements taken. Mr. DeBolt appealed.

selectivecutting150202Held: Mr. DeBolt was allowed to value the timber separately. Although the Board argued that Ohio law prohibited setting market value for trees upon land to be appropriated separate and apart from the value of the land, the Court pointed out that the decision which included that holding was made well prior to the adoption by Ohio of the Uniform Commercial Code. The UCC provides that a “contract for the sale apart from the land of growing crops or other things attached to realty and capable of severance without material harm thereto … or of timber to be cut is a contract for the sale of goods within sections 1302.01 to 1302.98 of the Revised Code, whether the subject matter is to be severed by the buyer or by the seller even though it forms part of the realty at the time of contracting, and the parties can by identification effect a present sale before severance.” Thus, the Court ruled, the UCC had abrogated prior Ohio law by making a contract for the sale of timber into a contract for the sale of goods.

Here the evidence showed that in the summer of 1981, a timber merchant and DeBolt had a contract for cutting timber and had agreed on a price. Therefore, the Court said, DeBolt ought to have had the right to prove the existence and value of the timber contract. It was a contract for the sale of goods, and Debolt thus had a vested contractual right which was frustrated by the Park Board’s appropriation. The Court said that “the enactment of the UCC has in our opinion changed the character of standing timber from realty to personalty when there is a contract under R.C. 1302.03.” Once the contract was made, the trees were “goods” under the UCC and no longer a part of the land.

BOR150202People who have to pay attention to the bottom line make careful decisions whether appealing an adverse decision is worth the time and legal costs. Not so governments, which hire lawyers by the gross and pay them with taxpayer dollars. Unhappy at having to part with an additional $14,000, the Board of Park Commissioners appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. Even in 1984, a for-profit entity would have easily seen that legal fees and wasted time would easily exceed that.

Board of Park Comm’rs v DeBolt, 15 Ohio St.3d 376 (1984). The Ohio Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the record supported a finding that a contract may have existed for the sale of the timber. The Supreme Court found some evidence that Dudley DeBolt was to receive $14,000 for the sale of some 150,000 board feet of lumber, and that such lumber was to be obtained in a select cutting, which was permitted under the terms of his mother’s will. The timber cutter said 150,000 board feet of lumber could be obtained in a select cutting, and stated that he had first surveyed the property some eighteen months prior to the trial.

The Supreme Court ruled that a contract for the sale of timber is a contract for the sale of goods, not realty. ORC § 1302.03(B). Such a contract is protected against a governmental taking without just compensation, as it was part of the property taken by the Board of Park Commissioners. Because such a contract is an asset separate and apart from the land, it is subject to separate valuation. The case was sent back to the trial court to give Dudley a chance to prove his case.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, March 31, 2017

SLAPP-HAPPY

Only in California could a tree-trimming case end up as a free speech issue.

bureaucracy140923Our regular readers know that good old-fashioned Massachusetts Rule self-help is available to any homeowner seeking to protect life and property from encroaching trees. Today, we look at what happens when good old-fashioned common law self help runs into bureaucracy.

The Dilbecks wanted to add a second story to their house, but their neighbors’ oak tree had extended its branches so close to the Dilbecks’ place that they had to be trimmed back in order to make room. No problem, right? We all know that self-help is available to the Dilbecks anywhere in California. Sure, but it turns out the Los Angeles isn’t just anywhere. In LA, oak trees are “protected,” and before trimming the oak, the Dilbecks had to get a permit from the County. And the County wouldn’t issue a permit unless the tree’s owner signed on to it.

So much for self-help. The Dilbecks sued, asking that the County be ordered to issue the permit and that their neighbors be found liable in trespass for the tree (the theory being that the neighbors let the branches intrude over the Dilbecks’ lawn). And here’s where it got even more complicated. California has a statute addressing litigation known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” the so-called anti-SLAPP statute. This mouthful with the catchy name is intended to stop oppressive lawsuits intended to keep people from exercising their rights to free speech. There’s a whole cottage industry in the Golden State surrounding SLAPP actions. And as with a lot of other good ideas (such as RICO), the anti-SLAPP statute is another tool in the canny lawyer’s arsenal, something else with which to bludgeon a plaintiff.

Here, the neighbors complained that the Dilbecks were trying to force them to petition the County to let the tree get trimmed, and the suit should be thrown out as violating the anti-SLAPP statute. The trial court refused dismiss the action. The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the Dilbecks weren’t demanding that the neighbors do anything. They were asking the County to do something, and they were suing the neighbors for trespass because of the tree. California law would let them collect money damages if the encroaching tree was a nuisance (Bonde v. Bishop held as much). So whether the Dilbecks win on the merits or not, the action was not a SLAPP suit, and it wouldn’t be dismissed.

Oaktree140923Whew! Makes you long for the simple, ol’ Massachusetts Rule… no permits, no lawsuits, just an aggrieved landowner with a chainsaw.

Dilbeck v. Van Schaick, Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2007 WL 2773986 (Cal.App. 2 Dist., Sept. 25, 2007). The Dilbecks owned a place in Altadena, next door to the Van Schaicks. The Dilbecks planned to remodel their home by adding a second story. However, the branches of an oak tree located on the Van Schaicks’ property have grown over the Dilbecks’ home, rendering the Dilbecks’ plans unworkable unless the tree was pruned.

Oak trees are protected by California state law. The County of Los Angeles had adopted regulations to preserve and protect oak trees, requiring a permit to cut down mature oak trees or to prune their larger branches. The Dilbecks applied to the County for a permit, but the County had not approved it because it took the position that only the owner of the tree may obtain a pruning permit, and the Van Schaicks had not acquiesced. So the Dilbecks brought suit against the Van Schaicks and the County for declaratory relief and trespass. They alleged the oak tree growing on the Van Schaicks’ property had encroached onto the their land and interfered with their ability to add a second story to their home. The suit said the County refused to grant the permit because the Dilbecks were not the owners of the tree. The trespass cause of action alleged the oak tree branches were encroaching on the Dilbercks’ land, and asked for an order permitting the Dilbecks or an independent contractor to prune the tree.

The Van Schaicks filed a special motion to strike pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure §425.16, asserting that the complaint was based on their refusal to support the Dilbecks’ oak tree permit application and therefore attacked their right to free speech. They further argued that the trespass claim lacked merit because the law forbade the Van Schaicks to prune or cut the offending oak tree branches.

The Dilbecks contended that their action did not fit within the definition of a SLAPP suit and that, in any event, their complaint had merit. They denied that the complaint sought to compel the Van Schaicks to support or sign the oak tree permit. The trial court denied the Van Schaicks’ motion to strike, finding that they had not demonstrated that they were being sued for engaging in protected activity. Instead, the trial court held, they were just being sued for trespass. The Van Schaicks appealed the court’s denial of their motion to strike.

Freespeech140923Held: The Dilbecks’ complaint did not arise from acts undertaken in furtherance of the Van Schaicks’ rights of free speech or petition, and the Van Schaicks’ attempt to get it dismissed was rejected. The California Legislature enacted the anti-SLAPP statute in response to its perception that there has been an increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and to petition for the redress of grievances. The anti-SLAPP statute provides a procedure for the court to dismiss at an early stage non-meritorious litigation meant to chill the exercise of free speech rights. The statute requires the trial court to engage in a two-step process when determining whether a motion to strike should be granted, first, whether the defendant has made a threshold prima facie showing that the acts of which it complains were ones taken in furtherance of its constitutional rights of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue, and two, whether there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim.

The issue here, the Court said, was whether the complaint arose from conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest. The Van Schaicks contended the suit sought to compel them to petition the County for discretionary relief from the oak tree statutes. The Court disagreed, holding that their characterization of the complaint was wrong. In fact, the Court said, the suit merely sought to compel the County to review the merits of the permit application submitted by the Dilbecks, and requested an order permitting the Dilbecks or their arborist to prune the tree. The complaint did not seek to compel the Van Schaicks to become personally involved in the permit application process in any way, and thus did not violate the anti-SLAPP statute.

The Van Schaicks contended that the complaint would indirectly force them to speak because a judgment in favor of the Dilbecks on the trespass action would necessarily require the Van Schaicks to petition the County of Los Angeles for discretionary relief from the Oak Tree statute. The Court rejected that argumnt, finding that the Van Schaicks’ position was based on the incorrect assumption that the only remedy available for trespass was injunctive relief. However, California law held a party over whose land overhanging branches extend may either cut them off or maintain an action for damages and abatement, as long as he or she can prove the branches constitute a nuisance.

The prospect that the Van Schaicks could eventually be faced with an order to abate the nuisance and could do so only by seeking a permit from the County did not transform the Dilbecks’ lawsuit into a SLAPP action. The Court ruled that the thrust of the Dilbecks’ complaint was the injury caused to their property by the encroaching tree, not the Van Schaicks’ decision to refrain from involvement in the permitting process. The permit, although obtainable only by petitioning a governmental entity, principally concerned and affected the remodeling of a private home by private individuals.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, March 30, 2017

THAT’S PERSONAL

Actually, Buzz, this time it is personal.

Actually, Buzz, this time it is personal.

When most people think about lawsuits, they focus on who won and who lost. But as important about issues of liability – who owes whom and why – can be question of how much the who owes the whom.

The win-loss is important, but ask the Ohio State Buckeyes : even if you win, if the final score isn’t decisive enough, it can cost you style points.  Woody Hayes once was asked why he went for a 2-point conversion when he was leading Michigan 48-14 late in the 4th quarter.  His terse answer:  “‘Cause I couldn’t go for three.”

So often, we don’t just talk about liability – we talk about how the damages are figured, too. A case we worked on a few years ago shows us why that’s important.

A tree service company sent a crew to an address to remove a maple on the front lawn. Instead of going to 1553 Main Street, the crew mistakenly went to 1533 Main Street. That house, coincidentally, also had a maple tree in its front lawn, a magnificent and healthy specimen that the homeowner loved very much.

You can guess what happened. While the homeowner was obliviously toiling in his of-fice 10 miles away, the tree cutting crew made short work of the beautiful maple. When the owner arrived home that evening, his arboreal pride and joy was nothing but a stump and some sawdust.

There was no question about liability: the tree service company goofed. But how much to pay for the tree? Stumpage value makes no sense. The homeowner wasn’t raising the tree to sell the timber. Replacement cost for the tree might be a fairer measure. However, the largest tree that could be planted for the homeowner – with costs of a few thousand dollars – will not begin to replace the lost tree.

In our homeowner’s case, the measure of damages we finally settled on was a real estate appraisal that concluded that the value of the home had been lessened by about $17,000 by the removal of the mature tree.

Today’s case considers what might happen if the removal of the trees does not diminish the value of the property. A man named Chung bought a parcel of land for a home. When he had a tree cutting service clear the land for construction, the cutters crossed the line onto Rora Park’s land, and removed about 560 trees. The decision only implies this, but it appears that the “accident” might not have been accidental at all. Rather, Chung may have steered the cutters in the wrong direction in order to improve the view from his land.

Whatever the reason, the liability was certain. The problem arose because removing 560 trees didn’t really decrease the value of Rora Park’s land at all. Hard to believe, but then, Alaska is a pretty big place. So Ms. Park demanded restoration damages, payment of the cost of restor-ing the property by planting new trees. That would have been about $400,000. The trial court granted damages equal to the cost of replanting 50 trees, but the Alaskan Supreme Court reversed.

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

       Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

It seems that if the wronged property owner doesn’t have a “reason personal to the land-owner for restoring the trees,” an Alaskan court won’t use that measure of damages. In this case, Ms. Park waxed eloquent about how that she had once had cancer, and “this natural beauty of my yard is [a] healing spot for me, and . . . after work I come by, see my property and see the natural beauty and the trees and all that[. W]hen I [saw] that all cut out it just [made] me very – [it] just [broke] my heart, and then very angry . . .” Unfortunately for her, she later tried to downplay how often she visited the property.

The trial court wouldn’t let her have it both ways, and found that she hadn’t justified restoration damages. But, apparently troubled by Ms. Parks’ neighbor getting away with a fast one, the trial court nevertheless awarded her restoration damages anyway. It may have seemed like justice, but it wasn’t the law.

The Alaskan Supreme Court said that restoration damages could be awarded only if Park had a “reason personal” for restoring her property. Because she failed to prove she had such a reason, she ended up being entitled to pretty much nothing.

There’s something not right about letting a slippery character like Chung pull a fast one, cut down 50 of the neighbor’s trees for a better view, and not have to pay damages for it. It reminds one of a quotation attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr: This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.

Chung v. Park, 339 P.3d (Sup.Ct. Alaska, 2014). Landowner Rora Park sued her neighbor Christopher Chung for trespass, alleging that he cleared about 50 trees from her property without permission. The trial court found that the tree cutting did not diminish the property value and that there was no reason personal to the landowner for restoring the trees. But the trial judge nevertheless awarded damages equal to the cost of restoring 50 trees on the property.

Ordinarily, a landowner damaged by a trespass may recover either the loss in property value or reasonable restoration costs. But restoration costs are inappropriate if they are disproportionate to the loss in property value, unless there is a reason personal to the landowner for restoring the land. We thus conclude that we must vacate this award.

Chung hired a company to build the foundation of his new house. As part of that project, the contractor agreed to clear trees and other vegetation from the lot. Aerial photographs indicate that some trees were removed from Park’s property near the border of Chung’s lot between August 2008 and the end of September 2008, and more trees were removed between 2008 and 2009. The trees appear to have been removed more or less directly behind the house built on Chung’s property. Timber debris, presumably from the cleared trees, was also discovered buried on Park’s property. An expert witness hired by Park estimated that 562 trees were cleared from about a third of an acre of Park’s property. He calculated that it would cost over $400,000 to restore the property to its former condition. But Chung’s expert witness testified that the market value of Park’s property was likely not affected by the removal of trees.

trespasstimber150126The trial court found Chung liable for the trees removed from Park’s property. Although the court acknowledged that Park had not proved that the tree cutting reduced the value of her property and found that Park had no reason personal for replacing the trees, it nevertheless concluded that “it would be reasonable both aesthetically and legally to award damages that would permit replacement of trees on that first portion of the lot that can be clearly shown to have been scraped clean as of September 27th, 2008.” The court therefore awarded Park the cost of replacing 50 trees, $23,500. Because the court found that Chung’s trespass was intentional, it awarded treble damages under AS 09.45.730.

Chung appealed.

Held: The Alaska Supreme Court vacated the damage award. It held that a party who is injured by an invasion of his property not totally destroying its value may choose as damages either the loss in value or reasonable restoration costs. But reasonable restoration costs are an inappropriate measure of damages when those costs are disproportionately larger than the diminution in the value of the land and there is no reason personal to the owner for restoring the land to its original condition. A reason personal is one that is “peculiar or special to the owner.” The Court said “We require the landowner to demonstrate a reason personal because we believe it indicates circumstances where the owner holds property primarily for use rather than for sale and where the owner is likely to make repairs with the restoration costs award rather than to pocket the funds and enjoy a windfall.”

meditation160218

     Ms. Park tried to sell the court that the trees were her “personal healing spot.” New wave … or just trying to pump up her damages?

During trial in this case, Park tried to establish a reason personal  for replacing the trees that Chung had allegedly removed. She talked about having had cancer, and relying on her property as a “healing spot for me.” But later in the trial, she downplayed her visits to the property. As a result, the court found that Park had not established a reason personal for restoring her property.

According to the unrebutted testimony of Chung’s expert witness, the removal of trees from Park’s property did not appreciably affect the value of her property. The trial court accepted that testimony in its findings of fact. Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded, the damages the trial court awarded – $23,500 before trebling – were disproportionate to the diminution of the property value. The Court said that the trial court could award restoration damages only if it found that Park had a reason personal for restoring her property. Because it did not, the trial court’s award of compensatory damages that exceeded the diminution in the market value of Park’s property was not appropriate.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, March 29, 2017

I FEEL PRETTY, OH SO PRETTY …

Hawkins v. McGee - the case of the hairy hand

Hawkins v. McGee – the case of the hairy hand

There’s always a tension between the value that a lover of the land places on his or her trees and the price tag affixed to those same trees by the green-eyeshade crowd of financial experts testifying in some cold courtroom.

The general rule is that the measure of damages when trees are wrongfully cut should be the difference between the value of the property before the trees were removed and the value after the trees are taken down. Fans of the ol’ case of the hairy hand (Hawkins v. McGee) from law school remember the general diminution of value concept. Notwithstanding this staple of first-year contracts class, courts in many states have carved out exceptions to the rule for situations just like today’s case.

The problem usually arises when only a relatively few trees of limited commercial value are removed or destroyed. In today’s case, an Episcopal Church lost 22 small trees when a contractor dumped too much fill dirt – taken from a road construction project – around their bases. The Church proved in court that replacing the trees — a couple cherry trees and a score of red oaks — would cost just over $17,000. But the trial court threw the case out, because it believed that the replacement costs weren’t relevant. Rather, the trial court said, the Church was obligated to prove how much less its land was worth with the trees gone.

The "tree volcano" ... pile dirt around the base, and suffocate the sapling.

The “tree volcano” … pile dirt around the base, and suffocate the sapling. The Church lost 22 trees this way.

Holy birch bark! The problem was that the worth of the property hadn’t fallen much, it being close to a road and of limited use (there’s not that much of a market for church properties). But the Church didn’t want the diminution in property’s value for its collection plate: it wanted its trees back. The Minnesota Supreme Court had mercy on the Church, holding that where the trees served a function that was primarily aesthetic, replacement cost was a fair calculation.

Sometimes justice can’t be done by using the cold, analytical diminution-of-value approach. Occasionally, the wronged owner just plain likes the trees that had been taken, and who’s to say that because the loss may be measured psychologically rather than economically, the damaged party shouldn’t be compensated. We always thought that in such cases, the wrongdoer should be held to lose much of his or her moral standing to complain about how injured the injured party is. In this case, the Court said, that the owner’s enjoyment of the trees might not be quantifiable in a real-estate-value analysis just didn’t matter. (The second case we studied in law school, Peevyhouse v. Garland Coal & Mining Co., has always illustrated the mischief that can be done when a court ignores the aesthetic expectations of the wronged party).

The decision is necessary in the world of tree law, because otherwise, too many cases would founder on the rocks of damages: too many malefactors could cut down too many trees, and the likely penalties, even with treble damages available, would not deter the conduct.

Rector, Wardens & Vestry of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church v. C.S. McCrossan, Inc., 306 Minn. 143, 235 N.W.2d 609 (Sup.Ct. Minn. 1975). When the Minnesota Department of Highways took about 8/10ths of an acre from St. Christopher’s to enlarge the intersection, the church lost its existing access and part of its parking area. The Rector hired C.S. McCrossan to construct a new parking space and access road.

irrelevant150123A grove of trees was located at the north end of the lot. In the process of grading, McCrossan dumped fill around the base of the trees, which the church argued caused the trees — two black cherry trees and twenty red oaks — to suffocate and die. The church’s expert testified that because of the variety, size, and condition of the trees, they had a total value of $17,267.

The church asserted that the grove of trees not only acted to screen the area from heavy traffic on two sides, but also gave the area a natural, pleasing, aesthetic, wooded atmosphere. The trial court directed a verdict for C.S. McCrossan on ground that church failed to prove damage based on diminution in value of real estate.

The church appealed.

Held: The decision was reversed. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the proper measure of damages for negligence in suffocating the trees was the replacement cost of trees rather than merely the loss of value of the real estate, notwithstanding the inability of the church to prove that destruction of trees diminished the value of the property as a whole. The replacement cost of trees that have an aesthetic value to the owner as ornamental and shade trees or for purposes of screening sound and providing privacy may be considered in determining damage incurred from the destruction of the trees, to extent that the cost is reasonable and practical.

Although evidence may be presented in rebuttal that the effect on the value of land as a whole is minimal, it is for the jury to balance elements of damage in arriving at a just and reasonable award.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, March 28, 2017

DOING YOUR DUTY

We don't know ... in fact, we're not sure who he is. But the Rhode Island Supreme remained firmly in control - although with teeth gritted - in today's decision.

     We don’t know … in fact, we’re not sure who he is. But the Rhode Island Supreme Court remained firmly in control – although with teeth gritted – in today’s decision.

Robert E. Lee, a man torn between duty to country and to his home state, once saidDuty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”

Judges must remind themselves of that often, as they are called upon to apply laws they believe are ill-conceived in cases where the outcome seems less than just to them. The Rhode Island Supreme Court faced that unpleasant task recently, being required to send an injured citizen home empty-handed after an accident at a state facility. The Rhode Island statute in question, the State’s Recreational Use Statute, gives unusually broad immunity to governmental units, classifying the people who use parks and other facilities as little more than trespassers.

Agree or not with the Court’s discomfiture at treating a user of a state recreational facility as a trespasser, one must nevertheless admire the Court’s careful application of the law, coupled with its repeated solicitation of the legislature to correct what a majority of the state’s high court sees as short-sighted policy. Clearly, the judges didn’t like what the law compelled them to do … but they saw the only remedy for that as laying with the legislature.

Labedz v. State, 919 A.2d 415 (Sup.Ct. R.I. 2007). Antonina Labedz was walking along a concrete path at Scarborough Beach, a state-owned beach located in Narragansett, Rhode Island. She tripped on an uneven surface and fell to the ground, breaking her wrist. She sued, alleging the State was negligent in “permitting a dangerous uneven condition to exist on a portion of walkway and failing to warn invitees … of the dangerous condition on the premises.” The trial court found that the State was shielded from liability by virtue of the Recreational Use Statute. Labedz appealed.

How did Ms. Labedz miss that hole? Or was the City negligent? We'll never know, because sovereign immunity stopped this lawsuit in its tracks.

How did Ms. Labedz miss that hole? Or was the City negligent? We’ll never know, because sovereign immunity stopped this lawsuit in its tracks.

Held: The State was not liable. Labedz argued that the Supreme Court should reverse prior cases which gave the State broad exemption from liability. But the Court rejected her position, noting that it had been unequivocal in its view that the unambiguous language of the 1996 amendment to the Recreational Use Statute clearly reflects the General Assembly’s intent to extend to the State and municipalities the limitations on liability afforded by that statute, most recently in Lacey v. Reitsma. The Court took the opportunity again to note its “concern about the troubling result that we felt obliged to reach by virtue of our reading of the Recreational Use Statute, and we urged the General Assembly to revisit the provisions of that statute concerning state and municipal immunity.” The Court felt uncomfortable with a statute that classified users of state and municipal recreational sites “as though they were trespassers.”

judge151022Labedz also argued that the trial court was wrong to grant summary judgment where the State could have been found liable if its conduct had been willful or malicious. She had alleged as much in her complaint, but she advanced no evidence to support her claim. But Labedz argued that it was the jury’s duty to find whether the conduct had been willful or malicious, and the trial court shouldn’t have taken away that duty by granting summary judgment without a trial. The Court ruled that if the facts were not genuinely disputed, as in this case, the law is pretty settled that a trial court may proceed to determine the existence of any legal duty without assistance from the jury.

Here, Labedz couldn’t point to any evidence that suggested the State acted willfully or maliciously, as those terms are used in the Recreational Use Statute. Summary judgment for the State was appropriate, albeit not cheerfully granted.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, March 27, 2017

FALL IN MOOSE RIVER, MAINE

Not Bullwinkle -- Moose River is named for a generic moose, we understand.

  Not Bullwinkle – Moose River is named for a generic moose, we understand.

Drive up U.S. Route 201 a pretty good way, up past Jackman and Wood Pond, and you’ll eventually happen on beautiful little Moose River, Maine, population 219. Located about 10 miles as the crow flies from the Canadian border, the little town is everything simple and natural that a harried city dweller could imagine about such a bucolic place.

Being a little backwater has some disadvantages. Too small for municipal buildings, the town officials are expected to greet the public and transact the town’s business from their homes. That’s what Elizabeth Bell, the town clerk, did. One January day in 2004, Linda Rodriguez – who had just moved there from Arizona and perhaps was unfamiliar with the concept of winter – was leaving Ms. Bell’s home cum office when she slipped on the steps. Unfortunately, the handrail was missing. Ms. Bell had noticed it was wobbly, and her hubby removed it for repair. Being a spouse of the male persuasion, he hadn’t quite gotten around to fix it yet. The playoffs were on the weekend before, you know.

Ms. Bell didn’t have homeowners’ insurance against claims for personal injury because she believed “neighbors don’t sue … neighbors.” Sadly, it turned out that some of them – the ones from Arizona – do. Ms. Bell defended by claiming that she was protected by governmental employee immunity. The Town, on the other hand, argued it was her house, and the Town had no control over it, so it had no liability. We guess it’s “every dog for himself” when the subpoenas start flying.

Ms. Rodriguez - having just moved in from sunny and hot Arizona - apparently was surprised to find the white stuff was slippery.

        Ms. Rodriguez – having just moved in from sunny and hot Arizona – apparently was surprised to find the white stuff was slippery.

The trial court found that Bell was not immune from liability but the Town was. On appeal, the Maine Supreme Court agreed that Ms. Bell’s failure to replace the handrail had nothing to do with her government function. As for the Town, the Court said, like it or not, Ms. Bell’s place was a public building and the Town could be liable for negligence. And judging from the comments on the news report, some Maine residents see it as another case of “flatlanders” messing things up in Maine.

Rodriguez v. Town of Moose River, 922 A.2d 484 (Sup.Ct. Me., 2007). The Town of Moose River has a population of about 230 residents. Like other small towns in Maine, the Town does not own an office building suitable for conducting Town business. As a condition for holding office, the Town required the town clerk to conduct official duties at her personal residence. The Town conducts its selectmen’s meetings at a selectman’s home.

In March 2000, Bell was elected town clerk and tax collector. Accordingly, she opened her home to the public to conduct Town business. The Town brought its computer, file cabinets, desk, and office supplies to Bell’s home. She placed a sign on the side of her house, which read, “Moose River Town Clerk and Tax Collector.” Bell received about $300 per month as compensation for her work for the Town. During an average year, approximately 200 people would enter Bell’s home to conduct Town business.

Moose River isused to different day-to-day hazards than steps without handrails.

      Moose River is used to different day-to-day hazards than steps without handrails.

On January 23, 2004, Rodriguez went to Bell’s home with her husband and two children to register two motor vehicles. Rodriguez had called Bell beforehand to schedule the appointment. There was some snow and ice on the sides of the steps leading into Bell’s home, but the middle of the steps was clear. During the registration process, Rodriguez had to leave Bell’s home to retrieve her checkbook. After conducting her business, Rodriguez exited the home carrying one of her children in a car seat. She fell when she stepped down to the middle cement step outside of Bell’s home. Rodriguez injured her leg as a result of the fall.

Prior to Rodriguez’s fall, there had been a handrail on Bell’s front steps. Bell’s husband had removed the handrail when he noticed that it was wiggling. Bell did not check with the Town before removing the handrail. Rodriguez sued Moose River and Bell, claiming they had been negligent in failing to properly maintain Bell’s property. Rodriguez argued that had there been a handrail in place, it could have assisted her in walking down the steps or she could have grabbed it to prevent her fall. The trial court denied Bell’s motion for summary judgment, holding that she was entitled to discretionary function immunity. The trial court granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Bell’s residence was not a “public building” pursuant to the immunity exception of the Maine Tort Claims Act, 14 M.R.S. § 8104-A(2). Bell and Rodriguez both appealed.

Held: Bell was denied immunity, and the dismissal of the Town as a defendant was reversed. The Maine Supreme Court said that whether discretionary function immunity applies depends on whether the challenged act, omission, or decision (1) necessarily involves a basic governmental policy, program or objective; (2) is essential to the realization or accomplishment of that policy, program, or objective as opposed to one which would not change the course or direction of them; and (3) requires the exercise of basic policy evaluation, judgment, and expertise on the part of the governmental agency involved. Of course, the governmental agency involved possesses the requisite constitutional, statutory, or lawful authority and duty to do or make the challenged act, omission, or decision.

The question with respect to Bell’s entitlement to discretionary function immunity, the Court said, was whether Bell’s failure to install or replace the handrail on her front steps constituted a discretionary act “reasonably encompassed” by her duties as the town clerk and tax collector. Generally, operational decisions, such as those regarding the safety or maintenance of premises, fall outside the scope of discretionary function immunity, unless those decisions serve some other government policy or purpose. Here, Bell’s decision on the handrail did not involve a basic governmental policy related to performing duties as the town clerk, was not an act essential to the realization or accomplishment of such a policy, and did not require her to exercise a policy evaluation, judgment, or expertise. Rather, Bell’s choice not to replace the handrail resembles a decision ordinarily made by the general population, relating to the duty of care a landowner owes to the people who enter upon his or her property. Thus, she was not entitled to discretionary function immunity.

steps150121However, Bell was entitled to limited liability as a government employee. Pursuant to 14 M.R.S. §8104-D, the personal liability of an employee of a governmental entity for negligent acts or omissions within the course and scope of employment are subject to a limit of $10,000 for any claims arising out of a single occurrence. Because Bell was required to open her home to the public as part of her duties as town clerk and tax collector, the Court found, her failure to replace the handrail on her stairs was an act within the scope of her employment.

As for the Town, the Maine Tort Claim Act holds that governmental entities are liable for negligent acts or omissions in the construction, operation or maintenance of any public building or the appurtenances to any public building. For all intents and purposes, Bell’s home functioned as a public building as well as her private residence. By its plain meaning, a “public building” is “[a] building that is accessible to the public; esp[ecially] one owned by the government.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1243 (7th ed.1999). The function a building performs and its character in relation to the public are important factors in determining whether a building is “public.” Here, the residents of Moose River had no choice but to go to Bell’s home to perform legally necessary Town business, such as registering motor vehicles and paying taxes. Bell put a sign on her home, allowed residents to come into her home to conduct official Town business, and did not restrict her hours of service. The Court concluded that on the specific facts of this case, Bell’s home was a “public building” within the meaning of the Tort Claims Act.

– Tom Root

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