Case of the Day – Monday, August 8, 2016

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN – AND THAT’S DIFFERENT

Poster140306Time was, trees were just trees, and what they did, how they lived, grew and died, was out of the control of the property owner. No one blamed little Francine Nolan if the tree growing in Brooklyn fell on a Sabrett’s cart.

About the time little Francine was living in her Williamsburg tenement, an influential group of judges, scholars and lawyers in Philadelphia formed an organization known as the American Law Institute. They believed, among other things, that they could write comprehensive treatises about all areas of the law – which they called “Restatements” – that would serve as authoritative statements of the principles of common law. No more confusion, no more divergence of holdings, no more contentious arguments! You can just about hear the group, lemonades hoisted (this was during Prohibition, after all), singing “We Are the World.”

I hear the ALI singing ...

I hear the ALI singing …

Alas, Prohibition failed, and so did the ALI’s goal of replacing all of those tedious casebooks and treatises with the Restatement of the Law. Everyone loved the Restatements, but far from replacing state common law, case reporters and codes of statutes, the volumes became just another secondary source. To be sure, some of the ALI members never really thought an entire law library could be replaced with one shelf of Restatements, notably Benjamin Cardozo. He believed that the Restatement “will be something less than a code and something more than a treatise. It will be invested with unique authority, not to command, but to persuade.”

The Restatement of the Law continues today, with some volumes in their third printing. And courts love them, even if they don’t always follow them.

Today’s case is a good example. When the Browns’ tree fell on Ms. Barker’s property, it made a mess. She sued her neighbors, arguing that they should have recognized that the tree is at risk of falling, and done something about it. The Browns pointed out that no less persuasive source than the Restatement (Second) of Torts said that they weren’t responsible for the natural condition of trees on their property. The trial court agreed, and threw the case out.

The appellate court disagreed. It rejected the Restatement approach as being outdated and not sufficiently attuned to the differences between urban and rural life. In other words, the Court said, if a tree grows in Brooklyn, little Francine had better keep her eye on it.

Francine - be careful that tree doesn't fall on the hot dog vendor's cart.

Francine – be careful that tree doesn’t fall on the hot dog vendor’s cart.

Barker v. Brown, 236 Pa.Super. 75, 340 A.2d 566 (Pa.Super. 1975). Virginia Barker’s property adjoins that of the Browns. Both are located in a residential district of State College. A large tree stood on the Browns’ property, a tree which Barker said the Browns knew or should have known was in a decayed, rotting and dangerous condition. Barker alleged that the Browns negligently failed to take steps to avert the danger and, as a result, the tree fell onto her property.

The tree’s fall destroyed two of Barker’s trees, valued at about $600 each. Barker had to have the fallen tree removed from her property at a cost of $147.50, and the process required her to miss two days of work, causing lost wages of $34.00. Finally, the incident caused a loss of value of Barker’s property in the amount of $600.00.

The trial court threw out the case on the grounds that section 363 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965) precluded holding the Browns to blame. That section provided:

(1) Except as stated in Subsection (2), neither a possessor of land, nor a vendor, lessor or other transferor, is liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land.

(2) A possessor of land in an urban area is subject to liability to persons using a public highway for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of trees on the land near the highway.

Held: The appellate court reinstated the lawsuit.

The court held that the Restatement’s distinction between natural and artificial conditions – which had never been the focus of prior Pennsylvania court decisions – was outdated. “It may very well be true,” the Court said, “that the distinction between artificial and natural conditions was valid in a time when landowners were possessed of, and hence would have been charged with the care of large quantities of land. It would still be valid today in rural areas where large landholdings are common. [However], we do not believe that the distinction should be applied to land in or near a developed or residential area. Urban living, by altering the purpose for which the land is used, must also bring with it certain responsibilities. A tree growing in an urban or residential area does not have the same natural relation to surrounding land as a tree located in a rural setting.”

Basswood140306While acknowledging that its approach imposed more cost on landowners, the Court nevertheless believed that “the relatively minor expenditures in time and money that it will take to inspect and secure trees in a developed or residential area is not large when compared with the increased danger and potential for damages represented by the fall of such a tree.”

The Court thus held that a possessor of land in or adjacent to a developed or residential area was subject to liability for harm caused to others outside of the land by a defect in the condition of a tree thereon, if the exercise of reasonable care by the possessor would have disclosed the defect and the risk involved, and repair would have made the tree reasonably safe.

In this case, the Court held, Barker alleged in her complaint that the Browns “knew, or should have known, that the said tree was in a decayed, rotting, and dangerous condition.” This is denied by the Browns, but for purposes of this appeal, the Court had to accept the facts alleged in Barker’s complaint as true. On remand, it noted, the question would be one for the fact finder.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, August 5, 2016

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE, THERE’S FIRE

fire160805It’s the height of the vacation season, so we thought we’d give all you happy campers a surprising and useful piece of information: campfires can be hot, even when you can’t see flames.

Now, you may say, “this is transpicuously obvious!” (especially if you have an excellent command of vocabulary), but alas, this is not necessarily so. Ask the Morrises of Texas. They went camping at beautiful Goliad State Park, taking over a campsite which had been recently vacated by another camper. Their 3-year old wandered into the campfire ring, where the child was burned. Not being folks to look in a mirror and ask why they hadn’t supervised an inquisitive child who was exploring a strange and exciting new location, the Morrises sued the Parks and Wildlife Department for not making sure the campfire pit was cold, and the previous camper for not putting her fire completely out.

The Parks Department claimed it was immune from liability under the Texas Tort Claims Act and Recreational Use Statute, but the Morrises claimed the Department and the prior camper were grossly negligent, which – if true – would deny the Department the protection of the statute.

The trial court disagreed, as did the Court of Appeals. In a decision sure to be denounced by Smokey T. Bear, the Court held that it was socially useful for a prior camper to leave a smoldering fire for the next camper to build on, and anyway, it was sort of foreseeable to the Morrises that a campfire pit might be hot and the kind of place from which you’d want to keep your 3-year old somewhat distant.

The Department was found to be immune from suit, and the prior camper left the courtroom a happy but smarter one. She’ll no doubt douse her campfires in the future, just like Smokey advises.

Darn good advice...

Darn good advice…

Morris v. Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept., 226 S.W.3d 720 (Tex.App., 2007). The Morrises arrived at Goliad State Park, where they set up their campsite. Shortly after arriving at the Park, their 3-year-old child fell into a campfire ring containing hot coals from a previous fire. The toddler suffered second- and third-degree burns requiring medical treatment.

The Morrises sued the Texas Department of Parks & Recreation and Sandra Carson — the previous camper at the site — alleging common-law negligence and gross negligence. Carson filed a motion for summary judgment, and the Department claimed governmental immunity as a “plea to the jurisdiction.” The trial court granted both defendants’ motions, and the Morrises appealed.

Held: The trial court was right to dismiss the case. As to camper Carson, the Court quickly disposed of the Morrises’ negligence claim. Carson, the Court said, had no legal duty to the next campers to extinguish her campfire. The campfire was left burning in a place designated for fires at that campsite, and it was hardly unforeseeable to the Morrises that hot coals might be found within the campfire ring. The Park did not require or expect campers to extinguish fires left in designated campfire rings. In fact, the Court held, there was significant social utility in a policy that encouraged campers leaving unextinguished fires from which the next camper could start his or her campfire.

Yeah,  prior camper - I'm talkin' to YOU.

Yeah, prior camper – I’m talkin’ to YOU.

As for the Department of Parks, the Morrises attemped to circumvent sovereign immunity by claiming that the Department was grossly negligent in not inspecting campfire rings to ensure that the fires are extinguished. Under the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity, the Court said, a governmental unit is immune from suit for the performance of governmental functions. The Department had waived sovereign immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act to the extent specified by the recreational use statute, which is to injuries caused through gross negligence. To establish liability for a premises defect — which is what the hot campfire pit was — under the Tort Claims Act, a plaintiff must prove either willful, wanton, or grossly negligent conduct, or that the defendant had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition, the plaintiff did not, and the defendant failed to warn of the condition or make the condition safe.

In this case, the Court ruled, the Morrises’ task was more daunting because a landowner has no duty to protect trespassers from obvious defects or conditions. A hot campfire ring from the previous night’s camping was a condition inherent in the use to which the land was put, and thus, the Department had no duty to protect Morrises’ child from the obvious and expected condition. Thus, the Court held, under the recreational use statute there could be no gross negligence on the part of the Department because there was no duty.

A substantial part of the case related to the proper venue for the case, a matter of great procedural interest to lawyers but not terribly relevant to application of the recreational use statute.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, August 4, 2016

GIVE ‘EM AN INCH, THEY’LL TAKE A MILE

outhouse141229Seems like it was only 80 years ago or so when Grandpaw emerged from his outhouse one day to find a couple of duded-up flatlanders standing on his little piece of Tennessee hillside. They had some kind of deed full of fancy writin’, and they told him if he signed it, they’d string some wires on poles across the place, and he’d have electric lights just like the big city folks.

That sounded like a pretty good deal to Grandmaw, who was good and tired of hand pumping wellwater, cooking on a stove and buying ice whenever the iceman decided to cometh. She made Grandpaw put his ‘x’ on the dotted line.

The flatlanders were as good as their word. They ran some wooden poles and a couple of wires over the homestead, and pretty soon, Grandmaw had her Frigidaire and electric stove, Grandpaw had an electric light in the privy, and life was grand. The flatlanders from the Tennessee Valley Authority sold Gramp power at dirt cheap rates, and only appeared once every couple years or so and trimmed back a few trees under the wires.

Some time in the 1960s, crews came in and replaced the poles with gigantic steel trussed transmission towers on concrete pads. They cut a bigger swath of timber, removing trees under the towers and a few feet to either side. Grandpa and Grandma were pretty unhappy about it, but they were quite old and didn’t know what to do. You checked things with a lawyer, who told you that TVA had an easement from your grandparents, and was within its rights.

Time marched on, your grandparents went to their reward, and your inherited the old place. You tore down the rambling farmhouse and replaced it with a beautiful log home, a rustic but modern weekend getaway. You like sitting on the porch and looking out over the hills and woods. Every so often, a TVA tree trimming crew would stop by, and trim back a few trees near the power lines. You assured them that they didn’t have to worry about the mature trees beyond about 25 feet, because you’d look after them yourself.

Then, about 500 miles north northeast of your idyllic retreat, an overtaxed transmission line sagged in the August Ohio heat, and arced to a nearby tree. The cascading errors and failures that followed plunged the northeastern United States into darkness that lasted in some places for several days.

Blackout141229Several years after the blackout, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) – a government-certified industry organization that sets reliability standards for the transmission of electricity – established tougher rules for vegetation management around electric transmission lines.  Electric utilities faced hefty fines if they did not vigorously maintain their rights-of-way under transmission lines.  In 2012, you got a letter advising you, among other things, that TVA would no longer allow taller, incompatible trees within its rights-of-way, even if landowners say they will control tree height, and that it would be removing –sometimes extensively – incompatible species from its rights-of-way. Any tree that could grow more than 15 feet high at maturity would have to go.

When you found out that the new vegetation management policy will result in TVA cutting down more than 200 trees, you decided to take action.

That’s what Donna Sherwood and a host of neighbors did, suing TVA in U.S. District Court. They argued that TVA had improperly classified the so-called 15-foot rule as routine maintenance which was exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act. In fact, Ms. Sherwood contended, the new 15-foot rule would essentially denude 260,000 acres, a square of land over 20 miles to a side. Besides, Ms. Sherwood argued, TVA didn’t have the right to remove trees in its right of-way that did not interfere with or endanger the transmission lines.

The District Court threw out the case, holding that TVA had complied with the NEPA and that the easements clearly encompassed removal of timber. The plaintiffs asked the court to submit the easement interpretation issue to the Tennessee Supreme Court, a procedure known as certifying a question. The District Court ruled that it didn’t need to certify the question, because state law was well settled. The easements pretty clearly gave TVA the right to clear trees from its rights-of-way.

The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court, but the decision didn’t give the neighbors much comfort. The appellate court held that record did not show that TVA had complied with NEPA, so the case was sent back to the District Court to compile the record. But on the crucial issue, the Court held that crucial Federal interests, as well as Tennessee law, supported a reading of the old easement Grandpaw created to encompass the 15-foot rule, and clear-cutting a swath as wide as the limits of the easement (in some cases, 200 feet).

The likelihood that NEPA would stop TVA is about as likely as your electric bill falling by 50%. That being the case, Ms. Sherwood is undoubtedly scratching her head with gleeful puzzlement that TVA announced after the appellate decision that it would abandon the 15-foot rule without further litigation.

nopruning141229The neighbors won … but the matter wasn’t settled in court. That means that come the next blackout, the chainsaws could be unleashed again.

Sherwood v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 590 Fed.Appx. 451 (6th Cir. 2014). The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) provides electric power to consumers in seven states across the Southeast. In order to reliably deliver that power, TVA maintains the vegetation under and around its power line structures. Historically, TVA has removed all trees directly under its power lines, but did not cut down all of the trees in what TVA called buffer or border zones, the edges of the easements TVA possesses.

Over the years, TVA acquired easements that are typically between 75 and 200 feet wide. Built within those easements are approximately 15,900 miles of power transmission lines. Those easements permit the TVA “the perpetual right to enter” and “to erect, maintain, repair, rebuild, operate, and patrol” electric power transmission lines and all necessary appurtenances. As well, the TVA is granted the “right to clear said right-of-way” and keep the right-of-way clear, including brush and trees. TVA has established a vegetation-management program for its easements. TVA maintains the easements by keeping the area beneath the transmission lines clear, while leaving a narrow buffer zone on either side of the easement. The sectors are on five-year cycles for tree removal and three-year cycles for mowing or spraying the undergrowth.

Although the TVA has been maintaining the vegetation in its easements for more than seventy years, it has not removed all of the taller, mature trees located within its rights-of-way. Its right-of-way specialists have been afforded discretion in deciding which, if any, trees to remove. Budget constraints have further restricted the discretion afforded the specialists. As a result, many tall trees remain standing within TVA’s easements. TVA has also made exceptions when landowners have promised to control the height of the trees.

After the August 2003 Northeast U.S. blackout, the wisdom of allowing these taller trees to grow within electric transmission line easements was called into question. In 2007, NERC established rules for vegetation management around electric transmission lines.

TVA altered its vegetation-management practices in order to comply with the new NERC rules and to avoid paying fines and penalties. TVA may allow low-growing species (less than 15 feet at mature height) to be planted in the within the right-of-way, but not directly under transmission lines, but express TVA approval would be required in each case. It would no longer allows taller, incompatible (species that exceed 15 feet mature height) trees within its rights-of-way when requested, even if landowners promise to control tree height. TVA would remove all incompatible species from its rights-of-way.

A TVA spokesman said TVA would have a “zero tolerance policy,” explaining that “we’re going to remove trees that can grow 15 feet or more. We’re also going to clear the full width of the easement.”

Donna Sherwood and her neighbors sued, arguing that TVA’s new policy would result in the removal of millions of taller, older, mature trees from TVA’s rights-of-way. They argued that TVA had failed to conduct the required NEPA studies before implementing this new rule. The plaintiffs have submitted evidence showing that TVA identified more than 200 trees for removal from plaintiffs’ properties. The plaintiffs submitted evidence of the environmental consequences of removing tall, mature trees from the easements.

The district court granted TVA’s motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claim that TVA had exceeded the scope of the easements, denying the plaintiffs’ motion to certify a question to the Tennessee Supreme Court. After reviewing the record, the district court held that TVA had not established a new policy, and was acting consistent with the maintenance policy that had been in place for the past fifteen years. Finally, the district court held that TVA’s 2012 vegetation-maintenance policy was not arbitrary or capricious.

The plaintiffs appealed.

Held: The plaintiffs’ request that the District Court certify a question of state property law to the Tennessee Supreme Court was rejected. However, the record showed that TVA had not adequately considered the environmental consequences of its new 15-foot policy, so the case had to be sent back to the District Court.

Easement141229As for the NEPA claim, the Court of Appeals held that the administrative record submitted by TVA did not consider the environmental consequences of the 15-foot rule. The Court held that the plaintiffs were alleging that TVA’s alteration of its vegetation-maintenance practice – the removal of all trees over 15 feet, as well as those trees that will grow to a height over fifteen feet – constituted a major federal action under NEPA. The TVA must compile an administrative record for the decision it made that is being challenged by the plaintiffs, in order for the court to evaluate the decision’s propriety under NEPA.

As for the scope of the easements, the Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that “[b]ecause federal interests are sufficiently high in this matter, the easements are governed by federal law, not state law.” When the United States is a party to a lawsuit, and the underlying activities arise from a federal program, the federal interests implicated may warrant the protection of federal law.

The Court also agreed that the unambiguous language in the easements gave TVA the perpetual right to remove trees. Although state law was not determinative when applied to a Federal easement, the Court said, under Tennessee law the scope of an easement created by a grant is determined by the language of the grant. Here, the easements involved here unambiguously give the United States three rights: (1) the right to enter and to construct electric transmission line structures, (2) the right to clear the easements of brush, trees, and timber, and (3) the right to remove danger trees from the surrounding land. In describing the rights granted, the easements use the plural “purposes,” not the singular “purpose.”

The Court said that nothing in the language of the easements, explicitly or implicitly, limited TVA’s right to clear trees from the right of-way.

Thus, although the NEPA issue remained to be litigated on remand, the easements were broad enough to clear-cut the full width of the easements, regardless of prior practices or the landowners’ opinions as to what was necessary to protect the transmission lines.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, August 3, 2016

WATERWORLD

shortage160803In a little shot of neighbor law today, we’re going to talk about Waterworld.

No, Kevin Costner, it’s not that kind of Waterworld. Instead of a $200 million turkey, this waterworld’s a place where water is precious because there’s not that much of it, a semi-arid climate in Nebraska, a state once considered to be part of the Great American Desert but is now an agricultural powerhouse. Water’s scarce here, and water rights have been litigated ever since settlers put down their six-guns and hired the first local frontier lawyer.

In this case, a greedy downstreamer in the Lower Platte River basin had used an unnamed tributary to build his pond — his own fine little fishing pond — and he wanted his upstream neighbor to be prohibited from doing the same until his pond was full to his satisfaction. The trial court agreed with him, but the Nebraska Supreme Court found that Koch’s claim to a superior appropriative right to the water was as fictional as most of the cowboy-and-Indian stories of the old West.

As a riparian owner, Koch’s rights to the water turned out to be no better than that of his upstream neighbor.

waterfight160803It’s just a case about a little water, you say. What do you know? Water has been declared to be the oil of the 21st century, and it probably is. Having the right amount of water of the right degree of purity at the right place at the right time is right important. Those who have it – think of those of us in the Great Lakes watershed, for example – guard it jealously. Having some sense of how water law is applied, the world of riparian rights, is a pretty good idea.

Koch v. Aupperle, 274 Neb. 52, 737 N.W.2d 869 (Sup.Ct. Neb. 2007). The Aupperles built a small dam to create a farm pond along the banks of an unnamed tributary of Weeping Water Creek. Loren Koch, a downstream user of tributary’s waters, sued. He complained that in 1989, he dammed the waters of the tributary and built a 3-acre pond on his property next to his house. Koch alleged the Aupperle dam would prevent his pond from filling and deprive him of stream water for livestock watering.

Koch said he bought his property in 1981 and that, aside from two brief times in the past two years, he had observed a constant flow of water in the tributary. His dam, built in 1989, impounded approximately 40 to 50 acre-feet of water. In 1990, he stocked the pond with largemouth bass, bluegill, and catfish, and, by the time of trial, the pond had become “one of the best little fishing ponds around.”

This is what the mighty Colorado used to look like when it met the Sea of Cortez, a victim of too many riparian rights holders taking too much water,  A recent agreement between the U.S. and Mexico has improved matters, but not a lot.

This is what the mighty Colorado used to look like when it met the Sea of Cortez, a victim of too many riparian rights holders taking too much water, A recent agreement between the U.S. and Mexico has improved matters, but not a lot.

Although Koch said he used his pond to water his livestock, he had no livestock from 1997 until shortly before trial. He said he intended to have a small number of cattle on his property again and that he had recently obtained seven head of cattle; he anticipated having a maximum of 45 head.

Koch admitted that he had other water sources for cattle on his property, but he testified that he preferred to use the running water from the tributary. He also used the pond for recreational boating. Koch was concerned that if the drought continued and the Aupperles were allowed to build their pond, no water would pass through to his pond and it would dry up and kill his fish. He asked the court require a “six-inch draw down” in the Aupperle dam so that water could be passed through the Aupperle structure until Koch’s pond was full.

Koch conceded he had no appropriative right to use the water in the tributary. He said he wanted all the water in the tributary until his pond was full. At that time, the court could authorize upstream impoundment by the Aupperles.

Koch admitted that he had other sources of water that he could use for his livestock, including several other ponds, a well, rural water spigots, and stock tanks. Paul Zillig, the assistant manager of the Lower Platte Natural Resources District, testified that based on data compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the entity that designed the Aupperle farm pond, there was sufficient water in the tributary to support both ponds.

The trial court found that while both parties intended to use the water for the same purpose, Koch “has priority of appropriation due to the fact that his dam was constructed back in 1989 and has existed since that time.” On this basis, the court concluded that “Koch’s use of the water from the stream is superior to [the] Aupperles.” The district court permanently enjoined the Aupperles from constructing their farm pond “until such time as the dam structure contains a draw-down or similar device which will allow for the passage of water through the dam structure.” The Aupperles appealed.

Held: The injunction was reversed. The basic concept of riparian rights is that an owner of land abutting a water body has the right to have the water continue to flow across or stand on the land, subject to the equal rights of each owner to make proper use of the water. Riparian rights extend only to the use of the water, not to its ownership. One of the most significant maxims of riparianism is that, unlike the rule of the prior appropriation system, there is no priority among riparian proprietors utilizing the supply. All riparian proprietors have an equal and correlative right to use the waters of an abutting stream.

dam160803Of equal importance with this maxim is that use of the water does not create the riparian right and disuse neither destroys nor qualifies the right. While a riparian right will not permit any one man to monopolize all the water of a running stream when there are other riparian owners who need and may use it also, neither does it grant to any riparian owner an absolute right to insist that every drop of the water flow past his land exactly as it would in a state of nature.

Applying these principles, the Court concluded as a matter of law that Koch could not have acquired any “senior” riparian right by constructing his dam in 1989. Any riparian right he may have to use water in the tributary would be equal and correlative to the rights of other riparian proprietors. The rights of one riparian landowner versus another is determined by examining the reasonableness of each landowner’s respective use of the water.

The record in this case did not establish that either Koch or the Aupperles held riparian rights. The Court found the parties were simply owners of adjoining tracts of land through which the tributary flows, with Koch’s land situated downstream of that of the Aupperles. Koch, as the party seeking injunctive relief, had the burden to show that the proposed Aupperle dam would infringe on his rights. Because he could not demonstrate the existence of a common-law riparian right, the Court held, he clearly was not entitled to injunctive relief.

Accordingly, the Court said, it did not need to analyze the reasonableness of the use by each party of the water flowing in the tributary. If it had, it said, it noted that both parties intended to use water in the tributary “primarily for aesthetic and recreational purposes with grade stabilization, erosion control, and domestic use (watering cattle) being secondary in nature.”

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, August 2, 2016

FUN WITH TREE LAWNS

 

paradewatch140703Confusion reigns over who owns and controls the tree lawn, that strip between your front sidewalk and the street. With July 4th having pass and Labor Day only a month away, we’re again hearing the same question we hear every year: can I, Harry or Harriet Homeowner, keep parade watchers off my beautiful tree lawn (or, in the alternative, can I reserve the best seats for my family and friends)?

We can’t answer that, but we can again remind you that generally speaking, it’s your tree lawn (subject to the rights of the city to maintain its right-of-way). That’s what the Miller-Lagro family established in today’s case. It seems that they arrived home one day to find that the electric utility and its tree trimming subcontractor had butchered the trees on their tree lawn. This being America and all, they sued, citing a Minnesota statute giving them the right to treble damages for wrongful cutting on their property.

The trial court sided with the utility, holding that because the tree lawn was land dedicated to the road right-of-way, the Miller-Lagros could not recover.

The Court of Appeals reversed.

The Minnesota Supreme Court sided with the Miller-Lagros. It held that they had standing under common law and the statute. Sure, the Court said, their interest in the trees was subordinate to the right of the city, as exercised by the electrical utility in its utility line maintenance function. But the utility’s rights to trim, derived from the city’s right-of-way maintenance rights, existed only to the extent that the trimming was reasonable and necessary.

The Miller-Lagros had the right to their day in court to prove that the trimming was unreasonable.

Depending on the number and nature of the people perched on your tree lawn, you may find it ill advised to loudly assert your right to exclusive possession of your tree lawn.

Depending on the number and nature of the people perched on your tree lawn, you may find it ill advised to loudly assert your right to exclusive possession of the space for the duration of the parade.

Normally, a landowner owns property to the center of the roadway passing the land, including the tree lawn. Obviously, the public has the right to occupy the roadway and sidewalks for their intended purpose, to transit across the land. However, there is no similar public purpose that would let people occupy the tree lawn. It seems to us that a landowner has the exclusive right of possession to the tree lawn, subject only to utility easements and rights-of-way (if the city wants to widen the street, you’re probably out of luck). As for the sofa, beer refrigerator, umbrella and roped-off area that some people from the other side of town have erected on your tree lawn (with the parade still a day away): they’re trespassers.

That’s the legal end of it … of course, there are social and political considerations in evicting them as well, especially if the patriarch of the parade squatters is 6’5”, 290 lbs. and goes by “Bubba.”

You’re on your own.

Miller-Lagro v. Northern States Power Co., 582 N.W.2d 550 (Sup.Ct. Minn. 1998). When Heidi Miller-Lagro and Kent Lagro returned to their home in Medicine Lake on the afternoon on October 21, 1992, they were shocked to discover that Northern States Power Company and Asplundh Tree Company had cut down several trees that were located on the city right-of-way between their lot and the paved roadway. The Lagros sued NSP and Asplundh, who promptly submitted surveys showing the trees were on land that was dedicated as public roadway in 1887 and property of the City of Medicine Lake, not property of the Lagros.

The trial court granted NSP’s and Asplundh’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the Lagros lacked standing and could not recover because the trees were not located on their property. They appealed, citing Minn.Stat. §561.04, that stated “[w]hoever without lawful authority cuts down or carries off any … tree .. on the land of another person, or in the street or highway in front of any person’s house, … is liable ….” The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the statute did apply, remanding the case for further proceedings on the issue of whether NSP had lawful authority to cut down the trees.

Woody could have been singing about tree lawns...

Woody could have been singing about tree lawns…

Held: The Miller-Lagros control the tree lawn. The Minnesota Supreme Court held that homeowners had standing under both common law and wrongful tree removal statute to bring a claim for removal of trees located on the tree lawn in front of their residence by a utility company’s contractor.

The homeowner’s interest in the trees is subordinate to the right of the city, as exercised by the electrical utility in its utility line maintenance function, to trim or cut trees in performance of its public works, the broad grant of authority provided by the statute governing utility’s maintenance of its lines, and the corresponding city ordinance. However, the statutes do not divest the property owner of ownership or control of the tree lawn, but rather only give] utility companies the lawful right to trim or remove trees to the extent that the trimming is reasonable and necessary for purpose of constructing, using, operating, and maintaining lines.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, August 1, 2016

I CAN SEE FOR MILES AND MILES…

It may be a great car wash ... but we can't see the road.

It may be a great car wash … but we can’t see the road.

Every morning, we look to the left and right as we pull onto the main street, only to stare into an ill-placed car wash sign. The First Armored Division could be rolling into town, and we couldn’t see it the M1A1s coming before they flattened our Yugo.

So every morning we wonder whether the sightline obstruction might not make someone liable to our next of kin when the inevitable happens. As it did one rainy night in Georgia.

A car had a chance encounter with a dump truck at a Georgia intersection. The pickup driver perished. Investigators suspected that untrimmed shrubs on vacant property at one corner of the crossroads, as well as a “curvature” in the road, made the intersection dangerous. The intersection had experienced several other accidents due to visibility.

Truck-carIn the aftermath of the tragic auto accident, the victim’s survivors sued the Georgia Department of Transportation, claiming it had a duty to keep trees and shrubs from a vacant lot trimmed back to protect the sight lines at the intersection in question. The trial court disagreed.

On appeal, the Court agreed that as a matter of law, DOT had no duty to maintain the intersection. But it did have a duty to inspect. It seemed that an issue of fact existed as to whether the vegetation had encroached on the highway right-of-way. But the Court discounted the plaintiff’s expert opinion that encroachment had occurred, because DOT contended it didn’t know where the right-of-way began, so who knew?

The result seems to turn summary judgment on its head, letting DOT off the hook without a trial when a real fact issue ­– the location of the highway right of way – remained. We were left as confused about liability afterwards as we were beforehand. And we still can’t see down the street.

Welch v. Georgia Dept. of Transp., 642 S.E.2d 913 (Ct.App. Ga., 2007). Addie D. Welch was killed when her vehicle hit a dump truck at an intersection. A policeman said the overgrown bushes on the northwest corner of the intersection contributed to the accident. A sheriff’s department investigator said overgrown shrubs on the vacant property and a “curvature” in the road combined to make the intersection dangerous. Several other accidents due to visibility had occurred previously at the intersection.

Welch’s expert witness said that a driver’s line of sight was obstructed by overgrown shrubs and trees on the northwest corner of the intersection. The expert said that the overgrowth extended two feet into the Georgia DOT right-of-way, and that DOT was responsible for maintaining the line of sight. The expert also said American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) guidelines for that intersection require a line of sight of 430 feet. Because of the overgrown vegetation, Welch’s line of sight was between 143 and 277 feet.

line_of_sight2After the accident, DOT employees cut the overgrowth. Claiming that trees and shrubs on the property adjacent to the intersection were negligently maintained and obstructed her line of sight, Welch’s estate and surviving children and grandchildren sued the Georgia DOT. DOT moved for summary judgment, arguing that state law precluded plaintiffs’ claim, or in the alternative, that plaintiffs presented no evidence that Welch’s line of sight was obstructed. The trial court granted DOT’s motion, and Welch appealed.

Held: DOT was not liable. The Court ruled that DOT was immune under OCGA § 32-2-2. That statute gives DOT has the general responsibility to design, manage and improve the state highway system. But, where state highways are within city limits, the DOT is required to provide only substantial maintenance and operation, such as reconstruction and resurfacing, reconstruction of bridges, erection and maintenance of official department signs, painting of striping and pavement delineators and other major maintenance activities.

Although the road Welch was on was a state highway, the intersection lay within the corporate limits of Quitman. Accordingly, DOT was required only to provide substantial maintenance activities and operations. Those activities, the Court said, did not include the maintenance of shrubbery and vegetation. Thus, the statute did not impose a duty on DOT to maintain the shrubbery. But Welch also argued that another statute, OCGA §50-21-24(8), made DOT liable for failing to inspect its right-of-way. In order to prevail on this claim, the Court said, Welch had to show that the vegetation extended into DOT’s right-of-way. DOT argues that the overgrowth was on private property.

Although Welch’s expert believed the vegetation encroached on the DOT right-of-way, the Court agreed with DOT’s view that the extent of the right-of-way couldn’t be ascertained without using courthouse records and surveyors. Because Welch’s expert had not relied on DOT testimony to opine that vegetation extended into the right-of-way, and the Court found that the evidence was uncertain as to the location of the right-of-way, Welch’s expert’s opinion that vegetation extended into the right-of-way was disregarded, and plaintiff was found not to have established DOT’s liability.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, July 29, 2016

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Yes, my dear, 2-1/2 baths, cathedral ceilings throughout, and a three-car garage!

“Yes, my dear, 2-1/2 baths, cathedral ceilings throughout, and a three-car garage!”

Great expectations? What the Dickens might those be?

We’re talking about the great expectations that new homebuyers so often harbor. After all, what are developers selling if not dreams? Real estate people don’t even pretend that they’re doing anything but. Look at the housing bubble.

Well, it’s gone on ever since the dawn of our great nation. Today’s case is an illustration of what can happen in the fallout of a dream. A subdivision planned in Meriden, Connecticut, in the 1930s included a number of beautiful streets that were never built. Nevertheless, the Doucettes and their predecessors had always used what would have been a street to get access to the garage at the back of their narrow lot… at least until their neighbor announced he was going to build a motorcycle gang hangout where the driveway lay, and it would have to go.

The Doucettes didn’t think much of this idea. Matters ended up in court, where the Doucettes were held to have an implied easement which was roughly the size of the proposed street (to the extent handy for their ingress and egress). The neighbor complained that the Doucettes could have built a driveway from the front of the house, but the Court said that didn’t matter. Because buyers are buying the dream, they have a legitimate expectation that streets are going to be built. It’s enough that the original maps as recorded in the land records showed the street and the Doucettes found it “reasonably necessary for the use and normal enjoyment” of their land.

The Doucettes had a serviceable driveway.

The Doucettes had a serviceable driveway.

Doucette v. Burnham, Not Reported in A.2d, 2007 WL 2363856 (Super.Ct. Conn., Aug. 2, 2007). The Doucettes owned a house on a narrow lot, so narrow that the garage behind the house was sited sideways, with the garage doors facing the property of their neighbor to the east, Mr. Burnham. The lots were on a development that had been laid out in the 1930s, and which planned a street behind the homes to be known as Francis Street. Francis Street was never built, let alone dedicated to public use, but ever since the homes were built, a driveway located along what would have been Francis Street connected the Doucette’s garage to the public thoroughfare, Carl Street. This driveway lay on the part of Burnham’s land that would have been Francis Street (if there had been a Francis Street).

Prior to the dispute, Jeffrey Doucette took care of the portion of Burnham’s land that would have been Francis Street, trimming the trees, removing leaves, seeding, fertilizing and mowing the lawn, plowing the snow, and adding processed stone to the already existing driveway. Over many years, Burnham’s would-be Francis Street land had been used by the Doucettes and others in the neighborhood for parking cars and as an area to walk, play, and ride bicycles.

Burnham, however, wanted to build a clubhouse ... you know, just to have a few friends over every now and then.

Burnham, however, wanted to build a clubhouse … you know, just to have a few friends over every now and then.

Friction began when Burnham bought a large neighboring lot and made plans to develop it commercially. He told the Doucettes he planned to build a clubhouse for a motorcycle gang right where their driveway presently lay, a proposal that did not meet with approbation. Burnham proceeded to tear out the wide drive that had been there, straightening it along the centerline of the unbuilt Francis Street (which put a sharp 90-degree turn in the drive) and narrowing it to 8 feet in width with a berm on either side. The Doucettes could have installed a driveway down one side of their home (where there was about 9 feet between the house and the boundary), but they would have had to take out three mature trees to do so, and the drive would have been quite narrow.

The Doucettes sued Burnham, seeking an injunction and a ruling held they had an easement implied by the original plat maps to use the right-of-way that would have been Francis Street.

Held: The Doucettes were entitled to an injunction. The Court held that the issue of whether a map creates an easement by implication is a question of law. Under an equitable estoppel theory, an implied easement exists when the owner reasonably anticipated the use of the streets disclosed on the map that would prove beneficial to him. Also, a lot owner may acquire an implied easement by virtue of a map under an implied covenant theory, if the anticipated use of the street served as an inducement to the purchase of the lot. Under either theory, the owner doesn’t have to show that such an easement is necessary in order for the implication of its existence to arise, but rather only must show that the easement is highly convenient and beneficial for the enjoyment of the portion granted.

The reason that absolute necessity is not essential, the Court held, is because fundamentally such a grant by implication depends on the intention of the parties as shown by the instrument. It is not strictly the necessity for a right of way that creates it. Thus, the Court said, in determining whether an easement by implication has arisen the Court examines (1) the intention of the parties, and (2) whether the easement is reasonably necessary for the use and normal enjoyment of the dominant estate.

Here, the Court said, although the Doucettes could have had access to their garage over their own property by removing three trees and repositioning or restructuring the building, access over the Francis Street route is highly convenient and beneficial to the Doucettes for the normal enjoyment of their land. Based upon a review of the maps and deeds entered into evidence, as well as the circumstances giving rise to the easement in this case, the Court found that the Doucettes had an implied easement for ingress and egress to their garage over Burnham’s land on Francis Street. The rule in Connecticut is that while some benefit to the dominant estate must be shown to establish the right to an easement implied from a map, generally, the easement itself is not limited to such as is reasonably or materially beneficial to the grantee. The court must consider any language on a map or other instrument as a matter of law and consider that legal language in light of the surrounding circumstances involving the facts of the case.

meant150630The implied easement in this case arose from documents recorded in the land records. Therefore, the Court held, it must follow the intentions of the grantor of the implied easement at the time it was granted, even though the circumstances have changed significantly since 1939 when the original map was recorded. Based upon the maps, deeds and circumstances that existed at the time Map 388 was created in 1939, the Court said, Francis Street was clearly intended to provide ingress and egress to the Doucettes’ garage, as though it was a public highway. The physical scope of the easement for ingress and egress was clearly established by the description of Francis Street on the map and recorded in the land records. Therefore, to the extent that the Doucettes had used Burnham’s land on Francis Street in the past to access their garage, they had not overburdened their right to do so as the owners of the dominant estate.

However, the Court said, because the original purpose of the easement over Francis Street was to provide ingress and egress to the Doucettes’ garage, the scope of the their use of the easement must be limited to the normal and natural activities that may be conducted on a residential roadway, including parking and for ingress and egress to the Doucette property by foot or bicycle. But roadways, the Court held, are not intended to be used as a playground or for conducting other social activities. Therefore, the easement was not intended to provide the Doucettes with access to a park or to open space, for their general use without limitation, so kids could not be playing on it.

TNLBGray140407