Case of the Day – Wednesday, October 9, 2019

BROWN GETS A MULLIGAN

doover160921It’s been awhile, a long while, since we were young pups in law school. But we still seem to recall that when a plaintiff complains that she’s been damaged by a trespass, she has to put on some sort of evidence as to the amount of the damage. If the trial record closes, and the plaintiff hasn’t done so, time was she would be out of luck. No do-overs, no mulligans. One and done, as the sports guys say.

Well, apparently that’s no longer true in Mississippi. When Martha Murrell decided to build a fence in front of her house without checking her subdivision restrictions first, her neighbor Jeanette Brown took exception. It seems the restrictions prohibited building anything within 25 feet of the property boundary, and Martha crowded that a little – by about 23 feet. In fact, she put the fence so close to the property line that she had to hack off a few branches from one of Jeanette’s trees in order to finish the project.

Jeanette sued Martha, asking the trial court to order her to remove the fence and to give her $30,000 in damages because she had hindered Jeanette’s enjoyment of her property. Admittedly, we enjoy our property, too, especially sitting on the deck with an appropriate legal beverage, but $30,000? That’s a lot of hindrance being compensated.

The trial court granted the injunction, because the fence violation was pretty clear. Martha must have figured that showing the trial court her snapshots of the “mutilated” tree was good enough. The trial court must have found the pictures compelling, although not $30,000 worth of compelling. It awarded Jeanette $5,000.

mulligan160921The Court of Appeals was made of more skeptical stuff. It ruled that while the picture was good enough to show that Martha or her minions had trespassed onto Jeanette’s land, and had hacked up her tree, it was not good enough to show how much damage Jeanette had suffered. Despite a strenuous dissent from a judge who thought Jeanette had had ample opportunity to prove the amount of damages, the Court sent the case back to the trial court to give Jeanette a second bite of the apple.

Murrell v. Brown, 202 So.3d 287 (Ct.App. Mississippi, 2016). Jeanette Brown filed a complaint against their next-door neighbor, Martha Murrell, for constructing a fence in violation of their subdivision’s protective covenants. The North Colony subdivision covenants state that “[n]o fence shall be constructed nor any other structure be constructed within 25 feet of front property line.” Brown complained that Murrell built a fence within a few feet of the front property line in violation of this covenant, thereby diminishing the value of Brown’s property and “hindering her use and enjoyment of her property.” Brown wanted the fence taken out and damages of $30,000.

After a hearing, the trial court found Murrell in violation of the subdivision’s covenants and ordered her to remove the fence. The court further held that because Murrell or her agents mutilated Brown’s tree and came on to Brown’s property to do so, Brown was entitled to $5,000 in damages.

Murrell appealed.

butchered160921

Jeanette made out her damaged tree to look something like this, but while a picture’s worth a thousand words, it’s not worth five thousand bucks.

Held: The damage award was reversed. The Court of Appeals said that n awarding Brown $5,000, the trials court reasoned that Murrell or someone on her behalf “mutilated [Brown’s tree] by chopping off these limbs in such a way that I don’t know what it would look like when it grows back. And [the person] came several feet over onto [Brown’s] property to do it.”

Murrell asserted that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding damages for the tree, because Brown never mentioned the tree damage in her complaint. The Court, however, noted that while the complaint did not reference the tree damage, pictures of the tree were entered into evidence at the hearing, showing that the tree’s branches had been cut at the fence line, and Brown’s lawyer had written to Murrell about the damage before the case was filed.

Murrell also claimed that Brown failed to prove that Murrell or her agent caused the damage to the tree. Brown asserted at the hearing that Murrell “took a power saw and cut [her] tree to build the fence,” but Brown conceded that she did not personally witness Murrell, or anyone acting on her behalf, cut the tree. She simply testified that she “was informed [Murrell’s] father had cut the tree.” The appeals court, however, was satisfied that the trial judge, “as the fact-finder, clearly determined that Murrell or her agent cut Brown’s tree.” Circumstantial evidence, after all – such as limbs cut at the fence line – supported the trial court’s finding that someone acting on Murrell’s behalf cut the limbs during the construction of the fence. That was good enough.

The heart of Murrell’s appeal was that the award of $5,000 “for the mutilation of the tree” did not address the fair market value of the tree before and after the cutting. After all, the tree in question was not a fruit-bearing tree “and the cost of complete life maturity is no more [than] two hundred and fifty dollars.”

The appellate court held that while the trial court properly found Brown’s tree suffered some damage, and Murrell (or her agent) likely trespassed on Brown’s property to cut the tree, the award of $5,000 for the tree damage was excessive and not supported by substantial evidence. “Brown’s tree was not cut down,” the Court observed, but rather “the tree’s branches were merely cut back at the fence line. While the pruning was unsightly, there was no evidence presented that the tree was permanently damaged.”

apple160921Proof of actual damages must be shown in order to recover more than nominal damages, and Brown made little in the way of such a showing. The Court, however, held that Brown showed photos of “mutilated” tree and those photos were enough to let the judge ascertain damages. Once a judge is “presented clear evidence that [the plaintiff] owned the property and that the trees had been cut without [her] consent, the [judge] was obliged under the circumstances to award damages in some form.” So something is to be paid, but there has to be some evidence of what.

A dissenting judge complained that “Brown did not even establish what kind of tree is at issue in this appeal. It was Brown’s burden to prove her damages, and having failed to present any evidence of actual damages, she should not be given another opportunity to do so. “A litigant is entitled to but one bite at the damages apple…”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Tuesday, October 8, 2019

ONE CROWDED HOUR

A British army officer and poet, Thomas Osbert Mordaunt, wrote in his poem, “The Call,” a line now misattributed to Sir Walter Scott: “One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.”

It’s so much fun to be nasty. Even for just one glorious, crowded hour. It’s just not so much fun when the age without a name knocks on the door, seeking payment. Just ask John and Anne Estes.

Everything started when John and Anne tried to extend the Massachusetts Rule to cut some branches from their neighbors’ trees. Problem was, the trees and branches were both on the neighbors’ properties.

Then they built a fence. So far, so good, at least until the fence they built was on their neighbors’ property, too. The neighbors, Matt and Rachel Milcic, objected. After mediation, the Estes fence was removed.

Obviously, John and Anne were sore at having been upbraided for their brazen trespasses. So they rebuilt the fence, and on the Milcics’ side, painted in large block letters, “PULL YOUR WEEDS.”

“Hah!” You can imagine John and Anne giving each other high-fives at their in-your-face cattiness. They sure showed those jerk neighbors, who thought they were so cool that they could stop John and Anne from trespassing. Their snickers and winks lasted for one crowded hour of glorious fun.

Maybe the neighbors really did need to weed. It’s hard to say. For certain, Matt Milcic did go some landscaping in response to the fence. Still, after he had, and after he asked John to remove the sign, John said he might. But he petulantly did not.

Cute, John… at least until the Milcics sued. Then, John offered to paint out the words if the Milcics would drop the suit. But that horse had left the barn month before.

The Esteses’ conduct was brazen enough that the trial court granted the Milcics summary judgment. But then, the battle continued over damages. By the time the court was done, the Esteses’ cruel prank had cost them north of $10,000.00. Not near what the Milcics wanted, the award nevertheless undoubtedly deterred the juvenile conduct.

You’d better find your checkbook, John. You and Anne enjoyed your crowded, glorious hour. The age without a name has now arrived.

Milcic v. Estes, 2018 Wash. App. LEXIS 1798 (Ct.App. Wash., Aug. 6, 2018). The Milcics and Estes are next door neighbors. In 2013, the Estes cut branches off trees located on the Milcics’ property, and began to build a fence along the parties’ common boundary.

When a dispute regarding fence encroachments arose, the parties submitted it to mediation. In April 2014, the parties executed a settlement agreement in which the Estes agreed, among other things, to remove both the excess dirt from the Milcics’ property and portions of fence footings that were visible above ground.

In July 2014, the Estes painted the words “PULL YOUR WEEDS!” in white, 10-inch block letters on the Milcics’ side of the Estes’ fence. The Milcics threatened a lawsuit unless the Esteses removed the sign. The words remained, and the Milcics sued.

The Milcics’ complaint alleged iprivate nuisance, trespass, timber trespass, spite fence, quiet title and damages to land and property. Shortly after the Milcics filed, the Estes offered to remove the painted message if the Milcics dismissed their complaint. The Milcics rejected the offer, telling the Estes, “If you were willing to do so voluntarily… you could have removed the sign at any time for the past nine months.”

The Milcics moved for partial summary judgment, alleging there were no issues about the Estes’ branch cutting, fence encroachments, and dumping of fill dirt on the Milcics’ property. The trial court granted relief, including ordering the Estes to the fence encroachments. The court awarded the Milcics some but not all, of their requested damages, but denied attorneys’ fees.

The Milcics appealed the adverse ruling on damages and fees.

Held: The appeals court upheld the damage award, and sent the case back to the trial court for a legal fee award.

In January 2017, the matter proceeded to trial solely on the issues of damages and attorney fees and costs. Rachel Milcic testified that the Estes cut branches off their trees and put fill dirt on their property without their permission. She said the branch removal ruined the beauty and privacy of the Milcics’ property. The loss of the branches upset her and she did not sleep well. She also testified that the Milcics were not sure where the property line was when the branches were cut.

She also testified that she was “shocked,” “horrified,” and “scared” when the Estes painted the “PULL YOUR WEEDS!” message on the fence facing the Milcics’ property. She had trouble sleeping and and no longer felt that she and her children were safe. She testified that before the painted message appeared, her family spent around 12 hours per week in her yard. After the message appeared, they spent less than an hour a week in the yard. She valued her use of the yard at $40 per day. She testified that the message was visible for 922 days.

Matt Milcic testified that after the painted sign on the fence, the Milcics installed a surveillance system to “protect our property” and to “capture any trespasses by the Esteses on our land.” Matt also testified that the fence message could be seen from roughly a quarter of their property and prevented the Milcics from enjoying their yard. Their dreams and aspirations for landscaping the yard “got instantly crushed into a reminder of, you don’t get to enjoy this part of your property that you had hopes and dreams for.” He estimated that the affected portion of his property had a market value of $152,500.

Matthew conceded that he had not seen a doctor or any medical professional for his emotional distress and had no medical bills related to that distress. Matthew also conceded that he did not accept the Estes’ April 2015 offer to remove the fence message.

John Estes testified that he painted the “PULL YOUR WEEDS!” message to protest the “weeds and invasive vegetation coming onto my property.” He conceded that Matt told him in August 2014 that he had pulled the weeds and that he wanted the message removed, but he did nothing for nine months, at which time John offered to remove the message if the Milcics dismissed the lawsuit.

The court ruled that the Milcics were entitled to some, but not all, of their alleged damages. It awarded them $3,557, trebled to $10,673. However, it denied damages for installation of the surveillance system, for lost enjoyment of property, for emotional distress, and for legal fees.

On appeal, the Milcics argued the court erred in awarding no damages for their alleged lost enjoyment of their property on their trespass and private nuisance claims. They claim they were entitled to such damages due to the significant length of time — 922 days — that the fence message remained in place. But the Court of Appeals held that the trial court was free to discount or reject the Milcics’ testimony regarding their alleged lost enjoyment. “On this record, and in light of our deference to the trial court’s view of the weight and credibility of the evidence,” the Court held, “we cannot say the court abused its discretion in declining to award damages for the Milcics’ claimed lost enjoyment of their property.”

The Milcics also contended that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to award them damages for emotional distress caused by the Estes’ fence message and branch cutting. A plaintiff who proves liability for intentional wrongful conduct is entitled to damages for emotional distress upon a showing of actual anguish or emotional distress. The distress need not be severe and a plaintiff “need not demonstrate objective symptomology, medical bills, or a medical diagnosis.”

Here, the trial court found the Estes engaged in intentional wrongful conduct, including nuisance, timber trespass, and a spite fence. The trial court also found, however, that the Milcics “have not provided sufficient evidence to establish that they have suffered emotional distress.” The Milcics pointed to their testimony that they suffered initial shock and distress, trouble sleeping for a week, and ongoing feelings of insecurity and fear of further invasions. “But,” the Court of Appeals held, “the trial judge’s evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence includes determinations as to the weight and credibility of the evidence – matters that require our deference.”

The Milcics also contended the trial court erred in concluding that the Estes’ conduct was not the legal cause of their purchase and installation of a surveillance system. To determine if legal causation exists, a court considers whether “‘as a matter of policy, the connection between the ultimate result and the act of the defendant is too remote or insubstantial to impose liability.” The Court said that the judge’s determination rests on ”mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.”

Here, the Court of Appeals ruled, “the Milcics offer no relevant precedent supporting their argument regarding legal causation. Nor do they advance any persuasive arguments supporting their claim that logic, common sense, justice, and policy favor the imposition of liability for the surveillance system. There was never any doubt as to who had trespassed onto the Milcics’ property. The Estes readily admitted cutting the branches, painting the message, and installing the fence. There was therefore no need for a surveillance system to catch the perpetrators, and no reason to believe that a surveillance system would act as a deterrent to future incursions. In addition, except for the branch cutting, the trespasses were de minimis incursions. Thus, the trial court did not err in concluding that the Estes’ conduct was not a legal cause of the Milcics’ surveillance system expenses.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, October 7, 2019

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?

This being the first day of the new Supreme Court term (appropriately named “October Term 2019”), perhaps we expect great decisions from that august body. Perhaps, this being the fifth business day of Fiscal Year 2020 for our dear Uncle Sam, we expect great bipartisan progress on tax reform and prudent spending. Of course, if we expect those things, we would be wishing as well that marijuana be made legal in all 50 states, because we’d have to be on dope to really think any of that is going to happen in Washington, D.C.

No, the “great expectations” we’re talking about are 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, 2007 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1937, 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.

Tom Root
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Case of the Day – Friday, October 4, 2019

TRADITION

Sometimes, state law leaves a landowner suffering from invading roots and branches from a neighbor’s tree with no remedy but a chainsaw. As we all know, the Massachusetts Rule – alive and well in a number of states – lets a property owner trim offending branches and roots up to the property line, but that’s it: no lawsuits, no damage awards, no injunctions, and no meddling lawyers.

It’s the traditional approach.

Other states follow variants of the Hawaii Rule, and let a property owner sue when a neighboring tree becomes a nuisance, causing “sensible harm,” a weird expression apparently meaning something more than falling leaves and twigs.

Then there’s the approach adopted by a Florida court of appeals of few words.  In the Sunshine State, a ficus tree near a landowner’s property boundary line was wreaking havoc on the neighbor’s house. The ficus is a very old tree, maybe 60 million years (and possibly as old as 80 million years). It features aerial roots and is pollinated by a single species of wasp known as a fig wasp.

The owner of the tree was General Engineering Enterprises, Inc., obviously a big, faceless corporation with oodles of money. So Mike sued, asking for money damages. Why not? Everyone knows big mega-corporations are nothing but ATM machines, and you activate the cash-dispensing feature by walking through the courthouse door.

The Court was unsympathetic. Mike, you have a saw? Use it, man. Concerned that to permit Mike to get free money because branches from the ficus were overhanging his property might work in derogation of the time-honored principle of self-help, the Court of Appeals followed the Massachusetts Rule, despite the fact that the opinion candidly admitted that most all other courts seemed to be headed toward the Hawaii Rule.

Ah, tradition!

Richmond v. General Engineering Enterprises, Inc., 454 So. 2d 16 (Ct.App. Fla. 1984). Mike Richmond sued General Engineering Enterprises, Inc., for money damages based on the the company’s “negligence” in permitting branches of a ficus tree growing on its property to extend over and onto Mike’s home lot. The trial court wasted no time in dismissing Mike’s complaint.

Mike, obviously no reader of this blog, appealed.

Held: The Massachusetts Rule prevailed.

While there is substantial authority to the contrary, the Court said, “which may indeed represent the majority rule… we agree with those decisions which hold that in view of the undoubted right of the landowner himself to cut off intruding roots or branches at the property line, no such action may be maintained.”

The Court said that letting Mike proceed with his lawsuit to redress a claimed wrong “which might otherwise be obviated by the time-honored remedy of self-help would represent a wasteful and needless use of the judicial system.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Thursday, October 3, 2019

UNSKILLED LABOR

Senator Hubert Humphrey once said, “Show me a self-made man – and I’ll show you the horrors of unskilled labor.”

When Farmer Wilson decided to sue his neighbor, demanding after 50 years of not bothering to enforce an agreement on keeping trees bordering his field trimmed that the neighbor clear cut a 40-foot wide swath, he decided to represent himself. After all, it seemed that that lawyering business was just so much talk. Anyone ought to be able to do it…

Well, not just anyone. It turned out that as a lawyer, Farmer Wilson was more a son of the soil than he was a barrister. The heart of Farmer Wilson’s nuisance beef was that the trees cut down the crop yield on his land, because they shaded the field. Reduced to its essence, that was just a claim that he had a right to light, that is, a right to the sun being shaded by his neighbor’s trees. What he was claiming was the easement known as “ancient lights,” the Court said, and “ancient lights” was a doctrine that had been run out of West Virginia.

If that weren’t enough, the Court threw even more shade on Farmer Wilson’s lawsuit. The prior owner of Farmer Wilson’s land had had a deal with the former owner of the next-door property on keeping the bordering trees trimmed. Farmer Wilson candidly admitted he had not tried to enforce the contract for a half century, confidently asserting that this meant his damages had really accumulated.

But what it really meant was that under the West Virginia statute of limitations that applied to nuisance suits, his lawsuit was about 48 years too late.

Farmer Wilson may not have been a self-made man, but his lawsuit was an excellent illustration of the horrors of unskilled labor.

Wilson v. Polino Enterprises, Inc., 2018 W. Va. LEXIS 413, 2018 WL 2277812 (Supreme Ct. of Appeals W.Va., 2018). Farmer Wilson and Polino Enterprises own adjacent properties in Upshur County, West Virginia. The Wilson property borders the Polino land’s western and southern boundaries. Farmer Wilson sued Polino, complaining that the Company had created a nuisance on the western boundary of its property that was damaging his farmland.

Farmer Wilson claimed that that trees on Polino’s side of the property line were nuisances because of “[d]amage to the production (yield and quality) of crops as a result of invasion by roots and shading.” For this alleged crop damage, Farmer Wilson asked for $100 per year for a total of $4,500 from May of 1969 through 2014 when he originally filed the action. He also sought unspecified “labor and equipment cost[s] of removing branches and limbs of trees fallen” on his farmland. Finally, he wanted Polino to remove deer stands placed in trees near the property line because he had “no way of policing the killing of deer” on his property.

Polino filed a motion for summary judgment in the trial court. The Company showed the court letters between the parties regarding the care of boundary areas between the properties. In the letter, Farmer Wilson noted that Polino had previously agreed to his “cutting overhanging limbs and dragging them back to the wooded area” of the Wilson property, but that the proposal would restrict his cutting of tree limbs to those “no higher than 25 to 30 feet from the ground level.” Consequently, Farmer Wilson requested that Polino “clear-cut all the area 40 feet from our fenced border to remove the encroaching limbs and roots of trees from your forested land.” His letter explained that ‘I have neglected enforcement of the agreement between Mr. Robert Woofter[, a previous owner of the Polino property,] and my father. As a result, [I] have suffered economic loss during the past 50 years and [am] suffering economic loss each year in the form of forage corps harvested from the cultivated fields involved.’

In its motion for summary judgment, Polino argued that assuming all of Farmer Wilson’s allegations were true, it was nevertheless entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the nuisance claim. The trial court agreed.

Farmer Wilson appealed.

Held: Polino’s trees were no nuisance.

A private nuisance is a substantial and unreasonable interference with the private use and enjoyment of another’s land.

Abe Lincoln could have been talking about Farmer Wilson, who has a real dummy for a client.

The lower court properly ruled that Farmer Wilson’s nuisance claim was barred by the statute of limitations under West Virginia Code § 55-2-12(a). That section gave a party claiming a nuisance only two years from the time the claim arose to sue.

The Supreme Court even consider the statute of limitations, because it did determined that Farmer Wilson’s rather opaque and do-it-yourself nuisance claim was fatally flawed. His contention, as best the Court could surmise, was that insufficient sunlight caused by overhanging trees on respondent’s property had resulted in his farmland yielding fewer crops. That claim, the Court said, “fails as a matter of law… The common law doctrine of ancient lights has been abolished in West Virginia… Though an adjoining property owner may still establish an easement implied by necessity to light and air, such an easement does not exist here because there is no prior common ownership of the parties’ properties.”

In Cobb v. Daugherty, the court discussed easements of necessity, also called easements by necessity or ways of necessity. Such easements are typically implied to provide access to a landlocked parcel. Easements implied from quasi-easements, also called implied easements or easements by implication, are based on a landowner’s prior use of part of the landowner’s property (the quasi-servient tenement) for the benefit of another portion of the property (the quasi-dominant tenement). Three elements – common ownership, transfer of part of the land (severance), and necessity of some kind – are required in both cases. The fundamental distinction is that easements implied from quasi-easements are based on prior use.

While Cobb recognized that a certain type of an easement to light and air still exists in West Virginia, the Court said, Farmer Wilson did not meet the legal requirements. He had not previously owned the Polino property. Therefore, the Court ruled, “we conclude that the circuit court did not err in awarding respondent judgment as a matter of law with regard to petitioner’s nuisance claim.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, October 2, 2019

DO YOU HAVE A POINT?

More than one reader wondered where I was headed yesterday when I wrote about the New Hampshire law of animals ferae naturae. Other than showing you a picture of my dog – always a worthwhile goal, in my book – the blog may not have seemed all that relevant. After all, neighbors, especially urban neighbors, are seldom overrun with wild animals intent of committing mayhem in your back yard.

But, yes, I had a point. As that great philosopher Elvis once said, “I said all that to say all this…” The law of animals ferae naturae translates a bit into “plants ferae naturae.”

In today’s case, the afflicted neighbor, Linda Pesaturo, claimed that her neighbor’s trees were overhanging her property, making her driveway unusable and collapsing her fence. The trees, she complained, were a private nuisance.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court nixed the claim. It pointed out that just as the law of animals ferae naturae required human interference with the animal before making a property owner liable for a resulting nuisance, it was not enough that Linda said the trees caused damage. Unless she could somehow show that neighbor Robbin had somehow interfered with nature in the planting or growth of the pine and maple, the lush and fecund trees.

Tree’s gonna tree.

Pesaturo v. Kinne, 161 N.H. 550, 20 A.3d 284 (Supreme Ct. N.H., 2011). Linda Pesaturo brought a small claims action against her neighbor Robbin Kinne, seeking more than $2,000 in damages because two of Robbin’s trees overhung her property; one limited Linda’s use of her driveway, while the other one damaged her fence.

Robbin moved to have the claim dismissed, arguing that Linda failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The trial court agreed, dismissing Linda’s negligence and nuisance claims.

Linda appealed.

Held: Linda had adequately raised a claim for negligence with respect to one tree, but she failed on the other. Her claim of private nuisance was properly rejected.

It is the common law rule that a landowner is under no affirmative duty to remedy conditions of purely natural origin on his or her land even though they are dangerous or inconvenient to his neighbors. In order to create a legal nuisance, a human act must have contributed to its existence, just as under the law of animals ferae naturae, as held in Belhumeur, a landowner cannot be held liable for the acts of wild animals occurring on his property unless the landowner has actually reduced indigenous wild animals to possession or control, or introduced non-indigenous animals into the area.

But ferae naturae does not apply to plants, such as trees. Instead, the Court ruled, a duty exists on the part of a landowner when it is foreseeable that an injury might occur as a result of the landowner’s actions or inactions. A landowner’s liability may extend beyond the borders of his or her property, and a duty may be present if the landowner’s acts or omissions create a sufficiently foreseeable risk of harm in such a case, where it can be found that the landowner did not use reasonable care in the maintenance and operation of his or her property.

Because there is a foreseeable risk of injury when a tree is decayed or defective, a landowner who knows or should know that his tree is decayed or defective has a duty to maintain the tree to eliminate this dangerous condition. Thus, a landowner who knows or should know that his tree is decayed or defective and fails to maintain the tree reasonably is liable for injuries proximately caused by the tree, even when the harm occurs outside of his property lines. However, a landowner does not have a duty to consistently and constantly check all trees for nonvisible decay. Rather, the manifestation of the tree’s decay must be readily observable in order to require a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent harm.

To recover for negligence, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant has a duty, that he or she breached that duty, and that the breach proximately caused injury to the plaintiff. In this case, Linda’s complaint failed to allege a cause of action for negligence because she had not alleged that Robbin’s trees were decayed or defective, or that Robbin knew that the trees were in such a condition but failed to eliminate the danger to Linda.

But when Linda amended her complaint, which she did after the Robbin filed her defense of failure to state a claim, she sufficiently alleged that defendant knew about Robbin’s oak tree had “swinging, dead limbs” and, thus, that the tree was decayed or defective, thereby imposing a duty upon him to eliminate the condition. The amended complaint also sufficiently alleged that Robbin breached his duty by failing to act and that this breach caused Linda injury by denying her use of her driveway.

But Linda’s claim that Robbin’s pine tree damaged her fence was insufficient. She claimed the tree failed because of “rain, wind, ice and snow,” and because Robbin’s “insufficient management” of his pine tree, limbs broke off and damaged her fence. Her claim was insufficient to establish that the tree was decayed or defective.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Tuesday, October 1, 2019

WHAT’S THE BUZZ?

I dimly remember my first-year property law professor teaching us about ferae naturae (wild animals). The cases we studied then had to do with ownership? You shoot a deer bounding over the fields, and it falls for the final time in Farmer Brown’s corn. Who owns the deer?

But what if the deer was not a deer, but a family of fat old woodchucks? As we Midwesterners know, woodchucks don’t get fat by accident. Rather, they do it by ravaging someone’s field. So what if a woodchuck family lived under Farmer Brown’s cornfield year-around, eating tender shoots of corn, timothy hay, and Mrs. Brown’s buttercups and vegetable garden? And when the pickings got slim, the chucks invaded your soybeans (the roots of which they love)?

Farmer Brown knew the furry little woodchucks – diligent destroyers that they are – were ravaging the crops. Shouldn’t he have removed the pests himself, you know, shot them, poisoned them, blown them out of the earth, run them down with a tractor, borrowed a rodent-hating dog like my own stone-cold groundhog slayer, Winnipeg Rocket Riley Root?

The ‘chucks are ferae naturae, wild animals who answer to no one. Still, you might think Farmer Brown had a duty not to let his field be a staging area for rodent terrorism. (America invaded Afghanistan for much the same sin).

That question bedeviled Denny and Shirley Belhumeur, who were stung by what the trial court incorrectly called a “bee’s nest.” C’mon, people, it’s a hive!

Belhumeur v. Zilm, 157 N.H. 233, 949 A.2d 162 (Supreme Ct. N.H., 2008). Dennis and Shirley Belhumeur lived next door to Jason and Jessica Zilm. One day, Dennis got stung several times by some aggressive bees that had swarmed into Denny’s property from their hive in a tree on Jason’s property. Denny sued, claiming that Jason had actual or constructive knowledge of the bees’ existence and aggressive behavior and was negligent in not removing the hive. As well, Denny claimed the bees constituted a private nuisance.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the Jason. Dennis, feeling like he’d been stung again, appealed.

Held: Jason was not liable for wild animals living as a natural occurrence on his property.

The Court held that the buzz is that a landowner is under no affirmative duty to remedy conditions of purely natural origin upon his land, even where the conditions are dangerous or inconvenient to his neighbors. In other words, in order to constitute a nuisance as a matter of law, human action must have contributed to the condition’s existence.

Under the doctrine of animals ferae naturae, the Court said, wild animals are presumed to be owned by no one specifically, but rather by the people generally. This doctrine has spawned a rule of law that a landowner cannot be held liable for the acts of indigenous wild animals occurring on his or her property unless the landowner has actually reduced the wild animals to possession or control, or introduced a non-indigenous animal into the area. New Hampshire does not as a matter of judicial policy impose absolute liability for damage by wild animals.

The doctrine of ferae naturae is actually based upon a reality not appreciably altered by the passage of time; namely, the unpredictability and uncontrollability of wild animals. The doctrine of animals ferae naturae reasonably balances the interests of landowners and the interests of those who may be harmed by the actions of wild animals found on or emanating from the landowners’ property. Here, the bees were wild, and neither Jason nor Jessica had the ability or duty to control them.

Claims for negligence rest primarily upon a violation of some duty owed by the actor to an injured party. Absent a duty, there is no negligence. Duty, the Court said, “is an exceedingly artificial concept, therefore, when charged with determining whether a duty exists in a particular case, courts necessarily encounter the broader, more fundamental question of whether a plaintiff’s interests are entitled to legal protection against the defendant’s conduct.” The decision to impose liability ultimately rests on a judicial determination that the social importance of protecting the plaintiff’s interest outweighs the importance of immunizing the defendant from extended liability. 

It is a sad fact of life that dogs bite and bees sting. There is no social utility in demanding that Jason and Jessica be liable for when it happens.

Denny complained that Jason had actually gotten estimates from tree removal companies, and in so doing, assumed a duty to Denny that he otherwise would not have had. The Court said that while Jason was the bee’s knees for doing so, that did not impose a duty on him to carry through with the job. “In determining how much action is sufficient to create a duty on the part of a person volunteering services, it is necessary to know if conduct has gone forward to such a stage that inaction would commonly result, not negatively merely in withholding a benefit, but positively or actively in working an injury.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray