Case of the Day – Monday, June 12, 2017

BRANCHING OUT

Crunch. And after the tree falls, the insurance company adds insult to injury.

Crunch. After the tree falls, the insurance company adds insult to injury.

An unhappy homeowner from urban Cincinnati, Ohio – we’ll call her Sylvia Glade – wrote to us about her neighbor’s oak tree. It seems that the tree had a branch overhanging Sylvia’s home. The branch constantly dropped sticks, and the tree itself has been shedding branches regularly. As far back as the late 1990s, Sylvia thought the tree was dangerous and began asking her neighbor, whom we’ll call Elouise, to do something about it. A tree expert Sylvia hired to look at her trees  five years ago agreed, saying the big oak should go.

The elderly Elouise was unmoved. She gave Sylvia permission to cut down the tree (as long as Sylvia paid to do so), but then denied her the right to enter the property to do so. With the property line hard up against Sylvia’s house, without Elouise’s cooperation Sylvia couldn’t even get a ladder under the branch to cut it away.

But there’s good news: Sylvia doesn’t have to worry about that branch any more. Sadly, there’s bad news, too: the branch is no longer a hazard because it fell on a windy day, crushing two floors of Sylvia’s house. Her neighbor’s insurance carrier said, “Oops, looks like an act of God! Not our responsibility.” Sylvia thinks God should be left out of things, because the branch — which broke right at the trunk — looked very decayed.

Elouise’s insurance company says Elouise had no idea the tree wasn’t healthy. “She didn’t know, so we don’t owe,” the company’s mantra seems to be. Sylvia complains she told the neighbor on many occasions, and even the neighbor admits she saw decayed branches that had fallen from the tree. Once, Elouise even hired Sylvia’s son to haul away some large branches that the old oak shed in a windstorm. But Sylvia asked us what duty of care Elouise owed her under Ohio law.

We start with the evolution of the Massachusetts Rule. Originally, the Rule held that a homeowner usually had no remedy against overhanging branches, other than his or her right to trim the branch back to the boundary line. That Rule has been limited recently, notably in the Virginia Supreme Court case of Fancher v. Faglia (2007) and the North Dakota Supreme Court holding in Herring v. Lisbon Partners Credit Fund, Ltd. (2012). Both of those courts said that while a property owner might be limited to self-help where an encroaching tree was only doing what trees do, that is, dropping leaves, nuts, berries, seedpods and twigs, where a tree becomes a nuisance, the owner of the tree is liable for removing it.

The relevant Ohio case is Nationwide Insurance Co. v. Jordan. Mrs. Jordan’s big maple tree fell, damaging the neighbors’ place. They sued Mrs. Jordan, claiming the tree trespassed.

No dice, the Court said. The trespass claim would only work if the tree were an absolute nuisance, and that isn’t the case. Mrs. Jordan would be liable, the Court held, if she actually knew the tree was dangerous or if she reasonably should have known the tree was dangerous. The Court decided Mrs. Jordan has neither kind of knowledge. The neighbor, although vociferous in her condemnation of the tree to anyone else in earshot, admitted that she never complained to Mrs. Jordan about it.

In Sylvia’s case, the insurance company is wrong. It’s not enough that the neighbor says she didn’t know the branch was dangerous. The other half of the question is this “should have known” business. Was Elouise on constructive notice that the tree was dangerous, that is, should she reasonably have known the decay was making the tree unsafe? If Sylvia is right, the evidence will show the neighbor was told many times the tree was a hazard. Elouise had witnessed the tree drop a number of large branches of the previous years. She had to hire Sylvia’s strong son to clean up the mess. And Sylvia told her about the danger, even agreeing to pay for the removal the tree herself.

Several Ohio cases (such as Wertz v. Cooper) suggest that neighbor Elouise – being an urban dweller – has a greater duty to inspect her trees than would a country squire. The evidence suggests Elouise had every reason to be concerned about the tree, and thus had a duty to inspect it to be sure it wasn’t about to collapse Sylvia’s house.

claim140414Elouise’s insurance company may want to rethink its position… and start looking for its checkbook.

Nationwide Insurance Company, et al. v. Jordan, 639 N.E.2d 536 (1994).This action arose between adjoining landowners as a result of the falling of a mammoth maple tree. The insurance company, which had paid the damages to its insured’s place, sued for trespass and negligence. The defendant tree owner testified that she had no notice the tree was susceptible to falling. Her tenant likewise testified that she had no notice of the tree’s danger. The defendant’s tree service manager testified that he worked on the property’s trees every two years, and that the tree in question was not unsafe less than two years before it fell. The only person to testify to notice that the tree was rotten and likely to fall was the plaintiff’s insured.

The trespass claim arose because the plaintiff maintained that the falling tree trespassed on the insured’s property. The trial court made short work of this, holding that the only way liability could be imposed on Mrs. Jordan without proof of fault would be if the tree were an absolute nuisance. Healthy trees growing on property, even urban property, are not absolute nuisances, the trial judge said. Thus, the insurance company had to prove that Mrs. Jordan either knew or had constructive knowledge that the tree was likely to fall. The insurance company couldn’t prove that, so the trial court found for Mrs. Jordan. The insurance company appealed.

A diagram of one modern method of measuring a tree's decay. Elouise had any number of options - some cheap, some costly, some old school, some high-tech - for verifying the health of her big old oak.

A diagram of one modern method of measuring a tree’s decay. Elouise had any number of options – some cheap, some costly, some old school, some high-tech – for verifying the health of her big old oak.

Held: Mrs. Jordan was not liable. The Court said that there was no evidence that Mrs. Jordan actually knew or had any reason to know that the maple tree was in danger of falling. The neighbor complained that the tree’s propensity to fall was obvious to her, but she admitted he never told Mrs. Jordan. The Court observed that “[h]ad the plaintiff conveyed this knowledge to her neighboring landowner, the danger might well have been obviated, or, alternatively, the plaintiff’s hands would be clean and the defendant would have been on notice and resultantly liable for the fall.”

The Court further held that a tree on an owner’s property was not an “absolute nuisance,” and thus the adjoining landowner could not proceed merely upon strict liability against owner. Instead, the neighbor was required to prove negligence. To recover on a theory of negligence arising out of falling tree, a plaintiff’s evidence must establish that defendant had actual or constructive notice of patent danger that tree would fall. Here, Mrs. Jordan had neither actual notice nor constructive notice of tree’s dangerous condition. Both Mrs. Jordan and her tenant testified that they had no notice of tree’s danger, Mrs. Jordan’s regular tree trimming contractor worked on property’s trees every two years and found that tree in question was not unsafe not more than 24 months before it fell.

The Court ruled in favor of Mrs. Jordan.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, June 9, 2017

RUBE GOLDBERG GOES TO COURT

rube150402In our years in the business, we have see negligence claims that run from the ridiculous to the absurd: such as, the corrections officer who sued cellphone carriers because inmates made calls during which they conspired to shoot him, or the victim of a falling limb who sued an electric utility because its tree trimmer should have noticed that a tree that the company had no right to trim was dangerous.

The case we’re looking at here features a tortuous and complex argument that would make Rube Goldberg envious. A tree branch fell in a storm and knocked out power to a subdivision. Matthew Phillips and his father decided to fire up their standby generator and plug it into the house system, a few hours of darkness being too big an inconvenience for them to bear.

Something happened. No one’s sure what. But, if you believe the Phillips’ lawsuit, the downed branch crossed some wires, which fed power past and around a transformer, bypassing several shorts to ground, into the house, into the power lines, bypassing other ground circuits, into and through meter boxes, into the ground line of the home but not safely to ground, but rather into the power line leading to the generator, where the electricity finally leapt into Matthew, seriously injuring him.

ball150402Of course it’s unlikely that Matt or his Dad did anything stupid, like failing to disconnect the master switch connecting the house to the power grid. Much more likely that electricity defied several laws of physics, and that the blame rested with the tree trimming company for not having pruned back the branches that fell in the storm. Or maybe it was ball lightning. Or Zeus throwing lightning bolts.

The problem was a practical one: Matt’s family didn’t have the wherewithal to pay the medical expenses. Neither did Zeus. But the electrical utility and its vegetation management contractor did. Thus, the inevitable lawsuit followed.

Fortunately for all of us, common sense prevailed. The courts pointed out that Asplundh, the tree trimming company, had a contract with AEP, and that the contract did not create a duty between Asplundh and Matt. The contract only let Asplundh cut where the utility told it to cut. The Court very reasonably pointed out that if Asplundh had what Matt said it should have done – that is, to trim trees on the Phillips property – it would have been a trespasser and subject to treble damages.

Where the claim is nonfeasance – that is, where the defendant is alleged to have wronged the plaintiff by not doing something it should have done – the law demands that the duty the defendant owes the plaintiff must be very clear. Where the contract does not permit the tree trimmer to do anything other than what the utility tells it to, the trimmer lacks the ability to exercise any independent authority. In that case, the fact that it did not do that which it was not allowed to do doesn’t make the trimmer wrong. Instead, it makes it prudent.

Sadly, in this litigious society, it doesn’t make it lawsuit proof.

Phillips v. American Electrical Power, 2011 Ohio 6731 (Court of Appeals, Jefferson County, 2011). An early March thunderstorm rolled through Wintersville, Ohio. During the storm, the power went out when a tree branch fell across an Ohio Power electrical distribution line. Matt and his father tried to power their house with a portable electric generator. In the process of trying to operate the portable generator, Matthew received an electrical shock and suffered very severe injuries, including permanent brain damage.

Matt sued American Electric Power Company, Inc. and a laundry list of affiliates and subsidiaries, as well as Asplundh (which had a tree maintenance contract with AEP) for negligence. His reasoning, as far as the courts were able to surmise, was that one or more rotten trees were blown down in the storm, which caused the power to go out, which caused the Phillips men to try to connect their portable generator to power the house wiring. Matt claimed that the power line wires had became coupled due to the fallen branches, creating a completed electrical circuit, which sent electricity around the electrical transformer on the pole outside the Phillips residence – bypassing the grounding wires located at the pole – and down the service line to the house, through the meter box into their breaker box (somehow bypassing the grounding line at the breaker box), into the ground circuit wiring of the house, then around an electrical generator transfer switch the Phillips had installed, then through the grounding line to a secondary electrical outlet box, where it connected to the box’s metal chassis. Matt posited a variety of theories as to how the electricity passed through him via the outlet box, the portable generator, or from the ground.

No one knows exactly what happened, but it was a cinch that Asplundh wasn't to blame.

No one knows exactly what happened, but it was a cinch that Asplundh Tree Service wasn’t to blame.

At some point, the Phillips settled with everyone except Asplundh. The tree service then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing it owed no duty of care to Matthew because AEP determined the locations where Asplundh was assigned to work, and because AEP never assigned Asplundh to inspect or service the area at issue in this case. The trial court granted summary judgment, finding no evidence that AEP assigned “Asplundh to work on the portion of the electrical circuit in the area of the tree which allegedly caused the injuries to the Plaintiff. Nor have the Plaintiffs produced evidence that it was the responsibility, or duty, of … Asplundh to determine which parts of the AEP distribution circuit were to be trimmed. Rather the evidence establishes that … AEP … determined what trimming was to be done and then would assign that work to … Asplundh.” Finally, the trial court said, no evidence showed that Asplundh created a condition which caused the tree to fall or failed to trim the tree after being put on notice of the need to do so.

Matthew appealed.

Held: Asplundh was not liable for Matt’s injuries.

Matt’s lawyers fired a blunderbuss of claims against Asplundh: ordinary negligence, failure to maintain AEP’s easement, failure to remove foreseeable safety hazards, and failure to fulfill its contractual duties to inspect and manage vegetation for AEP. Matt claimed he subjected to an ultra-hazardous danger by Asplundh’s recklessness, and that Asplundh breached a duty imposed by safety statutes and regulations regarding electrical and hazardous substances and vegetation management. He also claimed Asplundh failed to warn, prevent or remedy unnamed defects, and that Asplundh caused them to be exposed to hazardous or toxic substances.

The Court of Appeals noted that Matt’s allegations against Asplundh “are intrinsically connected to the contract to perform right of way maintenance. Thus, the overall claim is for negligent or reckless performance of a contract,” and every issue on appeal boiled down to one question: did Asplundh owe a duty of care to Matthew in light of the contract that Asplundh entered into with AEP.

The Court noted that the existence of a duty of care is fundamental to a negligence claim: “It is rudimentary that in order to establish actionable negligence, one must show the existence of a duty, a breach of the duty, and an injury resulting proximately therefrom. The existence of a duty depends on the foreseeability of the injury.” Matthew contended that Asplundh owed him a duty of care, despite the absence of anything specific in the Asplundh contract that would have required the removal of the tree that apparently fell in the Phillips’ yard. Matt argued that Asplundh should have inspected the area near the Phillips home because there had been many prior electrical outages in that general area. He maintained that Asplundh was involved in the decision-making process to select which of AEP’s circuit areas were to be trimmed each year, despite the evidence showing that only AEP made the final decisions about where Asplundh would do its vegetation maintenance and trimming. Essentially, Matt contended that Asplundh’s authority to make suggestions at its annual meeting with AEP to determine vegetation maintenance was enough to give rise to a duty to protect Matt from the Rube Goldberg chain of events that began with a dangerous tree. In other words, Matt said that Asplundh’s failure to convince AEP to conduct tree maintenance on or near the Phillips place was itself a form of negligence.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that none of Matt’s claims were supported by the record. In a case of nonfeasance, it said, the existence of a legal duty is critical and, unless a duty is established, Asplundh’s failure to act cannot create liability. In this case, AEP personnel testified that Asplundh had never been directed to trim trees in the area where the Phillips lived. Asplundh was permitted by its contract to patrol for danger trees only where AEP told it to do so. AEP picked those areas according to its own internal data, devoting attention to the 8% of circuits with the worst performance in the previous year. There simply was no independent decision-making or freelancing involved on Asplundh’s part. While some of Asplundh’s employees may have made suggestions at the annual planning meetings, the record reflected that the final decision was made by AEP, and there is no evidence to contradict this conclusion.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Asplundh that it could not have a duty to trim a tree in the Phillips yard unless it first had a right to do so, and there are very specific statutes which prohibit a person from cutting, removing or injuring trees on private property. If Asplundh had no contractual authority to act as AEP’s agent and enter the area where the tree was located, the Court said, it would have been trespassing had its personnel entered the property, and would have been committing a fourth degree misdemeanor crime and setting itself up for treble damages under O.R.C. § 901.51.

Matt argued that his injury was so foreseeable that the foreseeability of the injury alone created a duty for Asplundh to remove the dangerous trees. The Court rejected this argument, holding that foreseeability alone is not always sufficient to establish the existence of a duty, especially in nonfeasance situations in which the injured party is alleging that the defendant failed to affirmatively act to come to aid of a person in danger or failed to prevent a third party from harming another. In such situations, a duty arises only if the defendant shares a “special relation” with the injured party that justifies the imposition of the duty. Here, the Court said, the alleged relationship between Asplundh and Matt “only exists by virtue of the tree-trimming contract between Asplundh and AEP. No amount of foreseeability can create a contractual duty where none otherwise exists.”

The appellate court concluded trial that Asplundh was under no contractual obligation to investigate or perform tree maintenance services in the area of the Phillips residence where the accident occurred: “Because there is no proof in this record that a duty existed,” the Court of Appeals held, “the trial court was correct in its judgment.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, June 8, 2017

SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY

Donald Westlake could have used Lisa Huff for the dust cover model ...

Donald Westlake could have used Lisa Huff for the dust cover model …

Recall the recent creative lawsuit we covered, in which Corrections Officer Johnson going after area cellphone carriers for having recklessly built towers close to a prison. Some of the inmates obtained contraband cellphones. The towers ensured they had excellent 4G service. Of course, the towers also ensured excellent coverage to the motorists on I-20, only a half mile from the prison. The Court’s tallest order was addressing all the ways that Mr. Johnson’s lame attempt to find someone with a deep pocket was simply vibrating nonsense.

“OK,” you say, “but that was just some ambulance chaser’s attempt to shake down a phone company (an attempt most of us applaud once a month when the cell bill arrives). “But that cannot happen in the staid world of arboriculture law.”

In response to that sentiment, we give you the Huffs. After a tree broke off in a storm and hit Lisa Huff on the noggin, she had little to go on other than the abiding sense that someone owned her money. But who? Sure she could sue the property owner. Any regular reader of this blog knows that. But the Huffs needed a deep pocket. After all, Lisa had been injured. Someone had to pay.

That was when some canny lawyer noticed that the tree was located near power lines. Sweet! Power lines suggested the electric company, and everyone knows that the electric company has lots of money. Just look at how much we send them every month.

Problem: the tree wasn’t exactly inside the Ohio Edison easement. But that was a mere technicality to the Huffs, who argued that Ohio Edison hired Asplundh Tree Service to keep the trees trimmed away from the power lines, and that both the power company and the tree service must have known the tree that fell on Lisa was dangerous. This was the tort claim, and it might have merit if Lisa could prove they had actual or constructive notice of the tree.

But never stop with just alleging a tort, where you can pile on other legal theories as well. The Huffs’ attorney suggested a contract count, too. The Huffs, so the legal theory went, were the intended third-party beneficiaries of the contract between Ohio Ed and Asplundh. A third-party beneficiary can sue for a contract breach just as if she had signed the document herself. Asplundh had a contractual obligation to inspect and trim the trees to as to keep the public safe, the Huffs argued, and that included the passing public, which included the walking public, which included Lisa. Anything to get Ohio Edison and Asplundh to open their checkbooks!

deeppocket140507It was a novel theory, but the Ohio Supreme Court shot it down. The Ohio Edison – Asplundh agreement was intended to secure services that would keep the power lines clear. While the agreement did require that Asplundh perform the trimming in a safe manner so as not to hurt anyone while it was doing it, that requirement only lasted as long as Asplundh was trimming. The Court wasn’t about to interpret the contract so broadly as to grant contract causes of action to millions of people who were never intended by the signatories to gain party status to a contract. You think the courts are busy now (and insurance premiums are high)? Just wait …

The takeaway here is a passing observation by the Court that parties to a contract can avoid the litigation spawned here by the Huffs simply by stating clearly that their contract is intended to benefit no one but each other. Including such a provision is a cheap preventative to the kind of nonsense lawsuit decided here.

If you think this case is on the outer fringes of causation – like the suit against the cellphone towers – just wait…

Huff v. FirstEnergy Corp., (2011), 130 Ohio St.3d 196 (Supreme Court of Ohio). During a heavy thunderstorm, a large sugar maple tree split about 25 feet above the ground. A large limb from the tree hit Lisa Huff, who was walking along a country road, causing serious and permanent injuries. Lisa G. Huff was injured during a walk along a country road.

Ohio Edison maintained an easement near the tree, but the tree was outside the easement. The tree did not present a hazard or threat to the power lines owned by the utility. Ohio Edison had hired Asplundh Tree Expert Company to inspect trees and vegetation along its power lines in this area and to remedy any situation in which trees or vegetation might affect the lines. Ohio Edison and its contractors carry out this work to ensure that adequate clearance is maintained around electric lines. Generally, Ohio Edison deferred to Asplundh’s decisions regarding tree and vegetation maintenance and would perform an overview inspection only to determine whether any vegetation was growing into the electrical wires or equipment. Asplundh had last been in the area where Huff’s injury occurred three years before.

Huff sued Ohio Edison and Asplundh, as well as Ohio Edison’s parent company, FirstEnergy, and the people who owned the land on which the tree was located. She alleged that Ohio Edison and Asplundh were liable for her injuries based upon their failure to inspect, maintain, and remove the tree or to warn the landowner and the public of the danger raised by the tree.

Ohio Edison and Asplundh filed motions for summary judgment. Ohio Edison argued that it didn’t know that the tree was dangerous, that it owed and assumed no duty to Huff regarding the tree, and that it was not negligent and did not proximately cause or contribute to Huff’s injuries. Asplundh argued that it owed no duty to Huff and that its activities did not proximately cause the injury to Huff.

The Huffs argued that Ohio Edison had contracted with Asplundh to inspect and maintain trees within the easement and that Asplundh failed to recognize that the tree in question was diseased and a hazard, and failed to remove the tree when it was on site in May 2001. The Huffs also argued that Ohio Edison was responsible for maintaining trees within and around its easement, that Ohio Edison was aware of the tree based upon its location within an inspection zone, and that Ohio Edison had a duty to remove the diseased tree.

The trial court found that while the tree leaned about ten degrees away from the power lines, “there is absolutely no credible evidence about when the tree began to lean or if it was leaning because of the way it grew.” It also noted that the Huffs admitted that no one knew when the tree became a hazard. With no proof that Ohio Edison or Asplundh actually inspected the tree or removed any branches, the court held that the Huffs failed to show that either company ever had actual or constructive notice of any decay of the tree. Due to the tree’s location – leaning away from the power lines with no limbs near the power lines – Ohio Edison and Asplundh owed no duty to the Huffs.

After examining the contract between Ohio Edison and Asplundh, it concluded that the Huffs were not third-party beneficiaries under the contract. It accordingly granted summary judgment to Ohio Edison and Asplundh.

The Court of Appeals cited the portion of the contract providing that “[Asplundh] shall plan and conduct the work to adequately safeguard all persons and property from injury” could be read in two ways: (1) a narrow reading that provides Asplundh must protect all persons from injury while Asplundh works on the site or (2) a broad reading that requires Asplundh to protect all persons from injury at all times, regardless of when the work is done. The court found the contract to be ambiguous, and reversed the trial grant of summary judgment to Ohio Edison and Asplundh.

The companies appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Held: Summary judgment was granted.

The Court found that the contract between Ohio Edison and Asplundh did not create any duty to the Huffs as third-party beneficiaries. The Court employed an “intent to benefit” test. Under this analysis, if the promisee intends that a third party should benefit from the contract, then that third party is an “intended beneficiary” who has enforceable rights under the contract. If the promisee has no intent to benefit a third party, then any third-party beneficiary to the contract is merely an “incidental beneficiary,” who has no enforceable rights under the contract.

The law generally presumes that a contract’s intent resides in the language the parties chose to use in the agreement. Only when the language of a contract is unclear or ambiguous, or when the circumstances surrounding the agreement invest the language of the contract with a special meaning will extrinsic evidence be considered in an effort to give effect to the parties’ intentions. For a third party to be an intended beneficiary under a contract, there must be evidence that the contract was intended to directly benefit that third party. Generally, the parties’ intention to benefit a third party will be found in the language of the agreement.

dwntree140507In this case, the Court ruled, nothing in the agreement between Ohio Edison and Asplundh showed any intent to benefit the Huffs. The Huffs pointed to a part of the contract that they argue shows such an intent: an attachment to the agreement entitled “FirstEnergy Vegetation Management Specifications” that provided  the “Contractor shall plan and conduct the work to adequately safeguard all persons and property from injury.” The Huffs contended that this statement assigns to both Ohio Edison and Asplundh clearly defined duties – to safeguard the public – for the Huffs’ benefit.

The Court held however, that the contract wasn’t entered into for the general benefit of the public walking on public roads, but instead was designed to support Ohio Edison’s electrical service. The purpose of the contract is to ensure that Ohio Edison’s equipment and lines are kept free of interference from trees and vegetation. The remainder of the contract sets forth how this work is to be carried out, including the standards by which Asplundh is to perform its work, the limits on liability for the performance of the work, and the necessary qualifications for the Asplundh employees who were to perform the work. The contract contains no language establishing an ongoing duty to the general public on behalf of either Ohio Edison or Asplundh.

The vegetation management provision incorporated into the contract provides that “[t]he objective of all work covered by these documents is to maintain reliable and economical electric service, through effective line clearance and satisfactory public relations.” The Court observed that working near electrical lines has its inherent hazards, and it was thus “clear that this portion of the agreement establishes safety guidelines designed to protect persons and property from injury while the contractor performs its work. This period is finite: until the work has been completed … [T]he agreement cannot be plausibly read to require Ohio Edison or Asplundh to safeguard all persons from injury at all times, regardless of when the work is completed.”

The Supreme Court concluded that the Huffs thus failed to qualify as intended third-party beneficiaries of the Ohio Edison ­– Asplundh agreement.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, June 7, 2017

WHO GIVES A HOOT?

mexowl160422

The Mexican Spotted Owl is easily identified by its distinctive headgear.

Now a paean to the Mexican Spotted Owl, that cute, furry little critter. Well, maybe it’s not furry – more like feathery – but the bird is an endangered species just the same.

When Precision Pine & Timber landed 14 contracts to destroy wildlife habitats — uh, make that harvest timber — its performance of the agreements got derailed by a U.S. District Court, which stopped the Forest Service because it had been sloppy in figuring out how save the owls. The contracts covered the eventuality, but Precision Pines was entitled to ask for its “out of pocket” expenses incurred if the performance of the contracts was delayed. And performance was indeed delayed for up to 15 months as the Forest Service was sent back to school by the district court until it got its analysis of the spotted owl problem done to the court’s satisfaction.

The Forest Service extended the termination date of the contracts, but Precision Pines nevertheless counted up its expenses, and turned in a bill for a breath-taking $13 million. The Forest Service took a sharp pencil to the invoice, and offered about $18 grand. So Precision Pines sued, arguing it was entitled to a “lost volume” theory. Follow this: if Precision Pines hadn’t been delayed, it would have made a ton of money during that 15 months that, because of the interruption, it didn’t make until much later. If it had made the money when it originally contracted to make it, it would have used the profits to invest in other contracts, where it would have made profits to invest in other contracts, and so on.

Like a snowball rolling down a slope, the few bucks from the interrupted contract would have yielded an avalanche of green someday. But the Court said while that might be so, it didn’t make the deals that never were legitimate damages from the interrupted timber deals. The damages were simple: the profits that weren’t made during the period of delay, minus the profits made after the contracts resumed.

The wise old Mexican Spotted Owls couldn’t have reached a better decision.

Precision Pine & Timber, Inc. v. United States, Case No. 98-720 C, 2007 WL 2753329 (Fed.Cl., Sept. 14, 2007). Precision Pine & Timber held 14 timber contracts with the U.S. Forest Service. In August 1995, the Forest Service suspended the contracts after a U.S. District Court required the Forest Service to submit its Land and Resource Management Plans for consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service in light of the listing of the Mexican Spotted Owl as a threatened species.

About eight weeks after the Mexican Spotted Owl suspensions were imposed, the Forest Service released three of the 14 timber sale contracts from the suspension. The balance did not get released for more than year afterward. Each of the suspended contracts contained a provision on interruption or delay that provided in the event of interruption or delay of operations, Precision Pine’s exclusive remedy was adjustment of the contract term and out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a direct result of the interruption or delay. Out-of-pocket expenses did not include lost profits, replacement cost of timber, or any anticipatory losses.

Profits begat profits, Precision Pine argued ... and the pile grows ever larger.

Profits begat profits, Precision Pine argued … and the pile grows ever larger.

Throughout the suspensions, Precision Pine considered the Forest Service to have breached the timber sale contracts, but Precision Pines treated the breaches as partial and resumed harvesting timber after the suspensions were lifted. Precision Pines requested contract term adjustments for each contract affected by the suspensions, which were granted, and it submitted claims for $13,097,209.62 in damages resulting from the suspension of the 14 contracts under the “lost-volume” seller theory. The Forest Service decided Precision Pines was entitled to only $18,242.78 in damages. Precision Pines sued.

Held: The Forest Service breached the contracts, but the damages were severely curtailed.

The Court held that the lost volume seller theory, as formulated by Precision Pines, depended on showing that its failure to make profits on the 14 timber contracts in a timely manner rendered it unable to participate in other future contracts, thus missing out on profits from those deals. The Court held that such future damages for independent and collateral timber contracts not related to the subject matter of the breached contracts were unrecoverable.

youlose160422

A wise owl, indeed …

The Court further held that permitting Precision Pines to use these unrecoverable damages to reduce the amount of the deduction required to be made in the lost profits calculus — to account for the profits earned on the breached contracts — would be the functional equivalent of actually awarding damages for the lost profits on the future additional contracts. What’s more, the Court said, that even if Precision Pine’s theory of recovery did not require it to show unrecoverable damages, Precision Pines had failed to that it met the criteria for application of a modified lost volume theory.

The Court found that the plaintiff was entitled to recover lost profits on the breached contracts as measured by the expected profits it would have earned on the breached contracts during the suspension period, minus profits it actually earned on the breached contracts in the post-suspension period. And that was it.

– Tom RootTNLBGray

Case of the Day – Tuesday, June 6, 2017

SHOOTING THE MESSENGER

celltree150330

When is a tree not a tree?

Today’s case has nothing to do with trees, unless you count those awful faux-tree cellphone towers many cities are requiring cellphone carriers to erect. While not arboriculture related, today’s decision illustrates the danger of stretching causation, a risk that has reared its ugly head in tree liability cases before (as we shall see tomorrow).

Captain Robert Johnson was a jailer at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. As a correctional officer, Mr. Johnson was responsible – among other duties – for seizing cell phones and other contraband from inmates.

In March 2010, an assailant entered Mr. Johnson’s home and shot him six times in the chest and stomach. His wife, Mary Johnson, witnessed the attack. Mr. Johnson survived but underwent many surgeries and months of rehabilitation.

The U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina concluded after a thorough investigation that a group of inmates ordered the attack in retaliation for Mr. Johnson’s confiscation of their contraband cellphones and other goods. The U.S. Attorney found that an unnamed inmate had used a cellphone to communicate with the shooter, Sean Echols. That inmate also paid Echols. Echols eventually pled guilty to conspiracy to use interstate facilities in murder-for-hire under federal law.

This is where the case begins to provide a lesson for those of us interested in negligence. One would think that the wrongdoers would be sued – the conspirators, the shooter – but the Johnsons knew full well that the inmates didn’t have anything, and the shooter, who’s now serving 20 years, was unlikely to have much of a pocketbook, either. The challenge for the Johnsons’ attorney was to find someone with a deep pocket.

He found someone (or several someones). Let’s shoot the messenger, or – in this case – the people who owned the medium used to delivered the conspirators’ messages. Using a “but for” analysis that would have impressed Mrs. Palsgraf, the Johnsons’ lawyer figured that but for the fact that cellphone towers were located near the prison, there wouldn’t have been any cellphone calls from the prison, and thus, no one could have called the shooter to importune him to shoot Capt. Johnson. For that matter, without cellphones, the prisoners wouldn’t have been stirred up to begin with. So who should we sue? The cellphone companies, of course, as well as the guy who owns the land the cell towers are sitting on, just for good measure.

Of course, this kind of attenuated reasoning is what makes fat people sue McDonalds for selling Big Macs (no Big Macs, no temptation, no overeating, no fat people), or why a man sued Walmart because a plastic bag of groceries split in the parking lot, a can of LaChoy chow mein fell on his wife’s foot, the foot became infected and she died. Really.

It’s too bad Capt. Johnson got shot, and we’re glad he recovered. But to conclude that cell carriers should pay is to stretch causation to the absurd. We blame the Johnson’s lawyer, who should have known better.  Perhaps a copy of Prosser on Torts should fall out of his briefcase onto his foot, and … well, you get it.

Johnson v. American Towers, LLC, Case No 13-1872 (4th Cir., Mar. 25, 2015). Robert Johnson, a prison guard in Bishopville, South Carolina, was shot multiple times in his home. The ensuing investigation revealed that the attack was ordered by an inmate at the prison where Mr. Johnson worked, using a contraband cell phone. Mr. Johnson survived the attack and, with his wife, later brought suit. The Johnsons did not, however, sue the typical defendants – the shooter, a prison inmate or an employee. Rather, the Johnsons sued several cellular phone service providers and owners of cell phone towers, seeking to recover under state-law negligence and loss of consortium theories. The Johnsons alleged that the cell providers “were aware of the illegal use of cellphones by inmates using signals emitted and received at the defendants’ towers” and that “this use created an unreasonable risk of harm.” According to the Johnsons, the defendants failed to take steps to curb illegal cellphone use.

In the district court’s view, “the Johnsons’ argument suggests only a desire to conduct a fishing expedition to determine if there is any factual basis for asserting claims against any Defendants … This is not enough.” Thus, the trial court dismissed the case on several technical issues, the most significant of which was that the complaint, even if true, could not make the cellphone companies liable.

The Johnsons appealed.

messenger150330Held: The Johnsons’ claims fail due to the “speculative nature of their allegations.”

The Court of Appeals reviews rulings on motions to dismiss de novo, accepting all the factual allegations in the complaint as true, and drawing all reasonable inferences in the Johnsons’ favor.

Even reviewing the lower court’s decision according to this relaxed standard, the Court concluded that “the Johnsons have failed to allege sufficient facts to set forth a plausible claim for relief.” A complaint must be dismissed if it does not allege enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. A properly pleaded complaint must offer more than “’naked assertions’ devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.’” A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. In other words, a complaint must include “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.”

The Johnsons’ complaint contained the bare assertion that “an inmate at the prison using a cellphone ordered a coconspirator outside of the prison to kill Captain Johnson.” The Fourth Circuit held that the Johnsons had failed to offer “any further factual enhancement to support their claims against the Defendants. For example, the Johnsons’ complaint does not identify the wireless service provider who carried the alleged call or when the alleged call occurred. Without more factual allegations, it is impossible for a district court to assess the Johnsons’ claims.”

The Court said that the complaint would leave the cellphone carriers unable to determine whether it carried the alleged call without more identifying information.

The appellate court said that the Johnsons were free to file a new lawsuit if they could come up with additional information, because the district court dismissed the complaint without prejudice. However, “as currently drafted … the complaint resembles a prohibited fishing expedition rather than a properly pleaded complaint.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, June 5, 2017

UNDER THE COTTONWOODS

We don't know him ... but he's reputed to be good at what he does.

We don’t know him … but he’s reputed to be good at what he does.

Anyone who has suffered through more than an hour of daytime television is familiar with personal injury lawyers’ ads. One of Ohio’s PI stars is Tim Misny, whose bald pate is immediately recognizable to any Buckeye State dweller with a TV set, along with his trademarked slogan, “I’ll make them pay.”

Tim cautions would-be clients that the slogan isn’t a guarantee. It’s too bad that Sara Burnett’s Colorado attorney – who was not Tim Misny, and for that matter, may not even have been bald – didn’t tell her as much. Sadly for her, after five years of litigation, she got nothing.

Sad for her, but not for the public, whose pain in the pocketbook is all too often forgotten. It seems that Sara and her friend Mackenzie went camping at a suburban Denver state park, just a pleasant July evening under the cottonwoods. Unfortunately for Sara, one of the cottonwoods she camped under picked that same night to shed a branch. A big branch. The falling limb demolished Sara’s tent and badly hurt her head and back. Fortunately, Mackenzie was able to drive both of the young women to the hospital.

For Sara, under the cottonwoods – unlike the book – did not have a happy ending.

For Sara, under the cottonwoods – unlike the book – did not have a happy ending.

Sara then embarked on a campaign to make the State of Colorado pay for her injuries. The State defended on the grounds that it was immune from suit.

The notion of governmental immunity, fully known as “sovereign immunity,” traces its origins from early English law. Back then, the sovereign – that is, the king – was deemed incapable of committing a legal wrong. Thus, his majesty (and by extension his entire government of officials, ministers, clerks and knaves) was immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution.

The doctrine survives today in the United States. The Federal government, all state governments and most political subdivisions thereof are immune from liability for the conduct of their officers, agents and employees acting within the scope of their employment. Unsurprisingly, there are exceptions, cases in which the government has permitted itself to be sued. A good example is the Federal Tort Claims Act, which permits certain types of actions (such as negligence) to be brought against Uncle Sam, subject to some limitations.

Colorado has a statute similar to the FTCA, known as the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act. Generally, courts require that statutes like the FTCA and CGIA be strictly construed in favor of the sovereign and may not be enlarged beyond the waiver its language expressly requires.

In Sara’s case, the Colorado Supreme Court observed at the outset that “governmental immunity is sometimes inequitable, but … governmental entities provide many essential services that unlimited liability could disrupt or make prohibitively expensive … The balance between these two competing interests ‘is for the legislature alone to reach’.”

The CGIA held that the State retains immunity for “an injury caused by the natural condition of any unimproved property.” This seems to pretty much slam the door of Sara claiming that a branch falling out of a tree should open the Colorado treasury to her. But her lawyer was crafty. He learned that the Park employees sometimes trimmed trees that required it. Thus, he argued, the trees ceased being in “natural condition” because the State altered that condition through incidental maintenance. Plus, because the State built the campsite next to and under the trees, those trees became “incorporated” into improved property.

Works in real estate ... for tort claims against the State – not so well.

Works in real estate … But for tort claims against the State?  Not so well.

The Colorado Supreme Court rejected Sara’s claims. Parsing the voluminous history of the CGIA, the Court concluded that the Act did not permit the “spatial analysis” she proposed. In other words, it doesn’t matter how close to the improved facilities an unimproved natural object – like a cottonwood – might be. What matters is what caused the injury. Here, it was a branch from an unimproved tree in its natural condition. Its location next to a campground did not alter its natural state.

For that matter, neither did the State’s occasional cleanup of that tree and others like it when dangling limbs caused Park employees to trim and haul away detritus. The State had no duty to do so, the Court said, and the fact that it may trim on a volunteer basis did not convert what was not a duty into a legal obligation.

The Court’s decision is a interesting tutorial on governmental immunity, and on the balancing of competing interests in making unimproved land available for recreation and protecting the public from hazards created by governmental action. As well, it’s a reminder that sometimes, no lawyer is good enough to “make them pay.”

Burnett v. Dept. of Natural Resources, 346 P.3d 1005 (Supreme Court of Colorado, March 23, 2015). One summer night, Denver area residents Sara Burnett and Mackenzie Brady were camping at suburban Cherry Creek Park. The pair chose a campsite which included a utility hookup, a parking area, a picnic table, and a level dirt pad, pitching their tent under a canopy of four mature cottonwood trees that flanked the campground. Early the next morning, while Burnett and Brady were sleeping inside their tent, a tree limb from one of the cottonwoods fell on their tent. The blow seriously injured Sara. Mackenzie suffered minor injuries, but was able to drive Burnett to the hospital.

Due to the density of the canopy, Park employees who subsequently investigated the accident could not determine the source of the fallen tree limb.

Sara sued the State of Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation for negligence. She relied on section 24-10-106(1)(e) of the Colorado Government Immunity Act to argue that the Park was a “public facility” and the branches overhanging the campsite constituted a “dangerous condition” of it. The State moved to dismiss, asserting sovereign immunity under a separate provision of the CGIA, by which a public entity retains immunity for “an injury caused by the natural condition of any unimproved property.” The parties agreed that the improved campsite was a “public facility” under the CGIA, and that the trees adjacent to it originated on unimproved property.

The trial court applied Rosales v. City & County of Denver, 89 P.3d 507, 510 (Colo. App. 2004), determining that the sole issue was whether the trees adjacent to Sara’s campsite constituted a “public facility.” The trial court conducted a two-part Rosales analysis, concluding that the trees were not integral or essential to the campsite and thus could not constitute part of a “public facility” under § 24-10-106(1)(e). The court of appeals agreed, holding as well that because the trees were a “natural condition of … unimproved property,” § 24-10-106(1)(e) precluded Sara’s suit.

The suburban Denver state park where the mishap occurred.

The suburban Denver state park where the mishap occurred.

Sara appealed to the Supreme Court of Colorado.

Held: The State is immune from liability under the CGIA.

In the CGIA, a public entity waives its immunity to suit for an injury arising from a “dangerous condition of any .. public facility located in any park” it maintains. But the public entity retains immunity for injuries “caused by the natural condition of any unimproved property, whether or not such property is located in a park …” Therefore, the Supreme Court said, “irrespective of what constitutes a public facility, the government retains immunity here if the tree at issue falls within the ambit of the natural condition of unimproved property limitation.”

The CGIA does not define “natural condition of any unimproved property.” Sara argued that, the trees were in their “natural condition” until the State altered their condition through incidental maintenance. Plus, because the State built the campsite next to and under the trees, the State “incorporated” the trees into improved property. Therefore, she argued, the trees ceased to be a natural condition of unimproved property. The State, on the other hand, reasoned that where trees are native flora to property, their character as a “natural condition of unimproved property” remains regardless of incidental maintenance or their proximity to improvements on the land. Because the statute lacked a definition, the Court looked at the substantial amount of CGIA legislative history.

Prior to 1971, Colorado had no governmental immunity statute. Rather, immunity existed only as a court-made doctrine. That year, the Colorado Supreme Court “held that judicially imposed sovereign immunity was inappropriate and abolished such immunity at every level of government.” The legislature responded the next year with the CGIA. Fourteen years later, municipal insurance rates had skyrocketed. In response, the General Assembly rewrote the statute to afford the government greater protection against liability. A report supporting the amended law illustrated the legislative intent: first, it distinguished between dangerous conditions arising from man-made objects and natural objects; second, it explained that immunity should turn on the precise mechanism of the injury; third, it expressed the intent to exempt public entities from a duty to maintain any natural conditions; and fourth, it stated the policy goal of encouraging public entities to make unimproved, government-owned property open to the public without exposing those entities to the expense of defending claims brought by people injured while using the property.

Cottonwoods in the park ... If you know cottonwoods, you know how they like to shed.

Cottonwoods in the Park … If you know cottonwoods, you know how they like to shed.

Based on the CGIA’s legislative history, the Court concluded that “the legislature intended to retain immunity for injuries caused by native trees originating on unimproved property regardless of their proximity to a public facility …” Applying its interpretation to this case, the Court concluded that because a branch from trees originating on unimproved property caused Sara’s injuries, the natural condition provision of the CGIA precludes her suit. As for Sara’s argument that the statute can be interpreted that the State waives immunity for injuries caused by natural objects that are contiguous to improved property, the Court concluded that nothing in the legislative history indicated that the General Assembly intended the “spatial analysis” for which she was advocating. A rule that a public entity waives immunity for injuries that are caused by natural conditions and occur on improved property would create “a literal line drawing problem,” requiring courts to adopt an arbitrary rule to determine when natural objects – such as trees – sit on improved property and when they do not. The Court tersely noted, “We are not at liberty to create this third category.”

Because the CGIA retains immunity for injuries caused by a “natural condition of … unimproved property,” immunity turns on the mechanism of Sara’s injuries, not her location when the injuries occurred. The Court found that the cottonwoods bordering Sara’s campsite were “native vegetation of the unimproved property,” and the branch at issue fell from one of those cottonwoods. “Thus,” the Court held, Sara’s “injuries were caused by a natural condition of unimproved property, such that the natural condition provision precludes her suit.”

In reaching that holding, the Court rejected Sara’s argument that the State altered the natural condition of the trees by having previously pruned them. “Under the CGIA,” the Court ruled, “the State did not have any duty to prune the limbs, nor did it assume a duty to continue to prune them once it chose to do so … An assumed duty would be contrary to the public health and safety, as it would discourage the State from undertaking any pruning whatsoever.” The Court refused to create a rule “that would transform natural conditions of unimproved property into improved property where, for the public health and safety, a public entity performs such incidental maintenance.”

In what was little more than a footnote at the end of the decision, the Colorado Supreme Court observed that “the trial court and court of appeals relied upon the two-part analysis delineated in Rosales … first, was the tree an “integral” part of the public facility …” and “second, was the tree “essential” for the public facility’s intended use?” Noting that “these questions do not originate in the CGIA,” the Court overruled its 11-year old Rosales rule.

The Court admitted that Sara’s “injuries are tragic,” but it concluded that “eliminating governmental immunity in this case would only compound the tragedy by sidestepping legislative intent and providing a disincentive for the government to facilitate access to public lands.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Friday, June 2, 2017

THE JURY IS INSTRUCTED TO DISREGARD THE SMELL

Once the skunk lands in the jury box, the smell tends to follow ... no matter what the judge may say.

Once the skunk lands in the jury box, the smell tends to follow … no matter what the judge may say.

Trial courts often must give juries instructions to disregard certain evidence they have heard in reaching their verdicts. As a court once described it, “if you throw a skunk into the jury box, you can’t instruct the jury not to smell it.

Today’s case starts out to be pure California … a landslide, a muddy pool, emotional distress because of a dirty carpet. Oh, the humanity! The injured Ms. Rahmanian claimed that her neighbor Nelson had suffered a water leak, and the leak damaged her property. The extent of the damage was grievous, Ms. Rahmanian pled, well over $200,000. Her house was a mess, carpets ruined, pool filled with mud … she demanded justice!

But it turns out that Ms. Rahmanian had already gotten twenty grand from her insurance company, and she hadn’t used a penny of it to dry out carpets, clean walls, empty the pool — the usual cleanup performed to keep a bad mess from becoming worse. The defendant managed to sneak that piece of evidence into the record, and as a result, the plaintiff only collected about $110,000, just about half of what she wanted. How could she ever clean the drapes on that?

People damaged by the negligence of others have a duty to mitigate. That means that they are expected to take reasonable steps to minimize the damage. It only stands to reason. The courts will try to put the innocent injured back in the position they occupied before the damage. But the innocent aren’t expected to sit on their hands, either … or spend money intended to clean up the damage on mimosas at the Beverly Wilshire.

Ms. Rahmanian complained on appeal that the jury shouldn’t have heard about the insurance money. She was literally correct. Who got what from their insurers is irrelevant to whether a party was negligent, and whether that negligence caused damage. But the Court of Appeals clearly lacked sympathy for her. It held that — while the evidence about the insurance money shouldn’t have come in — Ms. Rahmanian didn’t suffer for it, because the trial court told the jury to disregard it.

Never mind that it might be hard for the jurors to ignore the fact that a poor pool-deprived supplicant like Ms. Rahmanian already had collected some dough from her insurance company and spent it on … well, pedicures, poodles in purses, whatever Californians fritter money away on when they don’t mitigate. The Court did some rough justice here, something that happens more often than you might think.

To hear Ms. Rahmanian tell it, her bungalow was fouled beyond salvation.

To hear Ms. Rahmanian tell it, her bungalow was fouled beyond salvation.

Rahmanian v. Nelson, Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2007 WL 1123983 (Cal.App. 2 Dist., Apr. 17, 2007). Nelson’s house is located above the house owned by Sharon Rahmanian. A water leak on Nelson’s property caused the slope located at the back of her land to collapse, leading to a mudslide that covered her pool and patio area. She sued Nelson for negligence and trespass.

Nelson did not dispute liability. The primary issue at trial was the amount of damages. Rahmanian’s witnesses testified that the mudslide caused damage to the pool and patio, and to the French doors at the back of the house. In addition, mud or muddy water entered the house, causing damage to everything located near the doors, including carpets and drapes. Rahmanian’s expert testified that to repair the slope would cost about $75,000, plus $24,440 to re-landscape the slope. The cost to repair the pool and house would added another $134,000, and she lost use of the pool to the tune of $1,153 a month. For good measure, she complained of damages from physical symptoms and mental suffering she had experienced since the mudslide.

Nelson’s witnesses said the mudslide could not have caused much damage to the patio or pool. They also questioned whether water or mud caused any damage to the interior of the house. Nelson’s experts estimated it would cost $89,371 for repairs and re-landscaping. During the trial, there were three references to $20,000 Rahmanian had already received from her insurance carrier, but had not used to repair any damage.

The jury awarded Rahmanian $80,000 for slope repair; $21,000 for other property damage; $5,000 for loss of use; and $4,000 for emotional distress. Not satisfied with this amount, Rahmanian moved for a new trial, which the court refused. She appealed.

Held: The trial court shouldn’t have let testimony about the $20,000 in insurance money in, but that wasn’t enough to give Ms. Rahmanian a new trial. Under California’s collateral source rule, if an injured party receives some compensation for his injuries from a source wholly independent of the tortfeasor, such payment should not be deducted from the damages which the plaintiff would otherwise collect from the tortfeasor.

Too many mimosas, too little cleanup.

Too many mimosas, too little cleanup.

In order to permit such evidence to be introduced, the trial court must first weigh the relevance and probative value of evidence of plaintiff’s receipt of collateral benefits against the inevitable prejudicial impact such evidence is likely to have on the jury’s deliberations. Here, that advance weighing was not done. But, the Court said, Rahmanian was not prejudiced. The jury asked the court for guidance on the impact of the $20,000 during deliberations, and the court instructed the jury to ignore what it had heard repeatedly. Ms. Rahmanian did not object to the language of the court’s instruction: in fact, her counsel supplied the key wording used by the court, so she was not allowed later to raise an objection concerning its clarity.

Because the court, with the assistance of counsel, was able to intervene during deliberations to prevent the jury from acting on the misleading information it received concerning the $20,000, the jury’s verdict could not have represented an improperly discounted award. Thus, the appellate court said, no miscarriage of justice occurred.

The trial court also gave an instruction to the jury that Ms. Rahmanian had a duty to mitigate the damage, that is, to take immediate steps after the landslide to minimize the long-term effects. Ms. Rahmanian maintained that the only evidence to support the instruction was the improperly admitted evidence of the $20,000 insurance money. The Court said that because the trial court had given a curative instruction about the insurance money, the appellate court presumed the jury followed the court’s final directive to “not consider” the $20,000 in calculating damages.

– Tom Root

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