Case of the Day – Tuesday, January 9, 2018

THE PENNSYLVANIA CHAINSAW MASSACRE

We write a lot about trespass and the wrongful cutting of trees as a civil matter, where courts award money damages and occasionally injunctive relief. So much so, perhaps, that it’s easy sometimes to forget that trespass is also an offense against the public peace that is punishable in every state as a criminal offense.

Darlene Gall’s nickname could have been “Unmitigated.” There is pretty clearly a backstory of neighbor animosity here, but all we get are the facts of the offense: one summer day, while her neighbor Gloria was at work, Darlene drove onto Gloria’s yard and lopped a 20-foot long branch off an apple tree. She then dragged it back to her place behind her pickup truck.

Darlene already had a driveway, meaning that the easement was not essential to get from her house to the road. But rather than use her Massachusetts Rule rights to trim the tree limb back to the edge of her easement, Darlene went next door and took a bough – the whole bough. Darlene said she did this because the branch scratched her truck cab when she drove by on her easement. And because someday an ambulance might have to get to her house by means other than her driveway. And because Gloria’s people dumped dirt in the easement once. And so on.

When another neighbor saw Darlene cut the branch and tow it away, he reported it, and Darlene got charged with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. She admitted cutting the branch, but tried to convince the judge she thought she had the right to walk onto Gloria’s land with her chainsaw whirring. Her lawyer argued that it is “a well-settled principle in the civil law that a non-owner of vegetative property, like a tree, is privileged to physically damage the property when it is intruding onto her property.”

Well, not exactly. The Massachusetts Rule lets a landowner cut off boughs and roots of neighbor’s trees which intrude into his or her land when the tree causes “sensible harm.” Darlene could have cut the apple tree branch back to the edge of the easement. But the branch’s encroachments were not a license for her to enter her neighbor’s yard and cut the encroaching limbs all the way back to the trunk.

Commonwealth v. Gall, 2017 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1709 (Pa. Superior Ct.2017). Darlene Gall drove onto her land owned by her neighbor, Gloria Hieter, and used an electric chain saw to cut down a 20-foot limb from an apple tree. She then threw a rope around it and dragged it behind her truck back to her own property. She did so without ever asking Gloria’s permission, claiming the limb was blocking her use of an easement, making it impossible for her to drive past without scratching the roof of her vehicle. She also rather disingenuously claimed she was concerned about the possibility of an ambulance being able to reach her property by means other than her driveway.

Darlene was charged with the crime of simple trespass, which makes it a misdemeanor for a person, knowing that he or she is not licensed or privileged to do so, to enter or remain in any place for the purpose of, among other things, defacing or damaging the premises. She was found guilty, and sentenced to pay a $50.00 fine and costs of prosecution.

Darlene appealed.

Uh… but then, it’s not trespassing.

Held: Darlene was guilty of criminal trespass. She complained there was no evidence to show she knew she was not allowed to go on to Gloria’s land to cut the branch that was interfering with the use of her easement. But the Superior Court agreed with the trial judge that Darlene knew that the base of the apple tree was on her neighbor’s property, that she knew she was entering Gloria’s property, and that she intended to enter the property in order to cut the tree branch.

The trial court found from circumstantial evidence that Darlene knew she was not privileged to be on her neighbors’ property to cut down the apple tree branch. But she argued on appeal that the evidence was insufficient, and anyway, the law permitted her to be on the property for the purpose of removing a personal hazard to her health, and that she did not have the specific intent of defacing or damaging the premises.

The Superior Court, however, observed that intent can be proven by circumstantial evidence, and that it can inferred from timing. Here, Gloria testified that she drives past the easement, which is on her left, to go to work. A neighbor, Mr. Goldman, heard the chainsaw and the large cracking sound and saw Darlene’s truck going by, towing this huge branch around 11:30 am on a Tuesday. The Superior Court said it was permissible to infer from Darlene’s choosing to cut down the branch at a time Gloria would not be at home that Darlene knew she was not privileged to enter Gloria’s land to cut down the branch. Gloria confirmed that Darlene never asked her about the tree branch.

Darlene took a bough… but not like this.

Mostly, Darlene was heisted by her own petard. She whined that “there was nothing there to say I couldn’t go up there. There was nothing there, no signs or nothing. They posted, actually, their signs into my easement, in other words, with the — may I say something? There was time when they encroached on my easement there, trying to take it on me, and it cost me thousands of dollars in court to establish that I had the right to that road. They were pushing dirt on my — they built a shed a foot over their property line without a permit, and I have no… other way to explain the need to go on there and just take care of it myself.”

The trial court said Darlene “seems all too aware of where the easement line is and where her property is and where her property isn’t. She acknowledges that she went four steps onto her neighbor’s property.” The Superior Court concluded that Darlene “knew that she was not licensed or privileged to enter onto her neighbor’s property to cut down the apple tree branch. Furthermore, as has already been stated above, [Darlene] has been quite forthright about her entry onto [Gloria’s] land having the sole destructive purpose of removing the apple tree branch that was hanging in the easement.” What’s more, the fact that Gloria’s property was not posted with “No Trespassing” signs was irrelevant for the crime of simple trespass. It was enough that Darlene knew she was trespassing.

Darlene tried to raise necessity as a defense of justification, but the trial court held that “the necessity would be as to why she had to go onto the property as opposed to cutting the limb at the edge of the easement, and that’s not what’s in front of us today.” In other words, for necessity to work, Darlene had to show why exercising her rights under the Massachusetts Rule – that is, to trim the apple tree branch to the edge of her easement – was not good enough.

On appeal, Darlene argued that cutting the limb “was to avoid a ‘harm or evil,’ namely the harm of not being able to receive emergency services at her home,” and therefore, she “was privileged to enter upon [Gloria’s] property to cut the potentially harmful branch.” But before the trial court, all she said was that her “entry upon the alleged victim’s premises was for the sole purpose of maintaining the right-of-way, and not to intentionally deface or damage the alleged victim’s property.” When the issue is not raised in front of the trial court, the appellate court will not entertain it.

Darlene’s conviction was upheld.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, January 8, 2018

IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE

The balmy weather this past weekend (-2º F as we write this) made us long for the warm days of August, when we could bask in the pool at the local swim club. This fond memory of hot fun in the summertime is not shared by Maryann Dunlap.

No question Maryann enjoyed her time bobbing in the pool at the Ridley Park Swim Club. But as she crossed the parking lot to leave, a tree in the tangled thicket on an undeveloped lot next door fell on her, writing a quick finis to her pleasant day.

The case that ensued raised interesting questions of when a party needs an expert to establish whether a defendant had a duty to inspect trees, as well as the extent of the duty when the property on which the tree stands is – as the trial court put it – an undeveloped “jungle” but is next to property that is not.

There has long been a distinction made between the nature and extent of the duty to inspect trees on urban property (where the risk of harm from hazard trees is much greater) and rural property (where if the tree falls in the forest, it may not even make a noise if no one is around to hear it). Today’s case hones that duty a bit finer, relying on the same policy considerations – the risk from falling timber – but implicitly rejecting the rather coarse distinctions of urban versus rural.

Decay is not always this obvious.

Dunlap v. Ridley Park Swim Club, 133 A.3d 64 (Pa. Superior Ct., 2015): One hot summer day in 2009, Maryann Dunlap was swimming at Ridley Park’s pool. While she was walking through the parking lot to leave, a tree located on property owned by Harper Associates – about 25 feet from the property line – fell on her. No part of the tree overhung Ridley Park’s property. The tree was dead and decaying, and had enough vines growing on it to warm Tarzan’s heart.

Harper Associates did not examine the tree or take any other action to ascertain if the tree posed a hazard to people on either on its land or on Ridley Park’s property.

Dunlap sued Ridley Park and Harper Associates. Ridley Park argued that Harper Associates was negligent, and thus liable for Maryann’s injuries. Maryann’s expert witnesses provided reports concluding the same.

Nevertheless, the trial court granted summary judgment to Harper Associates, finding that Ridley Park could not prove its case against codefendant Harper Associates because it did not call an expert witness to testify as to Harper Associates’ negligence. The trial court also concluded that the area in question was a “jungle” and, therefore, there was no legal duty for Harper Associates to inspect the tree. Therefore, the case was thrown out without a jury ever hearing it.

Ridley Park appealed.

Held: The Superior Court held that Ridley Park was entitled to a trial on its claims.

Negligence is established by proving (1) a duty or obligation recognized by law; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a causal connection between the conduct and the resulting injury; and (4) actual damages. Expert testimony is required when the subject matter of the negligence is outside the skill and knowledge of an ordinary person.

The Court held that Harper Associates had a duty to visually inspect the tree, and Ridley Park Swim Club did not need an expert to prove it. In Pennsylvania, a possessor of land in or next to a developed or residential area is liable for harm caused to others outside of the land by a defect in a tree on the property if, in the exercise of reasonable care, the possessor would have discovered the defect and the risk it caused, and could have made it reasonably safe by taking action. The reasonable care standard encompasses, the Court said, includes at least “a duty to make a visual inspection. Under some circumstances it may encompass more. If the possessor of land in or adjacent to a developed area knows, or should know, through inspection or otherwise, that a defect in one of his trees poses an unreasonable danger to others outside of the land, he is under a duty to eliminate that danger.”

Bad things can happen in the jungle.

It did not matter, either, that the area in which the tree was growing was a “jungle.” The focus is on the adjacent land. A tree, the Court noted, “once growing in the midst of a forest, is no longer the same ‘natural object’ when a city grows around it or residential areas are developed in proximity to it.”

Because Ridley Park Swim Club’s parking lot, where Maryann was hurt, was developed land, Harper Associates had a duty to visually inspect the subject tree.

Even if expert testimony had been needed, the Court said, (and it was not), Maryann’s experts testified that the fallen tree was one that needed “to be regularly observed. It’s on a boundary between two properties. Both owners would have a responsibility to see what’s going on at that location. And when you have a situation where grapevines are beginning to load up the plants then there becomes a real responsibility to care for the trees in a way that they’re not being – people have to circulate on the site.” Even where expert testimony is needed, the Court held, it does not have to come from witnesses presented by the party with the burden of proof. Any competent expert will do.

At trial, one of Harper Associates’ principals testified that no one had ever visually inspected the subject tree. From that testimony alone, the Court held, a jury could have determined that Harper Associates breached its duty to inspect. But as to whether the failure to inspect was the proximate cause of the tree falling (and Maryann being clobbered), the Court agreed that expert testimony was required. “It requires specialized knowledge and training to determine if the tree, when it fell, was in such condition that visual inspection alone should have revealed a problem.”

Maryann’s expert admitted that “if a non-professional looked at the tree the tree itself might have looked alive. But you have to take it in context with the whole site. And if you look at photograph 90 where it shows that the vines are already pulling down another part of the tree, I think even to a lay-person that does not look normal.” Although a Ridley Park’s witness said he believed that the tree looked like a “live, healthy tree with tree branches and green leaves all over the parking lot” and a Harper Associates’ principal contended he inspected the jungle monthly, the Court held that “the jury could have reasonably found, that even if Harper Associates visually inspected the subject tree it would not have noticed the tree was a danger to individuals on Ridley Park’s property. The conflict in the testimony, however, was a factual question that must be decided by the jury… Thus, Ridley Park is entitled to a new trial.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Friday, January 5, 2018

TREES GONE WILD

Emily Dickinson had something to say about today’s case. The Belle of Amherst wrote,

The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

Today’s problem was slow to develop, but like a winter storm undergoing bombagenesis, it just got bigger and bigger. Marie’s property was separated from her charming neighbor Ed’s by a 100-foot long cinder block retaining wall. In about 2004, “a mulberry tree and some shrubs began growing” – note the passive voice, as though the growth was mere happenstance, not brought on by anyone’s actions – in Marie’s property near the retaining wall.

Everyone agreed that Marie had nothing to do with the mulberry tree. She didn’t pant it, mulch it, stake it or fertilize it. It just grew. And grew. And grew. About eight years later, its roots began toppling Ed’s beautiful wall.

To be sure, Marie diligently trimmed the mulberry branches every year, but unsurprisingly, she did not excavate around it so she could trim the tree’s roots. Who does that? When the wall began showing damage in 2012, Ed wrote Marie a letter (evidence enough that their relationship must have been too frosty for him just to mosey on over and say something), expressing concern about the damage. Marie, ever the good neighbor, hired some guys to trim back the trees and bushes. That wasn’t good enough for Ed, who then sent Marie a certified letter complaining that her tree was tipping over his wall but warning that she better not let any of her workers step on his property in an attempt to fix it unless they were insured and had permits.

At this point, Marie’s interest in jumping through Ed’s hoops appeared to have waned. She did nothing more, and Ed sued.

He accused Marie of carelessness, negligence and gross negligence, complaining that the “maintenance of her property” – which is to say, suffering the tree to grow – caused the damage to the retaining wall. Of course, he wanted money.

At trial, Marie said Ed’s wall had been installed by morons and thus was falling down of its own accord. Ed said Marie should have taken care of the tree to ensure that it did not crumble his wall. The court, it turns out, did not care about either argument: instead, it held that a tree growing near the wall is a naturally occurring condition. As such, Marie is not liable for what the tree does.

We are constrained to note that this is not the law everywhere. The Hawaii Rule, as brought up to date by decisions such as Fancher v. Fagella, holds that when a naturally-occurring tree becomes too much of a nuisance, the owner can be forced to do something, regardless of how the tree got there or how little the owner’s role in nurturing it. But not in New Jersey.

Like Emily’s grass, Marie’s mulberry could not keep its place. And the court, like Emily’s wind, did not require Marie to answer for the tree’s peripatetic roots. Oh, the poetry of it…

Scannavino v. Walsh, 445 N.J. Super. 162 (Superior Ct. N.J., 2016). Marie’s naturally-growing mulberry tree got big enough that its roots started causing her neighbor’s retaining wall to tilt and collapse. Neighbor Ed sued her for damages the tree caused the wall, but the trial court held she was not responsible for the naturally-occurring growth of a tree she had not planted.

Ed appealed.

Held:  The Superior Court sided with Marie. It held that a cause of action for private nuisance derives from the defendant’s “unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment’ of the plaintiff’s property.” Under the Restatement (Second) of Torts, “neither a possessor of land, nor a vendor, lessor, or other transferor, is liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land,” which includes the natural growth of trees, weeds, and other vegetation “upon land not artificially made receptive to them.” Similarly, “a possessor of land is not liable to persons outside the land for a nuisance resulting solely from a natural condition of the land,” including “trees, weeds, and other vegetation on land that has not been made artificially receptive to it by act of man.”

New Jersey court have held that injury to an adjoining property caused by the roots of a planted tree can be actionable as a nuisance. The rationale for the property owner’s liability in that case was not because of the natural process of the growth of the tree roots, but instead due to the affirmative act of the property owner in planting the tree that caused the damage. But here, Marie did not plant the tree, and while she trimmed it from time to time, she engaged in no positive acts like fertilizing or maintenance to encourage growth. Had she done so, that might have converted a natural growing tree into one for which the landowner was liable. However, the Court said, “simply cut[ting] back the trees above the ground” was not a positive act to encourage growth.

The record contained no evidence that Marie’s trimming had improved the tree’s health or accelerated the growth of the roots. As well, the trial court found that Ed had failed “to demonstrate that any actions undertaken by [Marie] or her agent caused the damage to the wall.” Finally, even Ed himself told the Court he was not asking the judges to infer that cutting back the trees had increased root growth.

Instead, all Ed argued was that by cutting back the trees, Marie became liable for the damage caused by the roots. That is contrary to the law, the Court said, and seeks unfairly to “impose liability upon a property owner for hazardous conditions of his land which he did nothing to bring about just because he happens to live there.” Because Marie’s cutting back of the tree did nothing to “bring about” the root growth, neither the trees nor the damage was “brought about” or “precipitated by the property owner’s affirmative act.”

The Court observed that Ed’s argument would lead “to the anomaly of imposing liability upon one who cuts back wild growth while precluding liability of an adjacent landowner who allows the natural condition of his property to ‘run wild’.” What’s more, some of Marie’s trimming was in response to Ed’s belly-aching, and the Court was not about to sandbag Marie because she tried to be a good neighbor.

Ed suggested that if Marie was not held to be liable, then landowners like Ed might have to use self-help, and trespass on her land to cut down the tree himself. The Court dismissed the argument. Ed’s own letter suggested he could abate the nuisance from his side of the property line, which is consistent with the Massachusetts Rule (which fully applies in New Jersey). At any rate, the Restatement (Second) of Torts provides that “entry onto a neighboring property to abate a private nuisance is permissible under certain circumstances.”

Interestingly enough, the Restatement (Third) of Torts might have held Marie liable if she failed to exercise reasonable care in allowing the tree’s roots to damage the retaining wall. But the Supreme Court of New Jersey has directed that the Restatement (Second) of Torts is the law, and until that changes, Marie’s tree is on its own.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Thursday, January 4, 2018

RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS ARE CHILD’S PLAY

We have previously reported the tale of homeowners who bought the house next door, planning to demolish it and turn the property into a playground for his kids. But the property manager for the homeowner’s association (HOA) that oversaw the development – seeking to enforce a deed restriction that required prior approval before “changes or alterations” – got a court to issue an injunction.

Injunctions aren’t easy to come by. The biggest hurdle is that the HOA had to convince the judge that it was likely to win the case. The homeowners, Bob and Kathy Guzzetta, argued that “change and alteration” was different from “demolition.” The grant of the injunction suggested to us that the court found their argument to be (as we put it at the time) a “dead-bang loser.” It seemed like game, set and match for the HOA – well before the first day of trial.

But trials have a way of turning losers into winners. The Guzzettas, undeterred by the pall of imminent defeat a preliminary injunction cast over their case, put their evidence on anyway. And they won.

The court, it seems, was no fan of restrictive covenants. Such covenants, the court rightly observed, “implicate contractual rights, such as the right of a buyer and seller to enter into a binding contract, but they also implicate property rights, such as one’s right to the free use of her land. In situations where these two rights conflict, the law favors the free use of land.”

Applying that standard, the court said, the analysis was simple. “Changes and alterations” required prior consent, but the Guzzettas were right: taking something away was not the same thing as changing or altering. After all, nothing else in the covenants required that a house even be on the lot. It was just that if there was a house on the lot, the HOA had to approve it. Requiring prior approval of something did not imply that prior approval of nothing was required as well.

Just a little something for the kiddies…

Service Corp. of Westover Hills v. Guzzetta, Not Reported in A.2d, 2009 Del. Ch. LEXIS 221 (Del.Ch., 2009). The Guzzettas had been homeowners in Westover Hills for 11 years, when they bought the property next to theirs. The adjoining property included a 1943 colonial-style house and mature maple and oak trees. The Guzzettas intended to raze the house in order to expand their backyard for their children.

Properties in Westover Hills, however, are subject to deed restrictions which are binding on all owners within the development. One of the restrictions provides that “no building, fence, wall or other structure shall be commenced, erected, or maintained, nor shall any addition to or change or alteration therein be made, until the plans and specifications, showing the nature, kind, shape, height, materials, floor plans, color scheme, location and frontage on the lot and approximate cost of such structure shall have been submitted to and approved in writing by…” Service Corp., the property manager.

Service Corp. had the right to refuse to approve any such plans or specifications that it found not suitable or desirable for aesthetic or other reasons. Since 2004, Service Corp. has used an Architectural Review Committee to initially review proposals, request additional information as necessary, and make recommendations to the Service Corp. board. Service Corp. had approved demolitions before, as well as landscape plans.

The Guzzettas went ahead with their plans without obtaining approval, and Service Corp. sued for an injunction prohibiting the demolition of the home and landscaping. The trial court granted a preliminary injunction until a trial on the merits could be held, but at trial, it reversed course, finding in favor of the Guzzettas. 

Held: The Guzzettas didn’t need HOA approval to demolish the house next door. The restrictive covenant at issue held that “no building, fence, or wall or other structure shall be commenced, erected or maintained, nor shall any addition to or change or alteration therein be made” until the plans and specifications were approved by the HOA. Service Corporation argued that the Guzzettas’ planned demolition was a “change” within the plain meaning of that word. But the court, resorting to the dictionary, concluded that an “alteration” to a structure might encompass a new paint scheme, while a “change” was more radical, such as the gutting of a house followed by a complete refurbishment. While either of these terms might conceivably include a demolition, that interpretation made no sense when read with the requirement in the same covenant that the HOA must approve “the plans and specifications, showing the nature, kind, shape, height, materials, floor plans, color scheme, location and frontage on the lot and approximate cost of such structure…”

The court held that “the complete demolition of a structure so that it is replaced only by a grassy field would result, by necessity, in a change that has no ‘height, shape, materials, floor plans, color scheme, location or frontage’.” After all, how can the HOA approve plans for a grassy field? The third clause, the court held, “narrows the broad coverage of the second clause. Read together, the second and third clauses only apply to ‘changes’ to an existing structure where some structure will remain afterward. Accordingly, because the Guzzettas do not propose to leave any structure on the Property following demolition, the second and third clauses of Article V do not require them to submit their plans for the complete demolition of the adjacent house to Service Corporation for approval.”

Service Corporation argued that the drafters obviously intended to prevent homeowners from making such a radical change to a property as the Guzzettas proposed without the consent of the organization representing the community. But the Court responded that the restrictive covenants did not require that a structure be erected on every plot, but rather only that if a building were built, the plans be approved. “Presumably,” the Court drily observed, “vacant lots could thus exist in Westover Hills.” In fact, one of the covenants provided that “free or open spaces shall be left on every plot built upon, on both sides of every residence erected thereon, which free spaces shall extend the full depth of the plot.” 

The lesson here is that because restrictive covenants tie a property owner’s hands, limiting what he or she can do with property that is bought and paid for, a court is likely to construe such  covenants strictly against the organization that imposed them. It’s a fair bet that if the writers of the covenants had ever imagined that homeowners like the Guzzettas would tear down a house in favor of – horrors! – green open space, the restrictive covenants would have required the hobnail boots of the HOA to march over the plans ahead of time. But no one imagined such a matter would arise, and the court was not about to rewrite the covenant to pull the HOA’s chestnuts out of the fire.

The game may have gone to the HOA. But the set and match belonged to the Guzzettas.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A “READILY APPARENT” THUMP

journeyends140312A great philosopher perhaps put it best: a very long journey can sometimes end suddenly, and rather badly.

Howie Conine should have had the Despair, Inc., “Ambition” poster on his wall, where he could have contemplated its message. He surely could empathize with the hapless salmon. He and his wife had their journey end one rainy day on Washington State Route 524 – suddenly and very, very badly. A redwood tree on County of Snohomish land, the hazardousness of which was “readily apparent,” fell on their car with a readily apparent thump.

The law of the jungle gives the poor king salmon no right of appeal, no habeas corpus, no forum for damages suffered when her trip upstream ends so precipitously in the jaws of an ursus arctus horribilis . Fortunately for the Conines, the law of Washington State was more hospitable after the tree fell onto their passing car (with them in it). If anything, it was a perfect storm for them: they possessed evidence that the dangerous condition of the tree was “readily apparent,” they were in a notoriously friendly plaintiff-friendly, and they had two defendants to choose from, both of which were governments and thus “deep pockets.”

But who to collect from? The State of Washington, the government that, the Conines argued, had a duty to keep the highways safe from falling trees? Or perhaps the County of Snohomish, the government that, the Conines averred, had a duty to protect passers-by from dangers arising from trees on its land?

This is America – land of the free and home of the litigious! Why not sue both?

That is exactly what the Conines did.

angryjudge140312Unfortunately, they ran into an uncooperative trial court, one which held that neither Washington State nor Snohomish County had any obligation to inspect the trees along the road, even one with “this readily apparent hazard.” The trial judge threw the Conines out of court. They had more luck with the Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court decision and sent the matter back for trial on the merits. There was enough evidence – chiefly from the Conines’ hired-gun expert – that the tree was obviously dangerous, that the case should go to trial.

The lesson: when you need a good expert, there’s just nothing else that will do.

Conine v. County of Snohomish, Not Reported in P.3d, 2007 WL 1398846 (Ct.App. Wash., May 14, 2007). Howard and Karen Conine were driving on State Route 524 when a red alder tree standing on an embankment on the west side of the road fell on their car. The tree had been located about 10 feet outside the State’s right of way on land owned by Snohomish County. The Conines sued the State of Washington for failure to maintain the state highways in a safe condition and the County for failure to remove an obvious hazard from its property.

The Conines’ arborist testified that during the 6-12 months immediately preceding the tree’s failure, the appearance of the tree should have put anyone looking at it on notice that it was dead and decaying. The arborist said the tree was probably leaning 10 to 15 degrees downhill toward the road, and would have been in the highest risk category because of its condition and proximity to the road. The DOT’s maintenance technician who removed the tree after the accident said the tree “had been a live tree and that its root ball had come loose from the soil owing to the very wet conditions we had in January 2003.”

The trial court held that neither the State nor the County had a “duty to look for this readily apparent hazard,” and granted summary judgment to the State. The Conines appealed.

Held: The summary judgment was reversed. The State’s liability to users of a road is predicated upon its having notice, either actual or constructive, of the dangerous condition which caused injury, unless the danger was one it should have foreseen and guarded against. The Conines conceded that the State did not have actual notice, but they argued that the tree’s visibly dangerous condition created constructive notice. The Court found that the question to be answered was whether, for constructive notice, the State had a duty to look for a readily apparent hazard. Although the Washington Supreme Court had held in another case that where the tree was on a remote, mountainous, sporadically traveled road, a high threshold for constructive notice of danger was needed to trigger a duty to inspect and remove a dangerous tree. But here, the road was a state highway in a populated area, and the risk to the traveling public shifted the risk analysis. What’s more, in the other case, the Supreme Court found that the tree that fell was no more dangerous than any one of the thousands of trees that lined mountain roads. By contrast, the Conines’ expert testified that the tree that fell was obviously a hazard. The differences, the Court said, precluded a finding that the State lacked constructive notice as a matter of law. Constructive notice that a tree was dangerous gives rise to a duty to inspect. Thus, summary judgment was improperly granted on the basis of no duty to inspect.

treefalloncar140212The Conines also contended that Snohomish County faced liability as the landowner of the property upon which the tree stood, because the owner of land located in or adjacent to an urban or residential area has a duty of reasonable care to prevent defective trees from posing a hazard to others on the adjacent land. The County argued that it had no such duty, because the tree was a “natural condition of the land.”

The Court held that when the land is located in or adjacent to an urban or residential area and when the landowner has actual or constructive knowledge of defects affecting his trees, he has a duty to take corrective action. The area in question was next to the City of Lynnwood and zoned urban residential. Thus, it was urban in character. The Conines produced expert evidence that the subject tree was obviously dead or dying and leaning for two years, that it looked like a forked snag and that it lacked fine or scaffold branches. This evidence, the Court said, created an issue of material fact as to whether the tree was in a defective condition and the condition was of sufficient visibility and duration to give the County constructive notice of a potential hazard.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Tuesday, January 2, 2018

WHY WRITTEN CONTRACTS CONTINUE TO BE SUCH A GOOD IDEA

blue150911We’ve preached it until we’re blue in the face. As movie impresario Samuel Goldwyn put it, “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” But it seems like a good point with which to start the new year. 

In today’s case, landowner Whatley hired a tree cutter to take down two trees in his yard. Whatley knew from nuthin’ about tree cutting, so he told the guy to do it any way he saw fit. Of course, these two being good ol’ boys, they didn’t bother with a written agreement (which could have been as simple as an estimate with some terms printed on the back).

And what kind of terms did they need? Well, maybe one that said that the tree cutter was an independent contractor of Whatley would have been nice. As it turned out, the cutter and his able assistant dropped one the first without a problem. When they considered the second tree, which stood on a slope hard against the neighbors’ place, the cutter figured he could drop it in one piece safely. Whatley, whom (as we said) knew from nuthin’ about tree cutting, said “if you can do it, do it.”

But the cutters couldn’t do it. The tree toppled onto the Sharmas’ place, breaking trees and smashing their fountain. And here’s where it got messy. The Sharmas, of course, sued the tree cutter. But they sued Whatley, too, arguing it was his fault as the employer of the cutters.

Some blunders are obvious ...

Some blunders are obvious …

The law is well established that a landowner isn’t responsible for the negligence of an independent contractor, because the independent contractor has full authority to decide how to do the job himself. But without that written agreement, everyone had to pack the courtroom to explain how the relationship was an independent contract and not an employer-employee relationship.

The Sharmas seized on the offhand statement Whatley made about ‘doing it if you can do it, ‘ and tried to conflate it into Whatley guiding the work. The court sorted things out, but a nice written agreement spelling out the relationship probably would kept Whatley out of court to begin with.

verbal150911Whatley v. Sharma, 291 Ga.App. 228, 661 S.E.2d 590 (Ga.App. 2008). Whatley hired a tree-cutting contractor to remove two trees from his yard for $1,100 to be paid on completion. The oral contract didn’t specify how the trees should be removed. The contractor arrived a week later with a “tree climber,” whom the contractor had hired in case they needed to fell the trees by cutting them into sections (also known as “topping off” the trees) as opposed to dropping the trees as an entire unit. They felled the first tree in one piece, and based on the tree climber’s recommendation, the contractor told Whatley that they intended to also cut down the second tree as an entire unit. Whatley responded, “[I]f you can do it, do it.”

But the second tree, located on a hill on Whatley’s property that sloped toward the nearby property line, twisted as it fell and toppled into the Sharmas’ yard, damaging their trees and outdoor fountain. The Sharmas argued that there was no way the second tree could have been cut down in one piece without damaging their property.

The Sharmas sued the contractor, arguing he was negligent in felling the tree as an entire unit rather than “topping off” the tree. The Sharmas also included Whatley as a defendant. Whatley moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was not responsible for the actions of the tree cutter, who was an independent contractor. His motion for summary judgment was denied, and he appealed.

job150911Held: The summary judgment was granted, and Whatley was dismissed from the suit. The Court started with the observation that under Georgia law, a person who engages an independent contractor is generally not responsible for any torts committed by the independent contractor. The reason for the rule is that since the employer has no right of control over the manner in which the work is to be done, it is regarded as the contractor’s own enterprise, and he, rather than the employer, is the proper party to be charged with the responsibility for preventing the risk, and administering and distributing it.

The Court said that the true test whether a person employed is a servant or an independent contractor is whether the employer, under the contract has the right to direct the time, the manner, the methods, and the means of execution of the work, or whether the contractor in the performance of the work contracted for is free from any control by the employer in the time, manner, and method in the performance of the work.

Here, the Court held, the unrefuted evidence shows that Whatley engaged a professional tree-cutting contractor for a clearly defined job: to remove two trees for a set price. As a homeowner inexperienced in such matters, Whatley provided no equipment or tools for the job and gave no instructions on how to take down the trees but rather (in the words of the contractor) gave him “freelance” to cut down the trees as he saw best. The contractor and his “tree climber” made the decision to cut down the second tree as an entire unit, based on the contractor’s belief that he could cause the tree to fall into Whatley’s yard alone.

The Sharmas argued that a single conversation between the contractor and Whatley showed that Whatley controlled the contractor’s actions. They claimed that Whatley’s statement, “if you can do it, do it,” in response to the contractor’s decision to take the tree down as an entire unit showed that Whatley was controlling the contractor’s actions. But the Court said this response merely proved that the contractor was free to cut down the tree as he saw fit: “Whatley was expanding, not contracting, the options available to the contractor to remove the tree, to whom was committed the discretion as to the final decision of the method of removal. At most, this was a suggestion or recommendation, and that it is not enough ….”

The Sharmas also contended that an exception to the “independent contractor” rule places liability on Whatley, because “[a]n employer is liable for the negligence of a contractor … [w]hen the work is wrongful in itself….” The Sharmas maintained that the felling of the second tree in one piece so close to their yard necessarily required trespass onto their yard and therefore was wrongful in itself. However, the Court said, the competent evidence showed that Whatley never told the contractor he could go onto the Sharmas’ property and that the contractor believed he could fell the tree without going onto their yard. Anyway, a landowner’s hiring someone to cut down a tree from his land is not wrongful in itself, even though the contractor ends up trespassing onto a neighbor’s yard.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Friday, December 29, 2017

RECKLESS ABANDON

Blink-182 – You have any daughters? Look what they could bring home ...

     Blink-182 – What fine-looking lads!  You have a daughter? Speaking of reckless, look what your she could bring home …

On and on, reckless abandon, something’s wrong, this is gonna shock them …” The velvet tones of Blink-182, so reminiscent of the Kingston Trio!

OK, not velvet tones, just teenage angst and a little toilet humor. But today’s protagonist might have had the punk rockers on his iPod while he was wielding his chainsaw with… well, with reckless abandon.

One day last winter, complains loyal reader Jeff of Maple Falls, Ohio, he went to work as usual. In the middle of the day, his neighbor called him to report that some tree cutters had cut the top 60 feet off his prize 75-foot tall silver maple tree. His neighbor, the kind of nice old lady who every kid in the ‘hood can’t stand, had carefully noted the name of the tree trimming service in a little spiral notebook. She gave the name to Jeff, and Jeff called them.

“Ha, ha,” the owner exclaimed, “what a gaffe! Boy, is our face red! We had an order to cut down a silver maple, and we went to the wrong house! Isn’t that just the funniest thing?”

Jeff didn’t think so. The owner sent a representative over to look at the forlorn 15-foot trunk still standing, admitted the crew had come to the wrong address, and offered $1,000 to forget the whole thing. But Jeff loved that tree, which shaded the house, nested squirrels and birds and provide a canopy for family picnics. Jeff’s arborist figured that replacement of the tree with the most comparable silver maple available would cost somewhere around $25,000.

Section 901.51 of the Ohio Revised Code lets an injured party collect treble damages from a party who “recklessly cut down, girdle, or otherwise injure a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree or crop growing on the land of another.” Jeff wondered whether the tree trimming service reckless, and whether his $25,000 might be tripled to $75,000. If it did, he might even afford a quick shopping trip through Whole Foods … that is, if he only buys 12 items or fewer.

The tree service owner was red-faced ... somehow, that didn't make Jeff feel much better.

The tree service owner was red-faced … but somehow, that didn’t make Jeff feel much better.

A person acts recklessly when, with heedless indifference to the consequences, he perversely disregards a known risk that his conduct is likely to cause a certain result or is likely to be of a certain nature. A person is reckless with respect to circumstances when, with heedless indifference to the consequences, he perversely disregards a known risk that such circumstances are likely to exist.

In Collins v. Messer, a woman hired a tree trimmer to clear some of her land. She told the trimmer to only clear to a fencerow, which she later said she believed was the property line. It was not, and the other property owner was unhappy. Mrs. Messer tried to settle with him, but things broke down and he sued.

The trial court found Mrs. Messer’s testimony about her mistaken belief that the fence marked the boundaries credible, as well as her statement that she told the trimmers not to go beyond the fence. Based upon those findings, the trial court determined that Messer’s actions were not reckless and she was not liable in treble damages under the statute. In assessing damages for the trespass, the court held that the measure of damage is the cost of reasonable restoration of property to the pre-existing condition or to a condition as close as reasonably feasible without requiring grossly disproportionate expenditures and with allowance for the natural processes of regeneration within a reasonable period of time.

What does this mean for Jeff? Whether the tree trimmer was reckless depends on what led him to the wrong house, and what steps he might have taken to verify the address. Cutting down a healthy 75-foot tall hardwood shade tree is a pretty final act, and industry standard is for the tree trimming employee who performed the estimate and pre-work inspection to be on-site when the work is begun. The irrevocability of cutting down a large tree on a residential lot in the city is such that the trimming company had to have understood the known risk that if the work was performed at the wrong house, the consequences would not be pretty.

One might think that the tree trimming company would want to settle this one for the cost of restoration, rather than roll the dice on whether it will have to pay treble that amount. It is pretty clearly liable for the blunder. When its best hope is to convince a jury that the blunder was just negligence, there isn’t much up-side in litigation. As Ronald Reagan once said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

Collins v. Messer, Case No. CA 2003-06-149 (Ct.App. Butler Co., June 14 2004) unpublished, 2004 WL 1301393 – Collins sued his neighbor, Messer, for having trees and vegetation removed from Collins’ residential property.

The rear of Collins’ home abuts the rear of Messer’s property in a residential subdivision. Mrs. Messer hired Wilson Garden Center to clear vegetation to an old farm fence, which she thought was a property line. She was not present when the Garden Center employees cleared the vegetation. Mrs. Messer had never met Mr. Collins, and she didn’t speak to him before the Garden Center performed the work. The vegetation, with the exception of a few trees, was cleared up to and beyond the farm fence at a time when neither party was at home. It turned out that Messer’s property line did not extend to the old farm fence and that most of the vegetation cleared was on Collins’ property. Mr. Collins testified that he was “devastated” when he learned of the destruction of the vegetation.

Collins and Messer split the $1,647.91 cost of hiring a landscaper to plant some pine trees in the area between the properties, but the relationship between the parties deteriorated during the year that followed. Finally, Collins sued Messer in trespass, seeking treble damages under O.R.C. §901.51.

Treble damages ... when

Treble damages … when “uh-oh” just isn’t good enough.

Held: The Court found that the evidence was sufficient to support finding that Mrs. Messer’s actions were not reckless, and thus Mr. Collins was not entitled to treble damages. She testified that she was mistaken that the fence constituted the boundary, and she never told the Garden Center workers to go beyond it. Mr. Collins had no evidence to rebut Messer’s claim of mistake, and the trial court may have been swayed by Mrs. Messer’s willingness to share the cost of the mistake before things deteriorated into a lawsuit.

Also, because the parties already had agreed on splitting the costs of planting replacement trees, Mr. Collins wasn’t entitled to additional trespass damages for loss of vegetation. In assessing damages for the trespass, the trial court held that the measure of damage is the cost of reasonable restoration of property to the pre-existing condition or to a condition as close as reasonably feasible without requiring grossly disproportionate expenditures and with allowance for the natural processes of regeneration within a reasonable period of time.

The appeals court agreed with the trial court that Mrs. Messer compensated Mr. Collins for his damages by paying $823.00 for the pines planted on Mr. Collins’ land.

– Tom Root
TNLBGray