Case of the Day – Thursday, December 28, 2017

WRONGFUL TREES

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For all of the Latin phrases, hidebound traditions and libraries full of precedent, the law at its essence is nothing more than a codification of policies generally accepted by society. The law doesn’t always get it right – some laws aren’t carefully drafted, others do exactly what the legislature intended but pursue foolish or even repugnant policies – but by and large, the law tries to lay out rules for conduct based on policies generally accepted to be important.

Keeping an eye on the prize – the societal goals to be achieved – often helps courts from going overboard. It’s how the camel’s nose can be allowed into the tent without getting the whole camel in the process.

A good example of this is the “wrongful life” lawsuit. States all allow a “wrongful death” action, in which the survivors of someone killed, say, in a car accident or from medical malpractice sue for damages. This makes good sense. But in the last decade or so, some “wrongful life” suits have been brought, where – for example – a physician misdiagnoses, and tells prospective parent that their fetus is healthy, but the doctor is wrong. The child is born with severe birth defects. The “wrongful life” suit claims that but for the physician’s negligence, the child would have been aborted.

Very few courts have permitted such a lawsuit, for several very good public policy reasons. The first is that society does not recognizes, as a matter of policy, that anyone is better off not having been born, no matter how severe the burdens of congenital disability. Second, the whole idea of tort law is to place the injured party in the same position as he or she would have been in had the negligence not occurred. But for the negligence, the injured party wouldn’t have been born. What can be done to put a living plaintiff in that position, or ­for that matter, to compensate for having been born instead of never being?

And what would have made Ms. Lewis happy? Perhaps if the Krussels had only clearcut their property ...

Just what would have made Ms. Lewis happy? Perhaps if the Krussels had clearcut their property …

All right, that’s pretty heady stuff, but what does that have to do with tree law? Simply this: in today’s case, the plaintiff, Ms. Lewis, suffered having neighbors Gary and Nancy Krussel’s tree fall on her house. Her suit simply claim this: the tree fell on her house, the neighbors knew that they had a tree, therefore, the tree was a nuisance, and the neighbors were negligent in not keeping the tree from falling on the house. There was no evidence the Krussels had any inkling this particular hemlock was going to fall. There was no evidence any reasonable person would have had such an inkling. In fact, there was no evidence the tree was diseased or damaged. Reduced to its essence, Lewis’s claim was that the tree existed and the tree later fell, and those facts made it a nuisance. The tree was alive, the argument seems to say, and that fact wronged Ms. Lewis.

Fortunately, the Washington state courts made short work of this claim. Ms. Lewis was trying to advance a negligence claim as a nuisance claim, probably because she had no evidence of negligence. But, the courts ruled, public policy was not ready to declare a tree a nuisance merely because it was growing, nor was it prepared to hold that property owners were liable for what became of any naturally-growing, healthy trees on their land.

Without keeping one eye on public policy, the courts’ development of the law might go like this: First, landowners are responsible for damage caused by trees on their property that are diseased or damaged, and about which condition they are actually aware or reasonably ought to be aware. The next step would be courts ruling that owners must inspect their trees to avoid liability. Finally, landowners would be strictly liable for any damage caused by their trees, whether they were aware of a problem or not.

camelnose140310Largely, the law has stopped short of such a draconian rule, because the courts recognize that public policy favors the natural growth of trees, and eschews requiring property owners to devote substantial time and money to inspect trees, where there is no concomitant benefit to the public. By and large, courts have enough policy sense to let the camel’s nose into the tent while keeping the rest of the dromedary outside.

It is this kind of analysis that is illustrated in today’s case.

Lewis v. Krussel, 101 Wash.App. 178, 2 P.3d 486 (Ct.App. Wash. 2000). During a windstorm, two large healthy hemlock trees fell on Dawn Lewis’s house. She sued Gary and Nancy Krussel, who owned the property on which the trees had been growing.

Krussel acknowledged that windstorms had knocked down other trees on his property and other property nearby in previous years. About a week after the windstorm at issue here, another windstorm knocked a tree onto his mother’s mobile home. But the trees that damaged the Lewis house were natural growth, and Krussel had no reason to believe that they were any more dangerous than any other trees on his property under normal conditions. After the damage to the Lewis house, Krussel cut down other hemlock trees located near his house upon the recommendation of the local utility district.

After Lewis sued for nuisance and negligence, Krussel moved for summary judgment. He supported the motion with evidence from a professional forester who inspected the stump of one of the fallen trees and found no evidence of rot. The forester concluded the tree that fell on the Lewis house was no more dangerous than any other tree standing on the Krussels’ property, and there was no way for the Krussels to determine beforehand whether any one of their trees would fall over. The trial court dismissed the Lewis claim, and Lewis appealed.

Held: The appeals court upheld the dismissal of Lewis’s claim.

Sure Ms. Lewis's house was crushed ... but gravity did not turn the healthy tree that toppled onto her roof into a nuisance.

Sure Ms. Lewis’s house was crushed … but gravity did not turn the healthy tree that toppled onto her roof into a nuisance.

A homeowner is not obligated to remove healthy trees because they might topple in a storm. The Court of Appeals said just because a negligence claim was disguised as a nuisance suit didn’t mean that the trial court had to consider it as such. Instead, in situations where the alleged nuisance is a result of what is claimed to be negligent conduct, the rules of negligence are applied.

The elements of a negligence cause of action, of course, are (1) the existence of a duty to the plaintiff, (2) a breach of the duty, and (3) injury to plaintiff flowing from the breach of duty. An owner of property located in an urban or residential area who has actual or constructive knowledge of defects affecting his or her trees has a duty to take corrective action. However, the same is not the case when the tree is healthy. In that case, the owner does not have a duty to remove healthy trees merely because the wind might knock them down.

In this case, the Court agreed, there was no evidence that Krussel had any reason to believe that the hemlock trees posed a hazard, and a professional forester who had inspected the stump of the fallen tree had found that the tree was free of defects. The mere possibility of harm does not mean probability of harm.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Wednesday, December 27, 2017

WHEN THE GAS COMPANY COMES A CUTTIN’

We’ve told you before to beware of what lurks in the dark and malevolent corners of your deed. Today, we’re going to look at a cautionary tale.

No one really thinks about the wording of easements when the power company or the gas folks come by with some standard form clipped to a dollar bill. The utility reps tell you that it’s no big deal, because the language is standard, no one can change it, and anyway, all your neighbors have signed off on the same form, so what’s the big deal?

We’re not a public utility, so we’ll tell you what the big deal is. Or, better yet, show you.

Consider New Jersey. Please. Just for right now. In East Brunswick, New Jersey (motto: “We’re located at Turnpike Exit 9”), a gas transmission company had acquired an easement for a 3-1/2 foot wide natural gas transmission pipe through some unimproved land back in 1967. The property, once used for only for mob hits and toxic waste dumping (just kidding), was sold sometime after the easement was granted. At some point, a housing development was over a 42” high-pressure gas line the company had buried inside the easement.

The utility had always patrolled its pipeline, and it was well aware of the 19 oak trees growing along the street 40 inches above the pipe. But when new evidence showed that tree roots could cause catastrophic pipeline failures, the gas utility announced it intended to cut down the trees.

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And sometime, we retaliate by closing bridge lanes

The property owners, who probably had never bothered to read all of the boring stuff in their deeds that followed the “Know all Men by These Presents …” part, were outraged. They complained that the gas utility shouldn’t be allowed to cut the trees now, because it hadn’t ever bothered to before. This argument is called “laches,” based in the old legal maxim that “equity aids the vigilant.” Or, as some like to say, “Don’t sit on your rights.” The owners argued that the gas company had ever tried to remove the trees before, and – 40 years after obtaining the easement – it should not be allowed to do so now.

What’s more, the owners contended, the gas company couldn’t really prove the 19 trees were hurting anything.

Horrors! Imagine buying land subject to an easement, only to have the easement holder actually try to exercise the easement rights! As they say in New Jersey, “Oh, the humanity!” The gas utility carefully showed how new techniques had determined that tree roots could weaken high-pressure supply lines and in fact had caused some spectacular failures. The property owners could only muster an expert who opined that the tree roots in question probably wouldn’t grow that deep.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge. The gas company didn’t have to show that the tree roots were damaging the line, only that it had a reasonable basis for keeping roots away from its pipe. The evidence easily did that. As for the laches argument, the Court agreed that nonuse of an easement in New Jersey didn’t lead to loss of the right. Plus, the Court said, the gas company had a good reason for not seeking to remove the trees until it did, as science had only recently determined that tree roots and gas pipelines didn’t mix.

Township of East Brunswick v. Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Corp., Not Reported in A.2d, 2008 WL 2627688 (N.J.Super.A.D., July 7, 2008). Transcontinental (“Transco”) operates an interstate natural gas transmission system that runs from the southern Atlantic seaboard to New York City. One of its main lines, the Lower Bay Line, runs across East Brunswick and along Timber Road. This 42” high-pressure gas line was built in 1967.

When trees fall on power lines, the lights go off for a few hours. When gas transmission lines are breached by tree roots, the misadventure that follows is usually much more energetic.

When trees fall on power lines, the lights go off for a few hours. When gas transmission lines are breached by tree roots, the misadventure that follows is usually much more energetic.

Transco holds a 100’ wide easement for the pipeline pursuant to a right-of-way agreement “for the purposes of laying, constructing, maintaining, operating, repairing, altering, replacing and removing from time to time one or more pipelines … together with such other rights as may be necessary or convenient for the full enjoyment or use of the rights herein granted [including] the right to enter upon the right of way and easement … at such times as Grantee may elect … and the right from time to time to keep said right of way free from trees, undergrowth and all other obstructions that may endanger or interfere with the construction, operation and maintenance of Grantee’s pipe lines[.]”

The owner sold the property subject to the easement, and in the 1980s it was developed into a residential community of single family homes. The width of the easement covers the width of Timber Road, the sidewalks and portions of the residents’ front yards. The pipeline is buried 40” deep and runs along one side of the street in the public space between the sidewalk and the curb.

Nineteen shade trees were planted some time during the 1980s between the sidewalk and the curb, so that they are growing directly above the pipeline. Transco knew of the existence of these shade trees because it regularly inspected and monitored the pipeline. Natural gas pipelines must be properly maintained and monitored because any rupture can cause serious damage. Transco monitors the pipeline and has an extensive program for on-site inspection of the Lower Bay Line pipeline right of way. An inspector walks directly over the pipeline at least once a year to perform ground tests to determine if natural gas is leaking. The right of way is patrolled almost daily by vehicle and it is inspected once a week by air to determine if any unauthorized excavation is occurring in the area and to detect early signs of leakage.

Concerned about damage to the pipeline’s protective coating by tree roots, maintaining a clear line of sight along the pipeline, and preventing any delays in reaching the pipeline in an emergency, Transco tried to remove the 19 trees above the pipeline as part of a larger effort to remove trees above all of its pipelines in the area. The residents sued for a temporary restraining order enjoining Transco from removing the trees. Transco argued it had an absolute legal right to remove the trees under the right-of-way easement. Plaintiffs argued there was a genuine issue of material fact whether the trees endangered the pipeline, and whether their removal was reasonably necessary for Transco’s enjoyment of its easement right. No evidence was adduced that the tree roots were currently damaging the pipeline but there was evidence of potential harm.

A 2004 investigation revealed metal losses in the pipe walls ranging from 6% to 15% at various locations along Timber Road. Additional testing in 2005 uncovered pipeline coating defects or interruptions at some of the same locations where the metal anomalies were discovered, but neither inspection definitively determined that tree roots were the cause of the damage. Finding that Transco need not wait for actual damage to its pipeline before exercising its express easement rights, the judge concluded, “the record indicates that tree roots may damage the protective coating of the pipeline …. [and][f]urther, efforts to keep the protective coating of the pipe intact [are] part of the necessary maintenance program for a pipeline.” The judge also reasoned that while the pipeline’s path is marked with yellow markers, the presence of the trees detracts from the area’s appearance as a right of way and may lead to third party interference with the pipeline, one of the biggest causes of pipeline accidents. The court granted summary judgment for Transco and the plaintiffs appealed.

easement150908Held: Transco had the right to remove the trees. The Court said the primary rule of construction is that the intent of the conveyor is normally determined by the language of the conveyance read as an entirety and in the light of the surrounding circumstances. Here, the easement plainly and expressly gave Transco the right to remove trees when they may endanger or interfere with the construction, operation or maintenance of the pipeline. The language specifically stated the grantee had “the right from time to time to keep said right of way free from trees, undergrowth and all other obstructions that may endanger or interfere with the construction, operation and maintenance of Grantee’s pipe lines….” The easement also clearly gave Transco the right to remove trees if they interfere with Transco’s immediate access to the right of way. The plain language of the easement gave Transco the express right to remove trees and did not require actual damage to or interference with pipeline operations before the trees get cut. The easement permitted preventive action to avoid potential harm, disruption or interference with the operator’s pipeline.

The uncontroverted evidence showed that the pipeline and pipeline coating along Timber Road has been damaged, and although there was no proof the damage has been caused by tree roots, other sections of Transco pipelines and pipeline coating in New Jersey had been damaged by tree roots. The Plaintiff had no proof to the contrary, but instead their expert only posited that “the roots are not likely to interfere in any way with the pipeline;” the root systems are “generally non-invasive;” and root growth is “typically ” confined to the upper two to two-and-one-half feet beneath the ground surface. The proof didn’t foreclose the possibility that the tree roots may grow deep enough to interfere with the pipeline, as they had in other sections of Transco’s pipeline.

Plaintiffs also contended Transco was barred from taking affirmative action by the equitable doctrine of laches, because it waited so long to exercise its easement rights. But the mere non-use of an easement cannot destroy the rights granted by it. Rather, clear and convincing evidence of the intent to abandon the easement rights must be shown. In this case, there was no evidence that Transco intended to abandon its easement rights; therefore, any reliance placed by plaintiffs on Transco’s inaction was unreasonable. Also, there was reasonable justification for Transco’s inaction over the years, having been unaware of the potential danger of the tree roots at time of planting. The evidence showed that since the trees were planted, there have been three accidents nationwide related to the rupture of natural gas pipelines and three incidents in this State where Transco has discovered that tree roots have damaged pipelines. The Court said that the fact that action had not been taken earlier did not preclude preventive action now, nor require waiting for actual damage to occur.

Plaintiffs simply did not demonstrate how their interest in preventing the removal of the trees outweighed Transco’s taking preventive measures in the public interest.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, December 26, 2017

RECREATIONAL USE STATUTE AND NATURAL DEFECTS

It's hard to enjoy an idyllic sunset when you can't get to the lakeshore.

It’s hard to enjoy an idyllic sunset when you can’t get to the lakeshore. Recreational use statutes make it easier.

A landowner really has no natural incentive to let people freely enjoy his or her land. You have a nice pond and woods, and, being as you’re a nice person, you let the birdwatchers’ society wander around looking for the white-throated needletail. Next thing you know, one of them steps into a prairie dog hole, and you’re being sued.

But public policy is strongly in favor of getting people out to enjoy nature’s bounty (and to exercise, a good idea after yesterday’s multiple helpings of Christmas goose and figgie pudding). For that reason, virtually all states have passed some version of a recreational use statute. These statutes generally that a landowner only has a duty not to be grossly negligent to people using his or her unimproved land without charge for recreational activities. They are intended to encourage the opening of private land – unspoiled natural areas – for free recreational use by shielding landowners from liability for the most common forms of negligence.

Today’s case raises an interesting question under the Texas recreational use statute. In this case, the City of Waco had a park that included limestone cliffs. A boy was sitting on the cliffs when a portion collapsed, causing him to fall to his death.

A user might anticipate he could fall off a cliff – but not that it would give way.

A user might anticipate he could fall off a cliff – but not that it would give way.

The City argued it couldn’t be held liable under the statute, because it did nothing to cause the defect in the cliffs. The Court of Appeals agreed with the boy’s mother, however, that it wasn’t necessary for the landowner to cause the defect, if the defect was so latent, that is, hidden, that the recreational user would not reasonably be aware of it. That one might accidentally fall off a cliff was foreseeable, the court admitted. But it wasn’t open and obvious that the cliff one was sitting on would suddenly give way.

Because the defect wasn’t obvious, all the boy’s mother had to do was advance in her pleading some allegation of gross negligence. In her complaint, she argued that the City was aware others had been hurt by falling rocks, and it had reports warning of the danger of collapsing cliffs. Those reports recommended the City post warning signs, but it didn’t do so. The court said that those allegations were good enough to make out a claim under the recreational use statute.

Kirwan v. City of Waco, 249 S.W.3d 544 (Tex.App 2008). Debra Kirwan’s son, Brad McGehee, was sitting on the edge of Circle Point Cliff in Cameron Park, a park owned and operated by the City of Waco, when the ground beneath him gave way and he fell about 60 feet to his death. Kirwan brought a wrongful death suit against the City, alleging a premises defect.

A firefighter who responded to the scene of Brad’s fall testified that an average person would “probably not understand that the ground could give way underneath them.” The trial court threw out the suit, holding that Kirwan had not: (1) “alleged that the Defendant was grossly negligent in creating a condition that a recreational user would not reasonably expect to encounter in Cameron Park in the course of permitted use;” or (2) “raised a genuine issue of material fact. Kirwan appealed.

Held: The suit was reinstated and sent back for trial. Kirwan challenged whether Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code § 75.002(c)the state recreational use statute –requires that all premises defect claims be based on a condition created by the defendant, thus barring any claim based on the existence of a natural condition that the defendant happened to know about. Under the recreational use statute – intended to encourage landowners to open their property to the public for recreational purposes – a landowner’s duty to a user is no greater than that owed to a trespasser, the very limited duty to not injure anyone willfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence.

A few signs like this one might have saved the City of Waco a lawsuit – and spared a boy's life.

A few signs like this one might have saved the City of Waco a lawsuit – and spared a boy’s life.

The law is clear that a landowner has no duty to warn or protect trespassers from obvious defects or conditions. Thus, an owner may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river, or even a concealed rattlesnake. But the appeals court held that the recreational use statute permits claims based on natural conditions as long as the condition is not open and obvious, and the plaintiff furnishes evidence of the defendant’s alleged gross negligence. Here, the court said, the crumbling rocks and cracks on the cliff that gave way did not conclusively prove that the danger of the unstable cliff rock was open and obvious. Crumbling rock may alert the average person to the risk of slipping and falling, but certainly not that the ground will simply fall apart beneath him. The court ruled that unstable cliff rock is not necessarily an open and obvious condition that a person might reasonably expect to encounter.

To state a claim under the Texas recreational use statute, Kirwan had to allege sufficient facts to show that the City of Waco was grossly negligent. The pleadings need only provide a plain and concise statement of the cause of action sufficient to give the defendant fair notice of the claim involved. In her pleading, Kirwan alleged that the City was actually aware of the dangerous condition on the cliff, that other park patrons had died or been seriously injured by the condition of the cliffs, that the City received a report from its own expert warning of dangerous rock falls and advising the City to post signs warning of potentially fatal rock falls, and the City’s failure to do so, in fact, to warn or guard against this danger at all amounted to gross negligence.

The court agreed that Kirwan plainly alleged the City’s conduct amounted to gross negligence. The City’s complaint that the pleading didn’t allege that the City had created the condition was meritless: where a claim is based on hidden natural conditions, such as the structurally unstable cliff rock in this case, a plaintiff need not plead that the City was grossly negligent in creating a condition.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, December 21, 2017

BAD BLOOD

Go, Roughriders!

Go, Roughriders!

Yesterday, we addressed the first half of the question asked by alert sixth-graders at Western Reserve Elementary School (home of the Roughriders). Today, we look at another decision from the days of yore to gain a better understanding of the issue they raised: if your apple tree drops its apples in the neighbors’ yard, do you have the right to go on to their land to pick them up?

Remember these guys? They apparently had 19th century doppelgangers.

Remember these guys? They apparently had 19th century doppelgangers.

Neil Sedaka warned us about this kind of thing, although about 120 years too late for Newkirk and Sabler, the two actors in this little drama. It’s pretty clear from reading between the lines of this antebellum case that these neighbors loathed each other. Sabler told Newkirk to stay off his land, so Newkirk of course couldn’t resist having his guy cut across Sabler’s back 40 with a team of horses. Not to be outdone — sort of like a 19th century version of “Spy vs. Spy” — Sabler rebuilt the fence Newkirk’s man had taken down, but he nailed it in place. The hired hand couldn’t get the horses and wagon out of the field, so he left them on Sabler’s land and retrieved his boss. The boss returned and started tearing down the fence when Sadler arrived. Words flew, tempers flared, and fisticuffs ensued.

After Newkirk apparently won the fight and got his horses back, he sued Sadler for assault, intending to add insult to injury. But the court threw the last punch, holding that Newkirk had no right to enter onto Sadler’s land to get property he wrongfully put there to begin with, and Sadler had every right to bean Newkirk with a club (which he had done) to keep him off.

Relevant to the question we considered yesterday, the court differentiated between this case and other situations — including an apple tree owner’s apples falling on a neighbor’s land. When a fruit tree drops its bounty on the neighbor’s land, the tree’s owner cannot prevent it. The owner continues to own the fruit, the court observed, and he or she may enter the neighbor’s land without being deemed a trespasser to collect the fallen fruit.

Unfortunately, this much of the opinion is obiter dictum, unnecessary to the decision, and thus is of limited value as precedent. Nevertheless, kids, it’s the best we have. Sometimes the answers just aren’t all that clear.

horsewagon140218Newkirk v. Sabler, 9 Barb. 652 (Sup.Ct. N.Y. 1850). Newkirk had sent his servant with a team and wagon across the farm of the defendant — upon which he entered by taking down the bars — to a neighbor’s house, despite the fact that Sabler had forbidden Newkirk from crossing his lands. On his return of the team to the place where it had entered, the servant found the fence bars had been refastened by boards nailed over them. The servant couldn’t break through, so he left the team and wagon on the Sabler’s property, and returned to Newkirk’s to tell him what had happened. Newkirk went with his servant to the fencerow, and started tearing down the fence to get his team and wagon out. Sabler arrived on the scene and forbade Newkirk from taking down the fence, and when Newkirk continued, Sabler beat on him with a pole and a fight ensued between the parties. Newkirk finally got the fence down removed his team, and then — to add insult to injury — sued landowner Sabler for assault. At trial, the judge instructed the jury that although Newkirk’s team and wagon were wrongfully on Sabler’s land, it was Newkirk’s duty and right to get them off with the least possible injury to the premises, and that Sabler was not justified in using violence to prevent him from removing his team from the premises. The jury found for Newkirk. Sabler appealed.

Held: Newkirk had no right to enter onto Sabler’s land to reclaim his horses, and Sabler had a right to defend his possession against Newkirk’s tearing down the fence, and to use as much force as was necessary to prevent Newkirk from entering the property. The court held that an owner of personal property that is being detained on the land of another — if he cannot obtain peaceable possession of it — may only bring suit in court to regain his property. Of interest, however, is the recognition in this early decision of a number of circumstances where the owner of a chattel — that is, personal property — may enter on the land of another without being found to be a trespasser.

appletree140217 A landlord’s right to inspect the premises to ensure the tenant is not engaged in waste is one example. Others include a sale of land with a reservation of the timber rights, or if one enters the land of another to prevent the landowner’s livestock from dying, or because the public highway is blocked and he must get around the blockage. And the court held “If my tree be blown down and fall on the land of my neighbor, I may go on and take it away. And the same rule prevails where fruit falls on the land of another. But if the owner of a tree cut the loppings so that they fall on another’s land, he cannot be excused for entering to take them away, on the ground of necessity, because he might have prevented it.”

In this case, the court held, Newkirk’s horses and wagon were on Sabler’s lands where they had been left by Newkirk’s servant. They were not there with Sabler’s permission. Instead, Newkirk had been guilty of a trespass in sending his team across Sabler’s lands after he had been forbidden to do so. And Sabler had the right to detain them before they left the premises, and it was not necessary to decide, whether the defendant detained the property rightfully or wrongfully. If Newkirk could not regain the possession of his property peaceably, his only choice was to sue.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A NICE DAY FOR A FROLIC

apple_tree140217Seems like not so long ago, a class of sharp-witted grade school students at Western Reserve Elementary School asked us a question, one which seemed simple but is deceptively complex. Inquisitive kids that they are, they wanted to know whether it would be an act of theft for the owner of an apple tree to go onto neighboring property to retrieve apples fallen from the owner’s tree.

Turns out it’s a darn good question. Not much has been decided on this, requiring us to read an 1870 New York case for an answer. In that decision, a logger lost his logs in a flood. They came to rest on the riverbank, making a mess of the riverbank owner’s land. A fast talker convinced the log owner to let him negotiate with the landowner, pay the guy’s damages and retrieve the logs. He made a deal with the landowner and hauled the logs away, but he never made the promised payment. The Court ordered the logger to pay the damages, holding that the owner of property that ends up on the lands of another has a choice: abandon the property and have no liability to the landowner, or retrieve the property and pay for any damages caused by the property’s coming to rest.

Of interest to our intrepid 6th graders (after whether they have to eat that healthy gluten-free, meat-free, taste-free lunch) was this: the Court noted in passing that it was settled law that one whose fruit falls or is blown upon his neighbor’s ground doesn’t lose ownership, but instead “may lawfully enter upon the premises to recapture his property.”

There you go, sixth grade! Who says adults don’t listen to you? And as for the rest of us, isn’t it curious how contrary the holding is to the Massachusetts Rule of self-help, that was handed down some 55 years later? And at the same time, isn’t it interesting how consistent the New York court’s decision is with the North Dakota Supreme Court opinion in Herring v. Lisbon, that the portion of the tree overhanging a neighbor’s land still belongs to the tree’s owner, thus imposing on the owner a duty to ensure that the tree does not cause harm.

Sheldon v. Sherman, 3 Hand 484, 42 N.Y. 484, 1870 WL 7733 (Ct.App.N.Y. 1870), 1 Am.Rep. 569. Sherman’s logs were swept away in a spring flood on the Hudson River, coming to rest on Sheldon’s property where — Sheldon complained — they caused great damage. A third party, Mayo Pond, told Sherman he’d pay Sheldon’s damages, have the logs cut into lumber and deliver the boards to Sherman for a set fee. But then the double-dealing Pond told Sheldon he was agent for Sherman in settling the damages, and that Sherman would pay the damages agreed upon. This was news to Sherman, who refused to pay the damages because he already had a deal with Pond that Pond would pay. Landowner Sheldon sued log owner Sherman for the agreed-upon damages, and the trial court found for Sheldon. Sherman appealed.

upcreek140217Held: Sherman was up a creek without a paddle. The Court of Appeals — New York’s highest court — held that Sherman had a choice. One whose property ends up on the lands of another by an inevitable accident (such as a flood), without the owner’s fault or negligence, may elect either (1) to abandon the property, in which case he is not liable to the landowner for any injury caused by the property; or (2) to reclaim it, in which case he is obligated to make good to the landowner the damages caused by the property. Here, once Pond agreed with Sherman that he’d settle with the landowner and retrieve the logs. Pond’s authority from Sherman to remove the logs was clear, whatever his right to promise payment might have been. Thus, the law implied the existence of a promise by the log owner to pay damages.

The waters receded, but the logs were everywhere ...

The waters receded, but the logs were everywhere …

Of interest in the decision is the Court’s discussion of what it called “a large class of cases” in which injury is suffered by a party, but the law gives no redress. The Court said, “If a tree growing upon the land of one is blown down upon the premises of another, and in its fall injures his shrubbery, or his house, or his person, he has no redress against him upon whose land the tree grew. If one builds a dam of such strength that it will give protection against all ordinary floods, the occurrence of an extraordinary flood by which it is carried away, and its remains are lodged upon the premises of the owner below, or by means whereof the dam below is carried away, or the mill building is destroyed, gives no claim against the builder of the dam.” In this case, the Court said, the logs were carried down the river and deposited on Sheldon’s land without fault on the part of the defendant. Thus, Sherman was not responsible for damages, and a promise by him to Sheldon to make it good would be unenforceable.

If Sherman chose to abandon his property, he had the right so to do and no one could call him to account. He was not compelled, however, to abandon it, but had the right to reclaim it. The Court said the case was “like one whose fruit falls or is blown upon his neighbor’s ground, the ownership is not thereby lost, but the owner may lawfully enter upon the premises to recapture his property. When he does so reclaim or recapture, his liability to make good the damage done by his property arises. He then becomes responsible. Before he can reclaim or recapture the property thus astray, justice and equity demand that he should make good the injury caused by its deposit and its continuance.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Tuesday, December 19, 2017

WHEN IS FEE SIMPLE NOT SIMPLE?

Potatotruck140220Nothing light today, boys and girls. We have work ahead of us. Sure, Christmas vacation is upon us, and we all have visions of sugarplums dancing in out heads. But as that great educator M.C. Hammer once said, “Yo, sound the bell, school is in, sucker …

So listen up. When land is conveyed from one party to another without any limitations whatsoever, the conveyance is done in “fee simple absolute,” or just “fee simple” for short. The conveyance usually says that the land is conveyed “unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever,” or words to that effect.

At the time the railroad came through a part of Idaho (think “Famous Potatoes”) in the late 19th century, a lot of landowners thought they were conveying their land to the railroad in fee simple. But their deeds had not just the magic “fee simple” language, but also a “habendum clause.” A “habendum clause” is a clause in a deed that defines the extent of the interest being granted and any conditions affecting the grant.

Legal mumbo-jumbo? Not when the facts changed.

Legal mumbo-jumbo? Not when the facts changed.

In the case of the Idaho deeds, the conveyance language transferred title to the railroad “to have and to hold all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances as a perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever.” Yeah… yadda, yadda, yadda, how lawyers like to natter on and on… None of this gibberish seemed important for a century, during which time the trains puffed up and down the track. But when the rail line was torn up, suddenly the old documents became very interesting.

Under the National Trails System Act, the government can convert an old railroad right-of-way into a recreational trail without the rail line being deemed to be abandoned. That’s what happened in Idaho. But some of the landowners whose properties were transected by the abaondoned right-of-way, talked to a smart lawyer. She said, “these old documents aren’t deeds, they’re just easements for a railroad.” That was an important distinction: the easements weren’t for the benefit of some granola-munching hikers, but rather for rolling stock.

The Federal Court of Claims had a tough task. The Idaho Federal District Court had already ruled that such deeds were conveyances in fee simple, which meant that the owners who abutted the railroad had no means of reclaiming the land. The problem was that the interpretation of the deeds was a matter of Idaho law, and the Idaho Supreme Court had never reached the precise issue. The Court of Claims carefully parsed other Idaho decisions and decided that, based on its treatment of other cases, the Idaho Supreme Court would rule — if it had been asked to  — that the references in the deeds to the “perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line” limited the purpose of the conveyance, and therefore made the deed a grant of a mere easement, not perpetual ownership.

With two federal courts disagreeing on what Idaho jurists would say if asked, it’s likely that the state courts themselves ultimately will have to resolve the issue by ruling definitively on the question.  They have not done so yet.

Abandoned right-of-way

Abandoned right-of-way

Blendu v. United States, 79 Fed.Cl. 500 (2007). Owners of land abutting or traversing an abandoned railroad right-of-way contested the government’s using the right-of-way as a recreational trail pursuant to the National Trails System Act, claiming that the government’s action effected a taking of their property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The predecessor landowners had deeded land to the railroad about a hundred years before, with deeds that contained language in the granting clauses that convey all estate, right, title and interest in the property to the railroad, but also contained habendum clauses “to have and to hold all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances as a perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever.” Under the Act, the government could convert abandoned railroad rights-of-way to trails without the use constituting an abandonment of the right of way. However, Blendu and the plaintiff property owners argued that under their deeds, they had really just given easements – not a deed in fee simple – and the cessation of rail service did not permit the government to use the easement of a trail. They moved for summary judgment in the U.S. Court of Claims, and the government cross-moved for summary judgment, arguing that the deeds were a conveyance of the property in fee.

Held: Under Idaho law, a deed which contained a granting clause which quitclaimed certain real estate to the railroad and a habendum clause stating that railroad held the real estate “as a perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever,” the deed only conveyed an easement and not fee simple title.

The easement was for rolling stock, not for Birkenstocks.

The easement was for rolling stock …

... not for Birkenstocks.

… not for Birkenstocks.

The Court said that the use of the term “right of way” in the habendum clause unambiguously reflected an intention to convey an easement, overcoming Idaho’s statutory presumption in favor of a fee simple interest. The Court of Claims concluded the distinction between the granting clause and the habendum clause had not been made by the Supreme Court of Idaho, but the Court of Claims believed that the Idaho Supreme Court cases found the presence of the term “right of way” in any substantive part of the deed to be determinative. The deeds in this case contained the term “right of way” in the habendum clause, thus unambiguously reflecting an intention to convey an easement and overcoming Idaho’s statutory presumption in favor of a fee simple interest.

As further evidence of the conveyance of an easement, the Court said, the deeds contained a designation for use of the right of way for the Railroad’s “railway line.”

The easement was for rails, not trails.

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