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

TNLBGray140407

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.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, December 18, 2017

LET’S LEAVE GOD OUT OF THIS

AOGcartoon150828There’s plenty of talk about old-time religion around these days.  The Supreme Court just heard a case pitting religious freedom against anti-discrimation laws. The Virgin Mary and a sheep get into a tussle over Baby Jesus at a nativity scene. If there’s a lesson for us here, it’s that we shouldn’t try to enlist the Almighty too easily as justification for falling trees.

But the folks at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources are all too willing to overlook the separation of church and state when it’s especially convenient to do so. When one of ODNR’s decrepit cottonwoods fell on Mr. Vondrell’s seawall (or perhaps “lakewall,” because there’re only freshwater lakes in Ohio), the State said, “oops, an act of God.” The winds were blowing pretty fiercely that day, but the DNR figured that was enough to claim that the tree fell in a storm. Just a capricious Almighty, don’t you know? Which of course meant that the DNR wasn’t liable.

It may have been breezy, Mr. Vondrell countered, but the cottonwood that crushed his concrete wall fell because it was good and dead, and had been for a long time. Perhaps so, DNR responded, but we didn’t know it was dead.

The Court of Claims sided with Mr. Vondrell. An act of God has to be all God, the Court said. If the cause of the falling tree is aided at all by the agency of man, even the fact that the deadfall resulted primarily from an act of God won’t relieve a defendant from liability.

Still, for a defendant to be negligent, he, she or it had to be on actual or constructive notice of the hazard posed by the tree. Here, the fact that tree had been dead for over five years and DNR employees had been seen in the area of the tree was enough for the Court to conclude that DNR reasonably should have known about the defective tree.

So when there’s an act of God, it better be all God… and no man (or woman). 

cottonwood150828Vondrell v. Ohio Dept. Natural Resources, 2007 Ohio 7232, (Ohio Ct. Claims, Dec. 4, 2007), 2007 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 503. Mr. Vondrell had a seawall on his lakefront property. A cottonwood tree next door in a state park fell during a windstorm and damaged the concrete. The agency managing the park, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, argued that the damage was due solely to an “act of God,” the high winds that caused the tree to fall. Mr. Vondrell argued the damage-causing tree was dead, that DNR personnel had years of prior knowledge the tree was dead, and that DNR knew or should have known the dead tree presented a falling hazard. Photographic evidence showed the tree was clearly dead.

Mr. Vondrell argued the tree that fell was very tall and was dead when he had bought his adjacent property in 1999, five years before the collapse. Additionally, he said, DNR personnel were seen in the area around the dead cottonwood trees many times between 1999 and 2005. He contended his property damage was proximately caused by negligence on the part of DNR in maintaining a known hazard on park premises and not merely by high winds falling a healthy tree.

Mr. Vondrell sued in the Ohio Court of Claims, which has jurisdiction over claims against the State.

Held: DNR was negligent, and had to pay. The agency adduced all sorts of evidence as to high wind speeds on the day in question, but high winds alone do not an act of God make.

AOG150828It’s true, the Court said, that no liability can attach to an act of God. However, an act of God must proceed from the violence of nature or the force of the elements alone: the agency of man must have nothing to do with it.

The Court held that Mr. Vondrell proved that DNR had constructive notice of the condition of the tree. The tree stood dead for over five years, and DNR employees were seen around it often. Under Ohio law, the Court said, it wasn’t enough that DNR argued it didn’t know about the condition of the tree. It was on constructive notice of the condition of the tree.

In a situation such as this one, where two causes contributed to an injury, one cause which is a defendant’s negligence and the other cause an act of God, defendant may be held liable if a plaintiff’s damage would not have happened but for defendant’s negligence. If proper care and diligence on the part of DNR had avoided the act, it is not excusable as an act of God. Essentially, if DNR’s negligent act concurs with an act of God to cause damage, defendant cannot escape liability.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, December 15, 2017

WRITE ME UP A VERBAL CONTRACT

putt150827OK, what’s a little New York case about a miniature golf course construction contract doing on a tree law blog? It’s here as a cautionary tale …

A miniature golf operation called Oasis Park hired Bill Oberholtzer – who was both a miniature golf course owner and a mini golf course builder – to jazz up Oasis Park before the mini golf season started up in the Troy, New York, area. Disregarding the universally-accepted good practice in construction of starting with a nice, neat signed agreement setting out the scope of the work, payment terms, time to completion and other such details, the Oasis Park people and Bill pretty much sketched out their agreement on the back of a cocktail napkin. And that was a mistake.

Later, Oasis Park needed a more formal document in order to get its bank to release financing. Bill, of course, accommodated Oasis Park by signing one. You can guess what happened. When the parties’ working relationship soured, Oasis claimed that the accommodation document – and not the “cocktail napkin” – was the real deal between the parties covering the scope of the work. Bill countered that he had already been working for weeks, and the plans had changed.

You probably need a little more contract detail than you can fit on a napkin.

You probably need a little more contract detail than you can fit on a napkin.

Nevertheless, within six weeks after some fateful April 29 “thing” occurred — and even the Court couldn’t tell what the “thing” was — Oasis fired Bill amid claims that he hadn’t adhered to some nonexistent schedule, hadn’t provided workers, and hadn’t provided materials. For good measure, Oasis claimed that Bill’s work was substandard.

Bill naturally argued just the opposite, asserting that he couldn’t buy supplies because Oasis Park wouldn’t pay him. The whole mess ended up in federal court, where the Judge threw up his hands and said no one was getting summary judgment. The entire kerfluffle was going have to be sorted out at trial.

So now, let’s all grab our calculators and figure out how Bill saved by not wasting money on a lawyer preparing a contract with Oasis Park up front. Not much, we guess. And you arborists, tree trimmers, loggers and owners – let’s remember this: No contract, no winners.

sign150827Paone, Inc. v. Oberholtzer, Slip Copy, 2007 WL 2455074 (N.D.N.Y., Aug. 23, 2007). Oberholtzer agreed to provide all labor and materials necessary to remodel Paone’s miniature golf course. Beyond that fact, the parties could agree on nothing.

Paone said that under a contract dated April 29, 2004, Oberholtzer to build a bumper boat pond, including walls, docks, light fixtures, a cave, a filter system, a perimeter walkway, and a staging-area deck. As well, Paone said, the contract required Oberholtzer to renovate the course’s clubhouse entrance, the third hole, and the practice green. Paone said that under to the contract, Oberholtzer began working in May 2004, but its laborers did not show up for work, causing the project to fall behind schedule. To rectify the situation, Paone claims that it hired temporary workers.

Even with these outside laborers, the project did not move forward because Oberholtzer failed to provide supervision and direction. Paone said it had to supply all materials to the site and hire various construction professionals to inspect the work. Paone contended that these professionals found that Oberholtzer’s work violated building-code requirements and was below the industry standard. After the project had gone on about a month, Paone notified Oberholtzer that it was in default of the contract.

Oberholtzer, on the other hand, claimed that he reached an agreement to perform work for Paone well prior to April 29, 2004. Oberholtzer said he began preparatory work in March. The April 29th document, Oberholtzer contended, was merely an estimate prepared at Paone’s request,intended by both parties to help Paone get a bank loan released. The April 29, 2004, agreement was conformed to an earlier budget from the winter of 2003-2004, which Paone had submitted to the bank to support its initial loan application.

golf150827Consequently, Oberholtzer argued, the estimate did not reflect intervening changes of which both parties were aware, including a different location for the bumper boat pond, changes in site elevations for the clubhouse and parking lot which required alteration of a ramp and deck, and additional concrete walkways on the course.

Oberholtzer said, he had already made significant progress before April 29, 2004, including filling in traps, reconfiguring the practice green, removing an existing sidewalk near the old practice green, building a deck between the seventh and eighth holes, and removing fixtures and equipment from the old clubhouse. What’s more, Oberholtzer asserted, he had also cleared and trimmed trees for a new picnic area, built retaining walls for a walkout basement, constructed a deck attached to the clubhouse, erected bumper boat pond walls and skimmer baskets, and backfilled the pond.

As far as the schedule went, Oberholtzer argued that the April 29, 2004, document did not contain a schedule or other time-related requirements. Oberholtzer said that Paone knew Oberholtzer would be opening and operating his own miniature golf course in Georgia at the end of May. Therefore, Oberholtzer claimed, Paone knew that Oberholtzer would not be available to work on the project on a regular basis. Furthermore, Oberholtzer argued that several weeks of delay resulted from the actions of an unrelated contractor, who placed heavy equipment in the area of the future bumper boat pond. Also, he said, Paone failed to make timely payments to enable Oberholtzer to buy materials and to progress with the project. Finally, Oberholtzer complained that Paone approved all building plans, and that town building inspectors routinely inspected the progress and noted no building code violations.

Paone sued for breach of the contract and for negligence, and then moved for summary judgment.

obfus150827Held: Summary judgment was denied in this fact-laden morass. The Court observed that Paone’s causes of action for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing both required first that there be an enforceable contract with sufficiently definite terms. Here, the parties could not even agree on whether the document was a contract, let alone what its terms might be. Paone contended the document represents the parties’ complete agreement, but Oberholtzer asserted that the document was an estimate used solely for the purpose of obtaining funding. While Paone said that the time for performance commenced in May 2004, Oberholtzer alleged that it had already completed substantial portions of the project prior to that time.

What’s more, the Court found, reference to the April 29, 2004, document wasn’t helpful because it contained no details about the parties’ responsibilities or the construction schedule. The document was labeled “Spring 2004 Construction” and merely set forth the various projects and the price for each. In light of these disputes, the Court held, it could not determine whether an enforceable contract existed between the parties without evaluating the parties’ conflicting factual accounts. Moreover, on the basis of the April 29, 2004 document alone, the Court could not determine the construction schedule or the parties’ respective contractual responsibilities.

A trial would be necessary to straighten the whole mess out.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407