Case of the Day – Friday, July 6, 2018



One of the many badges that marks us as curmudgeons, according to a recent book, is our preoccupation with proper language. Sure, we used the current slang, “just sayin’, yesterday, but we trust you recognize irony when it smacks you in the face.

We are not ashamed to admit that our gorge rises when people say “irregardless” when they mean “regardless,” say “affect” when they mean “effect,” or use “like” every third word or so. And don’t get us started about made-up nonsense like “Mx.” As far as we’re concerned, “MX” will always be a missile program.

But what metaphorically drives us batty is the casual and improper use of the word “literally.” The word means “actually” or “without exaggeration.” Believing as we do that the widespread devaluation of like every corner of the English language is like literally going to send us to hell in a handcart, we were surprised to see that today’s case ­– well over 50 years old – featured a witness describing “literally thousands of bees inside the trunk” of the decayed tree.

We were fascinating that, with such a swarm pursuing him, the witness took the time to count the bees, at least until he passed 2,000. That took nerves of steel. Literally.

Beyond our disquiet over the witness’s imprecise and flawed language, we were interested in the application of both Hay v. Norwalk Lodge No. 730, B.P.O.E., 92 Ohio App. 14, 109 N.E.2d 481 (Supreme Court, Ohio, 1951) and Brandywine Hundred Realty Co. v. Cotillo, 55 F.2d 231 (3rd Cir. 1951). While those decisions – which we’ve discussed recently here and here – related to injury to passing motorists, the court here couldn’t see any practical difference between the landowner’s duty to a motorist and to a parked car. Furthermore, it found that the tree was so obviously dead and dangerous that the landowner was chargeable with knowing about its condition, although he’d only owned the property for a few weeks.

How many bees? Literally thousands ...

How many bees? Literally thousands …

The court said that a few weeks was not so legally insufficient a period time for him to have gotten over and inspected the place that the factfinder was wrong for finding him liable.

The trend here is clear: the law was moving toward holding that a property owner had an affirmative duty to inspect the land. Actual or constructive knowledge wasn’t enough. The absentee owner should have done a drive-by, the court decided by implication. And thus, the evolution of a requirement that an owner affirmatively care for his or her property continued.

Turner v. Ridley, 144 A.2d 269 (Ct.App.D.C. 1958). Turner owned a house facing a street on which automobiles were regularly parked. The small front yard featured a single large tree. On a fall evening, Ridley’s friend parked Ridley’s car at the curb in from of Turner’s house. Early the next morning, with no inclement weather to blame for the event, the tree toppled and fell across the sidewalk, striking Ridley’s car.

At the time the tree fell, according to the man who had parked Ridley’s car – a man named Reid ­– the tree ‘was rotten and looked like it was dead and had very few leaves on it.’ and on the night before it fell he had remarked to a friend ‘that tree looks like it is going to fall some day.’ The tree in falling broke off even with the ground, and then it was observed that the tree was hollow and badly decayed with ‘literally thousands of bees inside the trunk.’

Turner testified he had purchased the property through an agent at a foreclosure sale a month before the mishap, that the property had been vacant since he purchased it, that he had never seen the property or the tree, and that he had no notice or knowledge that the tree was in a dangerous or rotten condition. The trial court awarded judgment to Ridley for the damages he sustained.

Turner appealed.

Held: Turner was liable for the damage to Ridley’s car. While prior cases diverge somewhat, the Court found the Ohio decision in Hay v. Norwalk Lodge No. 730, B. P. O. E., instructive, holding that “an owner having knowledge of a patently defective condition of a tree which may result in injury to a traveler on a highway must exercise reasonable care to prevent harm from the falling of such tree or its branches on a person lawfully using the highway.”

Knowledge could either be actual or, as held in Brandywine Hundred Realty Co. v. Cotillo, constructive, “if such condition was known or by the exercise of ordinary care could have been known by the defendant.”

The car was the first casualty ... but not the only one.

The car was the first casualty … but not the only one.

The Court admitted that Hay and Brandywine dealt with personal injuries to travelers on the highway, but it observed that there is “no distinction in principle between the case of personal injury to one lawfully traveling on a highway and the case of property damage to a vehicle lawfully parked on the highway.” The issue was whether the owner – who had only owned the property for a few weeks and who had never seen it before – could be charged with constructive knowledge of the tree’s condition. There was no question that the tree was obviously dangerous and quite dead. The Court acknowledged that “[a] three-week period is no great length of time, but we cannot rule that such period was legally insufficient time for appellant to look over his property and observe the condition of the tree and take steps to prevent its fall. We think the evidence presented a factual question as to notice and lack of care.”

“Hard cases are the quicksands of the law,” as an old maxim put it. Here, the intersection of an absentee owner, an obviously defective tree, a fairly minor damage bill, a colorful witness and lack of any defense by Turner, combined to bring about a holding that imposed additional duties on a landowner.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Thursday, July 5, 2018


We all have some sense of what kind of conduct is reckless. At least, to channel the late Justice Potter Stewart, we’re pretty good at knowing it when we see it. Riding a motorcycle into a wall at 100 mph while drunk? Yeah, probably reckless. Standing on a ledge at the top of a skyscraper for a selfie? You bet. Lying between railroad tracks while a train passes? We’ll give you that one, too.

But when the law uses the term “reckless,” in fact when the law adopts any standard, the term has to have a specific definition. If not, laws punishing conduct that did not meet the standard would be arbitrary (as well as falling short of their goal of causing people not to be reckless in the conduct of their affairs).

Sorry, Justice Stewart, “knowing it when [you] see it” is trenchant, but it’s not a good way to regulate conduct.

In today’s case, a Buckeye State classic, a car repair business trespassed on a neighboring business’s land to hack away at some spruce trees. The car repair manager thought the trees belonged to his company, but his belief – which flew in the face of the facts – was so heedless of the consequences that the court found him reckless.

We have seen worse cases called mere negligence, and we cannot discount that the trial court in this case was influenced by the extent of the damage to the “visual barrier” between the professional building (populated with the offices of  lawyers, doctors and engineers) and the seamy oil-change-and-lube joint next door.

“Recklessness” let the trial court grant treble damages under Ohio law to the office building owner. Unsurprisingly, recklessness is what the trial court found. Maybe cynicism is creeping into our analyses as we age (we prefer the expression “as we get wiser”), but if the real estate owner had made the same unsupported surmise about the grease monkey’s trees, we suspect his misfeasance would be found to fall somewhere short of “reckless.”  Just sayin’.

ALH Properties, P.L.L. v. Procare Automotive Service Solutions, LLC, Case No. 20991, 2002-Ohio-4246 (Ct.App. Summit Co., Aug. 21, 2002) 2002 Ohio App. LEXIS 4412. ProCare and ALH were adjoining landowners. ALH had an office building on its property, and ProCare operated an auto repair facility. Between the two properties stood a row of large Norway spruce trees, providing a visual buffer between the two businesses. The trees are on ALH’s property, although some of the branches extend over ProCare’s property. ProCare cut branches off of the lower ten feet of the spruce trees, destroying the visual buffer. The branches will not grow back.

ALH sued, alleging reckless injuring of the trees under Ohio Revised Code 901.51. The trial court entered judgment against ProCare for $34,200.

ProCare appealed.

Held: ProCare was liable to ALH.

Do you see any recklessness here?

Section 901.51 of the Ohio Revised Code provides that “[n]o person, without privilege to do so, shall recklessly cut down, destroy, girdle, or otherwise injure a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree, or crop standing or growing on the land of another… “In addition to a criminal, the statutes subjects a violator to treble damages for the injury caused.

The Court held that as used in the statute, the term “recklessly” has the same meaning in a civil claim for treble damages as it does in a criminal proceeding for violation of the statute. 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.

The Court acknowledged that a privilege exists at common law for a landowner to cut off branches of an adjoining landowner’s tree that encroached on his land. But here, ProCare trimmed not just branches of the trees that faced its property, but also branches facing ALH’s property as well. ALH’s president testified he had not given anyone permission to trim the trees, and that he had previously trimmed branches that hung over his parking area and had removed one of the trees entirely because it died.

ALH offered a videotape its president had made on the day ProCare trimmed the trees, which included his running commentary on the damage done to the Norways, and the property line marker – a large post – was clearly visible. Pictures taken both before and after ProCare trimmed the branches were admitted into evidence. ProCare stores old tires, oil cans, and a dumpster in the area near the trees, and the photos showed how the trees had created a visual buffer from ProCare’s property and alleviated some traffic noise.

Martin Long, a ProCare manager, testified he thought the spruce trees were on ProCare’s property and that he assumed the trees were ProCare’s because “nobody ever took care of them.” He said he trimmed other branches hanging over ProCare’s property on two previous occasions with no negative consequences. While he admitted that on one occasion, one of the Norways, which was dying, had been removed by someone other than a ProCare worker. However, he pointed out, in the spring ProCare would mulch the trees, and no one ever told him that the trees were not on ProCare’s property.

Long believed that only limbs that faced a direction other than toward ALH’s property were cut off. He said that when Myers approached him about ProCare trimming the trees, it was the first indication he had that the trees were not on ProCare’s property. Long admitted that when the spruce that was dying was removed, he did not know who removed it, but he did know that he, personally, had not directed anyone to remove it, nor did he have to pay for its removal. He stated that he thought ALH had removed it because of the risk it posed to ALH’s buildings.

The trial court found that the removal of the tree branches was reckless because Long had reason to know facts that would lead a reasonable person to question whether the trees belonged to ProCare. The trial court held that that the complete removal of a large spruce tree in this row of trees at no expense or trouble to ProCare was an indication that ProCare did not own the trees nor were they responsible for maintaining them. The trial court also noted that Long’s testimony that the only branches cut were those which overhung ProCare’s property was disputed by the videotape and photographs which clearly showed other branches were cut that did not overhang ProCare’s property.

The Court of Appeals found that the trial court’s conclusion that ProCare was reckless was not against the weight of the evidence. The Court held adequate evidence showed ProCare disregarded a known risk with heedless indifference to the consequences when it trimmed branches of trees that were clearly on ALH’s property.

ProCare also argued the trial court’s calculation of damages is against the manifest weight of the evidence.

ALH’s president testified that soon after ProCare trimmed the trees, he contacted two landscaping companies to install arborvitae to replace the barrier. A landscaper submitted a quote for $3,850 to plant 35 arborvitae, although he said planting arborvitae was inadvisable. He also said it was impractical to replace the spruce trees with ones of a similar size, given their 60-foot height. The landscaper provided a separate quote of $18,923 to remove the spruce trees, grind the remaining stumps, and plant a row of Colorado spruce.

A different a landscape contractor testified for ProCare, and said $3,750 to plant a row of arborvitae was appropriate, and that the shrubs would provide an adequate screening between the properties. He quoted $12,200 to remove the Norway spruce, grind the stumps, and plant Colorado spruce. He thought, however, that Colorado spruce would not provide an adequate barrier because they cannot be pruned properly. He recommended planting White Pine instead, because White Pine can be pruned and trimmed more easily than the spruce. His estimate to plant a row of White Pine was $11,400.

The trial court found that the best solution to replace the visual screening between the two properties was to replant trees, but that planting Colorado spruce was a disproportionate expense. It ruled that White Pine was a reasonable tree type for restoration, and awarded damages of $11,400. The amount was trebled pursuant to O.R.C. 901.51, for a total award of $ 34,200.

The court of appeals held that the trial court’s decision was reasonable.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, July 2, 2018


Rarely (as in “I don’t recall when I’ve ever said this before”) do I caution that the prevailing law in any particular state is wrong, and likely to be cruisin’ for a bruisin’ the next time an appellate court has to think about it. But I feel comfortable issuing that warning about today’s case.

From Ohio (home of rock ‘n roll, pro football, the first guy to walk on the moon, the brothers who turned a bicycle into the first airplane, and a ton of other cool things), comes a very recent case that pretty much runs smack into Fancher, Herring, the Hawaii Rule, and a raft of other cases reflecting the modern view that a homeowner whose tree is wreaking havoc on the neighbor’s property may be ordered by a court to fix the damage at his expense.

To be fair, this case may be proof of the old legal aphorism that “hard cases make bad law.” Even the most cursory reading of the facts suggests that Dave Rababy may well have been a horse’s ass, hounding his neighbor because a tree dropped leaves and twigs on his property. Speaking as a guy who owns all of my five southerly neighbors’ leaves every fall – and these things are the size of dinner plates – I understand how it can be irritating to have other peoples’ leave on your lawn. But I would never sue them over it.

Dave had no such compunction, and his emesis of woe delivered to the court made him the boy who cried wolf. He howled so loudly about leaves and twigs and that his trimming crew was not allowed to trespass on Roy’s property and hack away at the offending tree, and minutiae of a similar nature, that his real complaint – his driveway was being heaved and foundations dislodged by the roots – got lost in the underbrush. In Fancher, Whitesell and even Iny, such damage was enough to get the neighbor’s tree declared a nuisance. If Dave had exercised a little plaintiff self-control, he might have gotten there, too.

We are too urban and too suburban, and our properties are too developed for the Massachusetts Rule to be the exclusive remedy for genuine harm done by a neighbor’s tree. That is the way the law is trending in the civilized world, and it is bound to reach Ohio sooner or later.

Rababy v. Metter, 30 N.E.3d 1018 (Ct.App. Cuyahoga Co., 2015). David Rababy and Roy Metter were next-door neighbors. Dave’s driveway abutted Roy’s property in certain places and nearly abuts in others. A fence separated the properties, and a stand of mature trees ran along the fence on Roy’s side of the boundary line.

Dave sued Roy for negligence, nuisance, trespass, and interference with a business contract. Dave asserted that trees at the edge of Roy’s property extended over his own property, and dropped leaves, needles, sap, and branches onto his car and home, and that some of the trees were rotten. He said the trees cast shadows over his property and cause mold growth on his roof, as well as damaged his driveway and foundation.

Dave complained he had a company to trim the overhanging branches, but Roy’s daughter prevented the unnamed landscape service company from properly performing this work. The complaint alleged the trees constituted an ongoing nuisance and trespass and that Roy negligently maintained the trees. Dave asked for $52,500: $37,000 for future tree trimming services and $15,000 in compensatory damages.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Dave argued that on “an ongoing basis, Roy’s trees encroach onto my property, specifically over my home and driveway. His trees deposit leaves, debris, and sap onto my property, causing damage.” Dave also repeated the claim about Roy’s daughter running off the tree trimmers.

Roy argued that he owed no duty to Dave to trim otherwise healthy trees on his property. He claimed the trees were mature and preexisted either party’s ownership of the property. He said that a year before, Dave hired Cartwright Tree Service to trim the row of pine trees that ran along the driveway. He said no one complained when Cartwright trimmed the overhanging branches from Dave’s property free, but when Cartwright began trimming branches and trees back further than the property line, Roy’s daughter objected. Roy said that he has no objection to Dave trimming the overhanging branches back to the property line.

Dave replied with new allegations that the trees in question were decaying or dead. Attached to the reply was a new affidavit that averred that the trees were decaying and dangerous and that one had fallen on his property. He included a picture of a tree that appears to have fallen across a driveway. However, the affidavit was neither signed nor notarized.

The trial court granted Roy’s motion for summary judgment, and denied Dave’s. Dave appealed.

Gen. Robert E. Lee knew something about duty … and even he couldn’t have found that Roy owed one to Dave.

Held: Roy owed Dave no duty, so the trial court’s dismissal of the case was upheld.

In order to succeed in a negligence action, the Court said, Dave must demonstrate that Roy owed him a duty, that Roy breached the duty, and that he suffered damages that proximately resulted from Roy’s breach. Here, Dave offered evidence that falling pine needles, leaves, sap, and sticks have damaged his car, driveway, and roof. He also alleges, without evidentiary support, that encroaching tree roots damaged his driveway and home.

While he showed damage, Dave was unable to show that Roy owed him any duty. A landowner is generally not responsible for the losses caused by the natural condition of the land. Instead, the Court observed, states generally allow one impacted by such growth the remedy of self-help. A privilege existed at common law, such that a landowner could cut off, sever, destroy, mutilate, or otherwise eliminate branches of an adjoining landowner’s tree that encroached on his land. But, the Court said, whether a separate remedy exists is an open question.

The Massachusetts Rule provides that in almost all circumstances, the sole remedy for damages resulting from the natural dropping of leaves and other ordinary debris from trees is the common law remedy of self-help. The rule does provide a limited exception for dead trees, just as Ohio has established a duty for urban landowners of reasonable care relative to the tree [hat overhangs a public street, including inspection to make sure that it is safe.” Where constructive or actual knowledge of an unreasonably dangerous condition exists on the land of an urban landowner, such as a dead tree, the duty prong of a negligence claim may be satisfied.

The reasoning set forth in support of the Massachusetts Rule, the Court said, is apt to the facts of this case: “[T]o grant a landowner a cause of action every time tree branches, leaves, vines, shrubs, etc., encroach upon or fall on his property from his neighbor’s property, might well spawn innumerable and vexatious lawsuits.” The Court thus adopted the Massachusetts Rule as the law of this jurisdiction.

But Dave also argued that in Ohio a “landowner in an urban area has a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm to others from decaying, defective or unsound trees of which such landowner has actual or constructive notice.” Dave contended Roy’s trees were in such a defective condition and thus constituted a nuisance. Dave also argued that Roy, an urban landowner, had a duty to inspect his trees and protect others from a dangerous condition created by any unsound trees. Even if such a duty existed, the Court said, it only is breached when the owner has actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition.

Leaves – often a pain in the arse, but seldom a nuisance

The Court held that Dave put forth no evidence that any of the trees constituted a dangerous condition of which Roy was aware or should have been aware. He presented no any evidence that the trees are dead, decaying, or unsound, and cited no case holding that “the normal yearly life-cycle of a tree and the natural shedding of leaves, twigs, and sap constituted a nuisance. Thus, he provided no compelling justification for a court to hold that Roy’s trees case constituted a nuisance or a dangerous condition. The problems Dave had experienced with the trees “are the natural consequence of living in an area beautified by trees. Dave’s remedy is to trim tree limbs that overhang his property back to the property line, to which Roy averred he has no objection.”

The trees at issue in this case do not constitute a nuisance, and Roy is not negligent in regard to them.

Dave also asserted that the trees on Roy’s property constituted a trespass. But the elements of a successful trespass claim include an unauthorized intentional act, and entry upon land in the possession of another. Here, there is no intentional act. Dave claimed that Roy’s actions of not removing or trimming the trees constitute an intentional act. But, the Court said, as it explained, Dave’s remedy for intrusion by vegetation is to trim it back to the property line.

In sum, Dave’s claims that detritus falling from trees from the neighboring property constituted a trespass, a nuisance, and negligence were simply not actionable. The Court cited a Maryland case that “it is undesirable to categorize living trees, plants, roots, or vines as ‘nuisances’ to be abated. Consequently, we decline to impose liability upon an adjoining landowner for the ‘natural processes and cycles’ of trees, plants, roots, and vines.”

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Friday, June 29, 2018


Lesprit140422Ah, l’esprit d’escalier! Those biting, snappy comebacks we wish we had said at the time. You know, those retorts that sound like Donald Trump’s tweets.

Today’s case is about something akin to that, not rapier ripostes, but rather one of those rather important contract terms — how long the multi-year agreement would last — that both parties kind of wished they had discussed at the time they first made their deal.

And maybe one of them did. To be sure, each probably had what is today called an “exit strategy” in mind. But neither brought it up. And what’s worse, nothing was in writing on the parties’ joint venture to raise and harvest peaches. Samuel Goldwyn was right when he observed that “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

What’s surprising is that their verbal deal lasted as long as it did. Invariably, however, problems ensued. When Miami Valley Fruit Farm wanted to terminate the deal after about 20 years, Southern Orchards protested that the length of the venture was for the useful life of the trees, meaning that the deal would go on until the trees were worn out. It sort of turns the old Stripes line on its head: you can’t go … until all the plants die.

The Court agreed, because that was the only interpretation that made sense to it. You see, without a contract in black and white, everything was pretty gray. Think of how much they saved by not hiring lawyers to write up some boring old detailed contract. Probably less than 5% what they spent litigating the issue 20 years later …

verbalk140422Miami Valley Fruit Farm, Inc. v. Southern Orchard Supply Co., 214 Ga.App. 624, 448 S.E.2d 482 (Ga.App., 1994). Southern Orchard Supply Co. and Miami Valley Fruit Farm entered into an oral agreement whereby Miami Valley, which owned the 295 acres of land, purchased peach trees, and Southern Orchard planted, cultivated and harvested the trees. Under the agreement, which has been in effect about 20 years, the parties equally divided the net profits from the sale of each year’s peach crop.

After the 1993 peach crop was harvested and sold, Miami Valley told Southern Orchard that it was terminating the oral agreement and that Southern Orchard would not be allowed to cultivate and harvest the 1994 peach crop. Southern Orchard sued for an injunction, arguing that it had made substantial investments in the planting and cultivation of the peach trees and in equipment and packing facilities based on the mutual understanding of the parties that the agreement would continue for the “economic life” of the peach trees.

The evidence showed that after a peach tree orchard is planted, the trees have to be cultivated for years before they mature enough to bear fruit and begin to produce profitable, full crops. Once mature, the trees have an “economic life” for an indefinite period of years, during which they produce profitable crops each year until their fruit production declines to the point where they are no longer profitable and new trees must be planted. The “economic life” of the trees varies based on factors such as the variety of the peach and cultivation techniques. The trees at issue still had years of “economic life” remaining.

Southern Orchard argued the agreement had to last for the “economic life” of the trees in order to provide for recoupment of its expenses. Miami Valley argued there was no agreement between the parties for any specific duration of the contract, that the parties considered the agreement to run from year-to-year, and that in any event the “economic life” of a peach tree could not provide the agreement with a definite term since the duration of the life cannot be determined with any degree of certainty. Accordingly, Miami Valley argued it had the right to terminate the agreement.

The trial court held that there was an enforceable oral contract for Southern Orchard to cultivate and harvest the peach trees on the land at issue for the “economic life” of the trees, and because Southern Orchard had no adequate remedy at law for the breach of the agreement, the trial court could grant injunctive relief, ordering Miami Valley not to interfere with Southern Orchard’s performance of the agreement for the 1994 peach crop. Miami Valley appealed.

stitch140422Held: The injunction against Miami Valley is upheld. The Court of Appeals held that the question as to the length of time the contract remains in force is governed by the circumstances of each particular case. Here, the Court said, evidence showed that the parties intended the employment contract to continue for more than a single crop season. Considering the particular circumstances and expenses incurred to plant, cultivate and harvest the peach trees, the Court found, the parties agreed that the employment contract would continue for as long as the trees produced reasonably profitable crops, the “economic life” of the peach trees.

The old aphorism that a “stitch in time saves nine” is worth recalling here. A little consideration to all of the material terms of the agreement at the outset – maybe a few bucks spent on a lawyer whose forte is thinking about all the “what ifs” that the parties aren’t considering ­– would have saved a lot of time and expense two decades down the road.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Thursday, June 28, 2018


prison151202Funny we should be mentioning dishonorable discharge today, on the heels of former Army Private Chelsea Manning’s thorough thumping last Tuesday night in the Maryland primary. Speaking of “formerly,” when Manning was sentenced, he was a boy named Bradley. Now he’s a girl, just one who happened to steal about three quarters of a million military and diplomatic files. But Manning’s sorry. This is a nation of second chances. He/she just lost a chance to be in Congress.  Some are quite saddened.

Our topic today is another institution built on second chances, bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is one of the important developments of our modern society, a means to give people who have made a lot of financial mistakes a fresh start. You’d be surprised who’s gone down. P.T. Barnum went banko, and then got into the circus business. Walt Disney got wiped out in bankruptcy, losing his Laugh-o-Gram business. He went to Hollywood and got into animation. For that matter, with Donald Trump now serving as president, the old Boffin of Bankruptcy himself (four times to the courthouse for companies he controlled) has joined august company. Abe Lincoln went bust in 1833. Ulysses S. Grant was financially embarrassed after he left the presidency, and wrote his memoirs to pay off the debts. Harry Truman’s haberdashery failed, and it took him years to pay off his creditors (he refused the dishonorable but efficient bankruptcy route).

There are those who persuasively argue that American bankruptcy laws encourage the kind of risk-taking that benefits the economy. Nevertheless, it’s not all roses: some try to take advantage of the bankruptcy laws. The statutes provide a protection against bad apples wanting to use bankruptcy to regain undeserved polish. We’ll look at one such bulwark today, the Act’s prohibition against debtors discharging debts resulting from willful and malicious injury to someone else.

busted151202The difference is important. A debtor who injured someone else because he or she negligently ran into that someone’s tree with a car could have the debt discharged. But if he or she deliberately came on someone else’s land, for example, to cut down a Christmas tree and carry it home, the debt that misconduct represented would not be forgiven.

Sometimes the line isn’t that clear, such as in today’s case. The debtor, Ken Harper, got sued because when he had 47 acres of his own timber harvested, the crew he hired also harvested trees on 30 acres belonging to his neighbor. A state court jury had found him liable for trespass and conversion of timber, and had awarded punitive damages and treble damages. The Bankruptcy Court found that the debt couldn’t be discharged, because trespass was an intentional tort (in that the trespassing party intended to go where his feet took him, whether he knew it was his neighbor’s land or not) and because timber conversion required a willfulness to exercise ownership over the property (whether or not the actor knew it was someone else’s to begin with).

fico151202As for the maliciousness of the injury, the Bankruptcy Court found that it was enough that the state court jury had assessed punitive damages against Harper. The jury couldn’t have done that, the Bankruptcy Court said, unless it was clear that Harper knew his conduct was likely to cause harm. And as for the treble damages, the Court said, those are part of the judgment, and those aren’t dischargeable either.

In re Harper, 378 B.R 836 (Bankr. E.D.Ark., 2007). Ken Harper owned Real Estate Development, Inc. (“REDI”). REDI bought about 47 acres of land from Quadrangle, leaving Quadrangle with about 1,200 acres of land surrounding REDI’s purchase. REDI hired Arkansas Timber & Logging to log timber on REDI’s land. On or about the same time that this logging occurred, Arkansas Timber logged several acres of Quadrangle’s property. Quadrangle sued Harper, REDI and Arkansas Timber for trespass and malicious conversion of timber on 30 acres, asserting that Harper hired Arkansas Timber to cut timber on REDI’s own lands, and that this agreement became a collusive effort to harvest and convert timber from Quadrangle’s land.

The jury did not find that the defendants acted in collusion, but it did return a verdict finding that Harper was guilty of trespass and conversion. The jury was instructed that trespass required that the defendants be found to have intentionally entered Quadrangle’s property. It held that Harper continued his trespass conduct with malice or in reckless disregard of the consequences, or that Harper intentionally pursued a course of conduct for the purpose of causing injury or damage. Quadrangle was awarded compensatory, treble and punitive damages against Harper, who went bankrupt without paying the judgment.

Quadrangle filed a complaint in the bankruptcy to determine whether Harper could discharge its judgment against him in bankruptcy.

pig151202Held: The judgment could not be discharged in bankruptcy. Quadrangle argued that the judgment obtained against Harper was nondischargeable under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(6) as a debt for a “willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity.” Here, the issue was whether Harper’s actions constituting trespass and conversion of timber were willful and malicious, as required to except a debt from discharge under § 523(a)(6).

Quadrangle argued that the jury instructions, jury questionnaire and judgment supported a finding of willful and malicious injury on their face. Harper argued that the mens rea requirement of intent was missing from the state court proceeding, and the issue should be tried in the bankruptcy court. The Court said that a “willful” act was “deliberate or intentional,” and the “willful” element is satisfied if the injury is the result of an intentional tort. The malicious element is satisfied if, in committing the intentional tort, the perpetrator intended the resulting harm, or the harm was substantially certain or nearly certain to result. In this case, the Court said, the jury instructions regarding trespass and conversion clearly established that the element of willfulness was presented to the jury. The jury instruction regarding the intent necessary for a finding of trespass specifically stated, “[t]he intent necessary to commit a trespass is that to be on a particular piece of land that does not belong to you.”

With respect to conversion, the jury was instructed that Harper must have had the “intent to exercise dominion or control over the goods that is in fact inconsistent with Quadrangle’s rights.” Finally, the jury instruction for “malicious conversion of timber” requires a finding that the Debtor “acted with intentional and deliberate disregard for the plaintiff’s property rights.” All of these standards describe a willful injury, the Court said, the purposeful invasion of another’s legally protected interests. As well, trespass and conversion are considered intentional torts under Arkansas law, and are therefore willful acts. The Bankruptcy Court found that the jury’s findings with respect to trespass and conversion established that Harper’s actions were willful, but not necessarily malicious. But because the jury awarded punitive damages — that the action was taken with either the intent to cause harm or with the knowledge that harm was substantially certain to occur — it was clear that the likelihood that Harper knew that harm was substantially certain to occur as a result of his intentional actions, was decided by the jury.

Although Harper argued that the treble damages were dischargeable, the Supreme Court determined that treble damages are encompassed by the term “debt” as it is used in the Bankruptcy Act.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Tuesday, June 26, 2018


newspaper140421The year 1929 ended badly for a lot of people, with the stock market crash wiping out millions. It started just as badly for one Lou Cotillo (not to be confused with Lou Costello), when a chestnut tree on suburban land being developed by a real estate firm crashed onto the road. Under the spreading chestnut tree was Mr. Cotillo’s car, which, unfortunately enough, contained him and a passenger.

It turned out the chestnut in question, a rather big specimen, had been dead for a few years. However, the Court noted, “beyond its deadness, [it] bore no exterior evidence of decay.”

Deadness? Is that even a word?

Maybe not, but the jury had little trouble determining that the tree’s obvious “deadness” made the real estate developer liable for the accident. Brandywine appealed, arguing that the trial court should have taken the case away from the jury and thrown it out. It argued that, as a matter of law, it wasn’t liable for the results of a tree’s natural condition (that is, it’s “deadness”).

Applying what little Delaware law the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit could find, the appellate panel upheld the jury verdict. The Court held that responsibility for an owner’s property is one of the burdens of ownership, and, as a landowner has the right to enjoy his property unhampered by the actions of his neighbor, his neighbor – ­whether a landowner or a highway traveler ­– is similarly entitled. The trial court told the jury that Brandywine had a duty to keep its property from being a source of danger to the travelers on the highway “to the extent that reasonable care can guard against” the danger. The jury decided that Brandywine had breached its duty. Game, set and match.

This case was an early decision in the general trend of imposing a duty of reasonable care on non-rural landowners. The issue in negligence cases such as this one is always the nature of the duty owed by the defendant. Defendants – such as Brandywine Hundred Realty in this case – want the duty to be as minimal as possible – where plaintiffs want the jury charge to describe a duty of the first water. From the “trees will be trees” laissez faire approach of the 19th century, where owners generally had no duty whatsoever to protect passers-by from hazardous trees, to a modern view that while not guarantors of their trees, property owners had a duty to correct problems of which they had actual or constructive knowledge.

chestnutdown140421Brandywine Hundred Realty v. Cotillo, 55 F.2d 231 (3rd Cir. 1931). On a dark winter night in January 1929, Mr. Cotillo and a passenger were driving forested suburban land owned by Brandywine Hundred Realty, Inc. A chestnut tree, standing about 10 feet from the road, fell suddenly, crushing Mr. Cotillo’s car and killing his passenger. The tree had been dead for four years, but, “beyond its deadness, bore no exterior evidence of decay.”

Cotillo sued, and the case went to trial. The real estate company asked the judge to take the case from the jury and find in its favor as a matter of law, because the natural condition of the tree caused the accident, and it had no duty to Mr. Cotillo. The judge disagreed, and instead told the jury that Brandywine had a duty to exercise reasonable care in the use of its property, so as not to harm neighboring landowners or motorists. The jury found for Mr. Cotillo.

Brandywine appealed, arguing that the trial court had misdefined its duty.

Held: The trial court was correct in its definition of Brandywine’s duty. The appellate court said that “[a]fter all is said and done, this case turns on the application of the time honored principle of law, ‘sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas’–so use your own as not to injure another.” It held that Mr. Cotillo had a right to use the highway, and that Brandywine had the duty “to so use his property on his own land that it shall not cumber the highway and endanger the safety of those using it …” It agreed with the trial court’s charge to the jury that “ the owner of property abutting on a public highway is under a duty to keep it from being a source of danger to the public or to the travelers on such highway, to the extent that reasonable care on his part can guard against.”

Negligencedef140421The Court of Appeals also concurred that the fact the tree had died of natural causes, rather than because of Brandywine’s conduct, had no effect on the realty company’s duty. Regardless of how the tree ended up in a condition of “deadness,” if its deadness was known by Brandywine or could have been known “by the exercise of ordinary case … then it became the duty of the defendant to exercise reasonable care and diligence to prevent the tree from falling and injuring those who might have occasion to use the public highway.”

Thus, the question of Brandywine’s alleged negligence was for the jury to pass upon. It did so, and found negligence. The Court found no basis for disturbing that finding.

As for “deadness” as a word – the dictionaries give the Court a pass on it, but as far as we’re concerned, the jury’s still out on that one …

The dismissal of this ridiculous suit was upheld.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, June 25, 2018


bikefall140418All right, we’re going to use the summer to get into shape. One-two-one-two. Time to blow out this mental cobwebs that form from hot days, warm nights, cool beer and cold ice cream. Time for a little sober reality.

We’ll start with a simple warm-up – considering two dumb adult stunts. The first stunt was Tom Alexson’s ill-advised decision, when he saw a tree branch laying on his bike path, to ride by and smoothly push it out of the way with his hand as he passed. Kids, please don’t attempt this at home! Of course, it didn’t work, and he crashed into and over the limb, hurting himself badly.

The second dumb adult trick was Tom’s unwillingness to accept the blame for his own stupidity. He didn’t, of course. Who does, these days? Instead, he sued the White Memorial Foundation, which owned the land and museum that stood on it.

The Foundation defended under the Connecticut Recreational Use Act, asking that the case be dismissed because no fee was charged for use of the Foundation property, and Tom was on the land for a recreational purpose. Tom’s crafty mouthpiece argued that the Foundation didn’t qualify, because it charged a fee to enter the museum. But the Court ruled that the Foundation didn’t charge Tom to ride his bike around the grounds, and that was good enough. After all, he didn’t fall in the museum attic.

Aha140418A-ha, the lawyer cried, riding a bike isn’t listed as a specific recreational activity in the statute. Horse hockey, the Court said. The statute clearly doesn’t limit recreational activities to the one listed. Lance Armstrong, after all, thinks bike riding is very recreational (and for years thought that taking banned drugs was not doping).

Yeah, argued Tom’s lawyer, but the Foundation’s failure to warn Tom of the danger was willful or malicious. Prove it, the Court said, using something more that Tom’s rather slanted opinion that it was so.

The case was tossed, as it should have been. Dumb adult stunts, indeed.

Alexson v. White Memorial Foundation, Inc., Not Reported in A.2d, 2008 WL 803423 (Conn.Super., Mar. 5, 2008). Workmen for the White Memorial Foundation were notified that a tree had fallen across a roadway on Foundation property. The workmen began to cut up fallen tree, but failed to complete the task before Tom Alexson – who was riding his bicycle on the White property – saw some of the tree still blocking the roadway and decided that he could push the obstruction aside as he passed. Instead, he collided and badly hurt himself.

Tom sued, alleging that the Foundation was careless and negligent in only partially removing the branch from a portion of roadway and that the Foundation’s failure to warn or guard against the obstruction was willful and intentional. The Foundation moved for summary judgment on the ground that General Statutes §52-557g, known as the recreational land use statute, made the Foundation immune.

Held: The Foundation was protected by the Connecticut Recreational Use Act. The Act provides that a landowner is immune from liability for simple negligence where: (1) the defendant is the owner of the land in question; (2) the defendant has made all or part of the land where the plaintiff was injured available for use to the public free of charge; and (3) the plaintiff, at the time that he was injured, was using the land for a recreational purpose.

Tom argued that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Foundation made the land available to the public free of charge. In addition, Tom alleged that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the exception to the recreational land use immunity statute, codified in §52-557h, applied to the defendant because, as alleged by the plaintiff, the defendant willfully and maliciously failed to warn against a dangerous and defective condition.

The Foundation said the land on which Tom was injured was always available for recreational use to the public without charge. Tom admitted that on the day he was injured, he was not charged by the Foundation, and conceded that the only time he has been charged a fee was when he went inside the museum. The Court found that there was thus no genuine issue of material fact that the defendant Foundation made the part of the property on which Tom was injured available, free of charge, to the public.

biketree140418The final prong of the statute required that the land be available for recreational purposes. Section 52-557f(4)(a) provides a list of activities that constitute a “recreational purpose,” and the list doesn’t include bicycle riding. The Court observed, however, that, the statute clearly stated that “[r]ecreational purpose includes, but is not limited to, any of the following …” It was evident, the Court held, that the enumerated activities set forth in the statute were not exclusive.

Riding a bicycle, the Court said, fell within the penumbra of activities considered “recreational” for the purpose of the statute. Therefore the Foundation satisfied the third prong of the statute. Thus, the defendant is entitled to statutory immunity, unless Tom could show the Foundation had engaged in a willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity. The Court said the phrase “willful or malicious” meant conduct which must encompass both the physical act proscribed by the statute and its injurious consequences.

Willful misconduct has been defined as intentional conduct designed to injure for which there is no just cause or excuse. Its characteristic element is the design to injure either actually entertained or to be implied from the conduct and circumstances. Alexson’s conclusory statements in his complaint, coupled with the conclusory statements in his affidavit (the admissibility of which the Court found to be dubious at best) did not raise a genuine issue of material fact. The Court said the complaint was “bereft of the factual predicate necessary to lead a reasonable person to infer that the workmen intended to injure passers by, and this plaintiff in particular, by their actions.”

The dismissal of this ridiculous suit was upheld.

– Tom Root