Case of the Day – Tuesday, May 26, 2020

SIC WHAT?

This is a logo for some financial planner, but it would work well for an arborist.  Just so it’s not “Sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas.”

Today, we consider the final issues raised by our Iowa reader (see last Friday), who wrote complaining that her neighbor planned to bulldoze a driveway along a steep grade right next to his land. She feared that the bulldozing would destroy root systems of her trees — many a century or more old — and so badly destabilize the slope that it would cause landslides that carried away his land.

We identified four questions in our reader’s inquiry. We have addressed the questions about her neighbor’s damage to trees that might be exactly on the boundary line, as well as those located on her land but with roots crossing the boundary line. Today we address the final question: what if the neighbor’s bulldozing causes the steep slope to collapse, bringing some of our reader’s land down as well. Could our reader get an injunction to stop the harm before it starts? It’s a cliffhanger.

No fear, lovers of legal drama, because Iowa (as well as most states) has accepted in one form or another the doctrine of sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas, meaning “so use your own property as not to injure that of your neighbor.” The doctrine has been held to have limits that fall well short of your basic trespass to real estate — in today’s case, a landowner tried unsuccessfully to stop the property owner above him from sending additional drainage down a creek, eroding his banks. But the Court acknowledged that sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas did exist, and was illustrated in the generally-accepted right of lateral support.

Bad things can happen when lateral support is lost.

Bad things can happen when lateral support is lost.

And that right may be what rides to the rescue of our Iowa reader. The right to lateral and subjacent support means that a property owner has the obligation not to remove soil or change grades in such a way as to take away lateral support to the soils of her neighbor. The Court said it isn’t a silver bullet — it applies only to activities along the property boundaries – but that may be enough for our reader.

Bulldozing an already steep grade, and removing root systems — which in all likelihood play a substantial role in stabilizing the slope — may well violate the other landowner’s duty to provide lateral and subjacent support.

So what to do? As we saw several days ago, the Iowa courts have taken a rational view of how much harm is irreparable — and showing irreparable harm is essential to winning an injunction — making get a court order stopping the bulldozing before it starts is entirely possible. Our reader’s local attorney probably will want to engage an expert who can examine the situation and provide a detailed, technical affidavit predicting the extent and permanence of the harm which could result from bulldozing the already significant slope.

Our reader mentioned that she was also checking the various administrative agencies to be sure that the permit process was being followed. Often, a lot of potential harm can be headed off by arguing the case before agencies that — with stricter and more detailed requirements — can hobble ill-conceived projects before they take flight.

A word of caution: we’re throwing out ideas left and right, but we’re not anyone’s lawyers here. There is no substitute for local boots on the ground, an attorney from the area versed in land use law. We trust that our reader, perhaps armed with some good ideas, will refer the matter to her local lawyer.

Pohlman v Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Co., 131 Iowa 89, 107 N.W. 1025, 6 L.R.A.N.S. 146 (Sup.Ct. Iowa 1906). The railroad had a track grade and bridge located near and above Pohlman’s property. Water traditionally drained off the Pohlman place through Poole Hollow, which went through a corner of the property. But the railroad decided to improve the flow of water around its grade by running a ditch of its own into Poole Hollow. The result was that more water flowed through the Hollow during rainstorms, and the flow was at a much more rapid rate. The fast-moving flow eroded Pohlman’s land, and he sued. In his action, he argued that the railroad company had damaged his real estate and violated the old doctrine of sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas – which translates as “so use your own property as not to injure that of your neighbor.” The trial court granted a demurrer to the railroad, throwing the case for not stating a claim on which relief can be granted.

Pohlman appealed.

Held:  The case was properly dismissed. Superficially, the Court acknowledged, the decision was clear. Lower property was obligated accept the flow of water discharged by the higher property, meaning that the increased flow through Poole Hollow was not a condition for which a court would grant relief. But, the Court halfway complained, “if this were all, it would seem that the case must be at an end. But counsel for appellant go farther and invoke the maxim sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas — “so use your own property as not to injure that of your neighbor,” and insist that the case, in view of the peculiar circumstances, is brought within the operation thereof.”

The principle is that no property has greater right than the other, and that each owner is obligated to use his or her property in such a way as not to injure the property of his or her neighbor. The Court acknowledge that there existed a right of lateral and subjacent support, and the theory being advanced by Pohlman was that “to all intents and purposes the situation presents a case of the removal by an adjoining proprietor of the lateral support to the soil of his neighbor.”

bulldoze151113The Court acknowledged that the right was a natural one, and was predicated upon necessity. “As the term itself implies, it has relation to the support which in a state of nature the soil of one owner receives at the boundary line from the soil of his neighbor.” But, warned the Court, the doctrine could not be extended to embrace cases of trespass generally. “It goes no further than to inveigh against an interference within the zone of the natural support afforded by the soil conditions at the boundary line.” This case had nothing to do with boundary line support. Instead, the essence of the complaint was that by the accelerated flow of the surface water more soil had been carried away from the general surface of Pohlman’s land than otherwise would have occurred.

The point of the case is that a right of lateral and subjacent support exists, and — as of 1906 — that was about as far as sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas extended.

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Friday, May 22, 2020

GETTING BULLDOZED

bulldoze161229Yesterday, we tackled the first of several inter-related questions raised by an Iowa reader. She wrote that a neighbor planned to bulldoze a driveway along a steep grade right next to her land. She feared that the bulldozing would destroy root systems of hertrees — many a century or more old — and so badly destabilize the slope that it would cause landslides that carried away her land.

We identified four questions in our reader’s inquiry. We tackled the first question yesterday, about trees that might be exactly on the boundary line, and we concluded that Iowa law would not let her neighbor take steps that would destroy them (such as wiping out the root systems) without our reader’s OK.

But that answer begs the question of what will happen to trees which are growing entirely on our questioner’s land but extend their branches or root systems onto the neighbor’s place. (The third question — what if the neighbor’s bulldozing causes the steep slope to collapse, bringing some of our reader’s land down as well — and the final question about whether our reader could get an injunction to stop the harm before it starts, will be addressed tomorrow.)

The short answer to today’s question is found in the century-old case of Harndon v. Stultz. That decision adopted what years later would be called the “Massachusetts Rule,” specifically that a landowner has no right to judicial help in stopping an encroaching tree from his or her neighbors, but he or she may trim its branches and roots back to the property line. Under the rule of Harndon, it would appear that the neighbor could bulldoze out the root systems which have grown onto his land without liability.

But we’re not entirely satisfied that this would be the answer. Remember first that the plaintiff in Harndon complained that the trees in question were damaging her land, the roots tying up the ground and the trees shading what otherwise would be cropland. The court didn’t have a lot of sympathy for her, but it did recognize that she was suffering because the tree was just doing what trees are doing.

The United States been moving inexorably toward the Hawaii Rule, which provides a landowner judicial relief where the trees are nuisances, and not merely being trees. Witness the Virginia decision of Fancher v. Fagella, in which the tree was causing substantial damage to the plaintiff’s home. The obverse of this coin is illustrated in the question posed here: what happens when the neighbor is suffering absolute no damage whatsoever from the trees in question? As our reader explained it, the neighbor merely wants to bulldoze a road on a steep slope along a very narrow piece of property. During the bulldozing, it’s likely that root systems will be severed and trees badly damaged or killed.

Our suggestion that there may be more to it than a century-old case suggests isn’t that far off. A California decision, Booksa v. Patel, already has held that a neighbor must act reasonably in exercising his or her self-help rights, and “reasonable” is expressed in terms of taking steps which are no greater than those needed to ameliorate the harm. And Professors Prosser and Keeton, in their seminal work The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) §57, say that a landowner has a privilege to make use of the land for his own benefit, and according to his own desires, which is an integral part of our whole system of private property; but it has been said many times that this privilege is qualified by a due regard for the interests of others who may be affected by it. The possessor’s right is therefore bounded by principles of reasonableness, so as to cause no unreasonable risks of harm to others in the vicinity.”

Remember, no one said our neighbor's roots are invasive.

Remember, no one said our neighbor’s roots are invasive.

In the case our reader has raised, it may well be that the time is ripe not to reverse Harndon v. Stultz, but rather to add to the body of law it represents by finding that a neighbor’s right of self-help is circumscribed by reasonableness. Under that standard, where a neighbor kills a tree by removing a root system, where the tree admittedly has caused no sensible harm to him, might be unreasonable.

It’s certainly something our reader’s Iowa attorney might want to consider.

Next Monday, we’re off for Memorial Day, but on Tuesday: What if the bulldozing causes landslides on our reader’s property?

Harndon v. Stultz, 124 Iowa 440, 100 N.W. 329 (S.Ct. Iowa, 1904). Harndon and her husband owned and farmed an 80-acre tract of land. Stultz had 160 acres just to the south of the Harndon farm. Many years before, the Harndons planted a willow hedge along the entire south line of the farm, and later, Stultz extended the hedge eastward. The Harndons claimed that Stultz had agreed with them to maintain the west half of the hedgeline and the Harnsons would maintain the east half. Some years later, the Harndons dug up the east half of the hedge, replacing it with a fence. Mrs. Harndon then demanded that Stultz do the same. Stultz refused, and she sued for an order finding the hedge to be a nuisance and requiring Stultz to cut it down. She argued that the willow had spread through the soil, and so much shade was cast by willows that it rendered a portion of the Harndons’ land unusable. As alternative, the Harndons asked that, if Stultz had no duty to remove the hedge, they be allowed to do so at their expense. The trial court dismissed the petition, and the Harndons appealed.

Tomorrow - Could our reader's neighbor cause a landslide?

Tuesday – Could our reader’s neighbor cause a landslide?

Held: The Court adopted what was essentially the Massachusetts rule years ahead of its time. Nothing in the law, the Court said, made it a defendant’s duty to cut down a hedge or tree simply because over a passage of time, the owner’s neighbor found the roots and the shade of the growing trees injured the productiveness of his land. The raising of trees, the Court held, is a legitimate use to which an owner may put his land. If the limbs of such trees overhang the land of a neighbor, he may cut them off at the line, and, if the roots penetrate the neighbor’s soil, he may dig them out, but that is the extent to which he may carry his objection.

The Court said that an adjoining property owner may cut off the overhanging branches of trees at the property line, and dig out the roots penetrating the soil on his land. However, that property owner is not entitled to compel the owner of the tree to cut it down, regardless of whether the care and maintenance was provided by the owner or by the adjoining property owner. On the other hand, the Court said, trees standing on the boundary line between lands of adjoining owners are the common property of both parties, which neither may destroy without the consent of the other. The Court upheld the trial court, but modified the decree to let the Harndons remove the hedge at their cost, based on Stultz’s statement at argument that she didn’t object to its removal.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Thursday, May 21, 2020

ALL EYES ARE ON IOWA

A loyal reader from the home of the greatest state fair in the land — and we need more of such readers, not just from Des Moines — wrote to ask some incisive questions about a rather boorish neighbor. Her questions had to do with the neighbor’s plans to bulldoze a driveway along a steep grade right next to our interrogator’s land. She feared that the bulldozing would destroy root systems of her trees — many a century or more old — and so badly destabilize the slope that it would cause landslides that carried away his land.

Parenthetically, we fervently hope that there is an Iowa State Fair this year, something that is up in the air right now. But to the question of the day, or really four questions, not just one, posed in our reader’s letter. The first question: what about trees right on the boundary line? The second question: what about trees on our reader’s land, but with roots extending into the neighbor’s land? The third question: what if the neighbor’s bulldozing causes the steep slope to collapse, bringing some of our reader’s land down as well? And last, if our reader has rights here, can she get an injunction to stop the harm before it starts, or is her only option to collect money damages later?

All good questions. Today we’ll answer the question about those boundary trees. Boundary trees are trees growing on the legal boundary between properties. In Iowa, the case governing boundary trees is Musch v. Burkhart. Musch valued the cottonwood trees growing along the boundary of his land and the adjacent property belonging to Burkhart; his neighbor, however, thought the cottonwoods were a pain in the neck. Musch had cut some of them down — after all, there was about 500 yards of the tree line — leading Burkhart to conclude that he, too, could cut some down, in fact, cut down as many as he wanted.

The court’s analysis was interesting, in that whatever agreement the prior owners of the two parcels — who had apparently agreed to some arrangement on ownership, care and use of the tree line — may have made had been lost to history. The court said that absent some evidence to the contrary, it would assume that trees growing on a boundary line were owned by the two owners as tenants in common because they grew on both properties and “drew sustenance” from both properties. It almost suggests that trees which are provably drawing sustenance from root systems spread pretty much equally from two properties must be owned by both owners as tenants in common.

The importance is that ownership of the tree by both property owners as tenants in common establishes what essentially is a 50-50 partnership with each partner given a veto. As tenants in common, both must agree before anything happens to the tree.

The other holding of significance in this case is that the court found that damage to trees is, for all legal purposes, irreparable harm. Nothing is irreparable in a geologic time sense. Trees that are destroyed can be replaced, and the seedlings becoming just as majestic in 50 or 100 years. The Musch decision takes a much shorter view, however, suggesting that if it will require a half century to heal, it’s irreparable harm.

That’s significant, because a showing of irreparable harm is necessary to obtain injunctions to stop tree cutting. Musch, like the rest of us, would rather keep the tree than get a few bucks later, after a century tree is gone. Maybe not gone forever, but to us humans, gone for a century might as well be.

So our reader has a couple answers here. If the trees are boundary trees, an Iowa plaintiff has the right to get an injunction to save them.

Tomorrow: what if the trees aren’t on the boundary?

A lot of drama going on in Iowa, it seems… beyond who will fill in for Chris Stapleton if the Fair even opens. Stay tuned.

Musch v. Burkhart, 12 L.R.A. 484, 83 Iowa 301, 48 N.W. 1025, 32 Am.St.Rep. 305 (S.Ct. Iowa, 1891). Musch lived next to Burkhart in rural Black Hawk county. His house, barn, and other buildings are on the northwest corner of his property. Burkhart’s south boundary line is the north boundary line of Musch’s place.

About 20 years before, Jeffers — who owned the land before Musch — planted a line of cottonwood trees for about 500 yards along the north boundary of his land. The trees had grown to a height of from 30 to 60 feet, and their trunks had diameters of from 1 to 2 feet. The average space between them is about three feet. Musch attached barbed wires to the north side of the trees, making a wire fence. Musch used the fence to contain his cattle and relied on the trees as protection from storm and winter winds to his buildings and stock.

Burkhart threatened to cut the trees down. He claimed he and Musch had an agreement to maintain a common fence, but that the trees had thrown out roots extending for many feet into his land; that by reason of such roots, and the shade of the trees, a strip of his land 50-65 feet wide, immediately north of the trees, was unproductive. Burkhart argued the trees were of no value to Musch and that he had a right to remove them. What’s more, Burkhart argued that Musch had cut down some of the trees originally planted there, and he should have a right to do the same.

The trial court found that the trees had value to Musch, but that their roots had damaged Burkhart. Clearly, they stood on the common boundary line. The trees were planted before Burkhart bought his land. The trial court wasn’t able to discern the nature of the agreement between the prior owners of the two tracts of land, but it nevertheless found for Musch, and enjoined Burkhart from cutting down the trees.

Burkhart appealed.

boundary151111Held: Musch was entitled to have the trees protected. The Court found that because the trees stood on and drew sustenance from both tracts of land, in the absence of a showing to the contrary, they were considered to be owned by the parties as tenants in common.

When one tenant in common destroys the subject of the tenancy, he is liable to the co-tenant for the damages he thereby sustains. A court, by injunction, may restrain one tenant in common from doing a serious injury to the common estate. While an injunction will not be allowed to restrain a trespass where damages are an adequate remedy, where the injury will be irreparable, an injunction is appropriate.

The Iowa Supreme Court held that the destruction of trees and shrubbery growing upon premises occupied by Musch would be, “in a legal sense,” an irreparable injury to him. The trees served to shelter and protect Musch’s buildings, and thus Burkhart could be enjoined from cutting them down despite the fact that their presence caused damage to his land.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Wednesday, May 20, 2020

SHORT AND SWEET

There have been more than a few recurring themes in our posts over the past decade plus. Some of the most-repeated are (1) hire a lawyer when you should have one, such as anytime you feel the need to sue someone; (2) courts follow prior decisions – called stare decisis – so as to bring certainty to the law; and (3) the Massachusetts Rule has traditionally been the law of the land, and while that has been changing, it is still the “go to” rule in most places.

Alas, Virginia Scott is not one of our regular readers. Had she been back in 2010, she would have consulted a lawyer about the mess that trees belonging to her neighbor, Julie, were making in her yard. She would have told the lawyer that she wanted damages for the dropped leaves and twigs, and she wanted to be compensated for what she paid tree trimmers to cut the offending branches and roots back to her property line.

The lawyer would have said, “Nothing doing,” or words to that effect, which would have saved Virginia the cost and aggravation of trying a do-it-yourself lawsuit against Julie. As well as having her hat handed to her by the trial court and the court of appeals.

“But,” Virginia wailed, “the law is stupid. It should be changed.” Notably, that argument has worked some places – Virginia, Hawaii, North Dakota – but Virginia had no idea how to press for modification of the rule, and the Court was unimpressed.

At least the Court of Appeals kept is short and sweet. As we will be…

Scott v. McCarty, 41 So.3d 989 (Fla.App. 4 Dist. 2010). Virginia Scott owned property next to Julie McCarty’s place. Dr. Julie had some pretty lush trees – this being Florida, plants like to grow there – and eventually some of the branches were overhanging Virginia’s place, and the roots were intruding underground.

Virginia sued the Doc for the damages Julie’s trees caused her property, as well as for what it cost her to trim the branches back to the property line and dig up the intruding roots. Having apparently spent so much on damage repair and tree trimming, Virginia decided to save money on a lawyer. She represented herself.

The trial court dismissed her complaint forthwith, citing the Florida common law rule that “a possessor of land is not liable to persons outside the land for a nuisance resulting from trees and natural vegetation growing on the land. The adjoining property owner to such a nuisance, however, is privileged to trim back, at the adjoining owner’s own expense, any encroaching tree roots or branches and other vegetation which has grown onto his property.”

This rule not seeming right to Virginia, she appealed.

Held: Virginia’s case was properly dismissed. The Court of Appeals said that the reason for Florida’s common law rule “was that it was wiser to leave the individual to protect himself than to subject the other to the annoyance of actions at law which would likely be innumerable.”

On appeal, Virginia acknowledged that the common-law rule, first adopted in the 1987 Florida appellate case Gallo v. Heller, was the prevailing law, but she asked the Court to “take a different course.” The Court refused to do so, saying that “the Gallo view is the predominant view in the country… [and] departing from the precedent would invite further litigation between neighbors on this issue, which as a public policy matter should be avoided.”

– Thomas L. Root

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