Case of the Day – Tuesday, May 24, 2022

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 her trees — 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 that 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 has 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 that 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 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.

Tomorrow: 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 hedge line and the Harnsons would maintain the east half. Some years later, the Harndons dug up the eastern 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 an 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 were 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 during oral argument on appeal that she didn’t object to its removal.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Monday, May 23, 2022

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.

The Iowa State Fair this year will seem like a breath of normalcy, this third year of what is still a pandemic, although joy will be muted due to the passing of Virginia Barksdale, matriarch of the famous Barksdale State Fair Cookie. 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 some 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 that 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 importance of 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, 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. 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 now than get a few bucks later, after a century tree is gone. Maybe not gone forever, but to almost all of humanity, ‘gone for a century’ might as well be ‘gone forever.’

So as for our reader’s first question, an answer: 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 whether the mass-produced Barksdale State Fair Cookies measure up Virginia’s original.

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 – Friday, May 20, 2022

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 (and yes, we were around then, when people were still surfing the Web with their Packard Bell 286s sporting 56K modems), 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

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, May 19, 2022

MOVING THE CHEESE

There’s a great old adage in the law that goes something like “When your case is weak on the law, pound on the facts. When your case is weak on the facts, pound on the law. When your case is weak on the law and the facts, pound on the table.” Today’s case is one in which an inventive lawyer tried just that, albeit without much result.

We’ve worked a lot with the old Restatement rule, now on its way out, that a landowner is not liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land. That rule, when it was a rule, came with a proviso. If the person possessing the land was in an urban area, he or she was liable for physical harm resulting from failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of trees on the land near the highway.

In today’s case, a tree in the lush tropical paradise fell onto a road and crushed a ’77 Mercedes – a pretty nice ride – leaving the plaintiff’s lawyer with a problem. The evidence showed the collapsed tree was rotten, all right, but that none of the decay was visible from the exterior. So arguing that the tree’s owner should have inspected the tree was a loser, because even if he had done so, the owner would not have seen the decay and recognized the danger.

The plaintiff’s lawyer recognized that to win this one, he’d have to move the cheese on the defendant. So he quickly rolled out a second argument: Even if the common law (and more specifically here, the Restatement on Torts) did not impose liability without fault (that is, strict liability), the court should impose it here simply as a matter of public policy. “Public policy” is a fancy way of saying something should or should not be done because… well, because it is just common sense. So, the argument went, it did not matter if tree owner Al Gerard followed the rules as they existed now, because the rules needed to be changed retroactively, all the way back to the day the tree fell.

It’s sound public policy, the plaintiff’s lawyer argued, that is, good common sense.

“Common sense?” the Court asked incredulously. If urban owners are strictly liable for any tree that falls, it responded, then their reaction to the rule will simply be to cut down all of their trees. And where would be then? Sorry about the Mercedes, the Court said, but we’d be even sorrier about the trees.

Marrero v. Gerard, Civil No. 249/1989 (Terr.Ct. V.I., Dec. 12, 1989) 24 V.I. 275. Vic Marrero was driving his Mercedes along the East End Road in Estate St. Peters, Virgin Islands. Suddenly a tree stood on property owned by Al Gerard fell on Vic’s car. Vic claimed the car was damaged (not hard to believe) as was his psyche (harder to believe).

Norm Nielsen, who was Al’s neighbor and worked with Vic, was first on the scene. The base of the tree was inside Al’s fence, but the rest was on the road. Norm said the tree was “dry” where it broke off, “kind of rotten but green on top.” The evidence, which included photos taken by the traumatized Vic, failed to establish that a visual inspection of the tree would have disclosed that it was rotten at its base and in danger of toppling.

Held: The Court held that the facts did not show Al to be negligent, because he appeared to have no reason to know that the tree was unstable and would fall.

Vic, however, argued that even if Al was not negligent, he should be held strictly liable for any damage the caused. Vic cited the Restatement of Torts (Second), which provided at section 363 that:

(1) Except as stated in Subsection (2), neither a possessor of land, nor a vendor, lessor, or other transferor, is liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land.

(2) A possessor of land in an urban area is subject to liability to persons using a public highway for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of trees on the land near the highway.

Vic relied on subsection 2, arguing that Al – owning trees in an urban setting – had a duty to Vic to inspect the trees. The Court ruled that whether the property on which the tree was located was urban or rural might be debatable but ultimately was irrelevant. Even if the urban standard applied, the Court said, and even if Al had adhered to the standard, “the weakened condition of the tree was not apparent upon a visual inspection, so that it matters [not whether the area was urban or rural. Perhaps a core sampling of the tree would have disclosed the problem, but such an effort, particularly when weighed against the likely risk, is far too onerous a burden to place upon a landowner.”

The Court held that the Restatement did not impose strict liability, that is, liability without fault, in circumstances like these. All Sec. 362(2) does it to apply a more specific standard of care to an urban landowner, but still within a negligence realm.

Unfazed, Vic argued that the Court should apply its own strict liability standard to this case, as a matter of public policy. The Court demurred, saying that in its view sound public policy was reflected the Restatement’s standard. The Court said that a landowner should have the duty to inspect for, discover and remedy patently hazardous natural conditions on his or her property that may cause harm to others outside the land. But where the decay is internal, and therefore not discoverable upon reasonable inspection, to “impose a rule of strict liability would be to declare, in effect, that any tree which is large enough to fall over the boundary of one’s land will subject its owner to liability in the event that a hidden weakness causes it to topple and cause damages off the land.” That would just lead prudent landowners to cut down their trees, the Court concluded, “thereby accelerating the already lamentable deforestation of the territory.”

The Court agreed that the community should be protected from reasonably foreseeable dangers, but the community – both local and worldwide – “also has a compelling interest in the protection and preservation of the environment. The same concern and sensitivity that we are just beginning to bring to the massive problem of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, for example, should also apply to the relatively minute and particular circumstances of this case. No reasonable gain would be derived from adopting a rule of strict liability here, particularly when weighed against the potential ecological and aesthetic implications of such a decision.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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. For that reason, virtually all states have passed some version of a recreational use statute. These statutes hold 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 – Tuesday, May 17, 2022

THE RV LIFE

Fun ... but not that sturdy ...

Fun … but not that sturdy …

Carefree RV living. Groovin’ on the high life in your boyfriend’s parents’ backyard, roughing it in a Coleman camper… what fun!

At least it was fun until an unexpected storm blows through, and a devastating derecho lays waste to your suburban Buffalo neighborhood (I’m guessing this was the well-documented Labor Day 1998 Derecho event). A branch broke off a tree in during the blow, and it fell on the camper, injuring Mary Simet and apparently writing the final chapter of her relationship with beau Randy Newman (no, not that Randy Newman).

Derechos are very much in the news. One just marched through Iowa last week, kicking up a massive dust storm some likened to the Middle Eastern “haboob.” But our focus here is not on the dust or the tornadoes it spawned, or even on the derechos that have hit metro areas like Philadelphia or Nashville. Instead, our focus is not even on the breeze itself, but rather on the legal winds that followed the storm.

Mary sued Coleman. Its flimsy camper couldn’t absorb the impact of a massive tree branch in a windstorm, imagine that! And for good measure, Mary named her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend and his parents, claiming that the branch was rotten and they should have cut it off, or not put the camper there, or warned her, or prevented the storm, or… or something. You know the drill. I’ve been injured. Therefore, someone’s gotta pay! And that’s when your lawyers start looking around for defendants who have insurance.

dumped140404

It’s worse than that, Bucko – she sued you, too. Relationships often end badly, but seldom this badly.

After the storm, of course, the Lehmans and their neighbors cleaned up. Mary’s alert and well-read lawyer complained that the cleanup wasn’t done because waste had been laid to the neighborhood or any reason so pedestrian as that. Instead, he bloviated, the cleanup was a grand conspiracy to destroy evidence his client needed for her lawsuit, a disreputable legal maneuver known as “spoliation of evidence.” The trial court, amazingly enough, agreed, but nevertheless concluded that because the evidence that had not been spoliated showed that any rot on the limb was not clearly observable, the Lehmans (and the broken-hearted Randy) were off the hook. And the whole derecho event was an act of God for which the Lehmans ­– including the Facebook-relationship-status “single” Randy – could not be blamed.

Wow. Sued by your own girlfriend. Now that’s what I call getting dumped.

Simet v. Coleman Co., Inc., 839 N.Y.S.2d 667 (N.Y.A.D. 4 Dept. 2007). Mary Simet suffered catastrophic injuries during a severe storm, when a tree limb blew onto the camper in which she was sleeping with her boyfriend at that time, Randy Newman.

The camper was owned by Linda (Randy’s mother) and her husband, David, and was located in their backyard. The limb, located approximately 30 feet from the camper, broke during an unusually intense storm with high winds, known as a “derecho.” Mary and Randy were unaware of the approaching severe storms when they retired to the camper and, indeed, the first severe storm warning wasn’t issued until after the storms had passed through the area.

The Lehmans had no notice that the tree from which the limb broke was decayed or defective. Mary’s expert opined that, regardless of whether the tree appeared to be healthy, the Lehmans would have been advised by an arborist to secure the limb if they had retained an arborist to inspect their trees.

On the advice of their insurance carrier and as part of a neighborhood clean up after the storm, the Lehmans removed the branch and the camper remains after photographic evidence was collected.

Mary sued Randy and his parents, and then she moved to strike their answer based on their alleged spoliation of that evidence. The trial court struck the Lehmans’ answer because of the spoliation, but then granted summary judgment for them anyway, and threw out Mary’s case.

Mary appealed, and so did the Lehmans.

A radar plot of the Syracuse-Buffalo derecho of September 7, 1998.

A radar plot of the Syracuse-Buffalo derecho of September 7, 1998. “Derecho” is a term derived from Spanish for “straight,” and is characterized by intense straight-line winds.

Held: The Court of Appeals held that striking the Lehmans’ answer based on spoliation was not warranted, that the Lehmans were entitled to summary judgment, and the falling limb was an act of God that precluded Randy’s liability.

The Court found that the Lehmans removed the limb and camper not to frustrate the plaintiffs but only after their insurer gave permission and as part of a neighborhood effort. They had carefully photographed it before disposing of it. At most, the spoliation of the evidence was negligent, and the remedy striking a pleading for negligent spoliation is a drastic sanction that is appropriate only where the missing evidence deprives the moving party of the ability to establish his or her case. That wasn’t the situation here.

Furthermore, the Lehmans weren’t liable to Mary Simet. The Court held that they did not create the dangerous condition with respect to her presence in the camper, and did not have constructive notice that the tree from which the limb broke was decayed or defective. No one was on notice a storm was coming. The fact that an arborist, if one had been hired, might have advised the Lehmans to secure the limb is irrelevant. New York law requires that the manifestation of tree decay must be readily observable in order to require a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent harm.

Finally, the falling of the tree limb during the storm was an act of God that precluded Randy’s liability, with whom Mary was staying in the camper at the time.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, May 16, 2022

MR. NATURAL

Do you remember the 60s? If so, you weren’t really there. Still, you may know someone whose brain was not so addled by the Summer of Love that he or she has forgotten Robert Crumb’s famous counter-culture cartoon character, Mr. Natural. Mr. N. was a bearded mystic guru who spouted aphorisms on the evils of the modern world, his most famously puzzling one probably being “Keep on Truckin’.”

Contrary to the cachet that Mr. Natural gave the notion, there was never that much virtue in being natural. That certainly has been true in the development of modern arboriculture law. There was a time when the common law made a substantial distinction between the natural and the, dare we say, artificial. If you had a tree on your land that had sprouted and was nurtured without your help, like the dozens of volunteer maple tree sprouts we yank out of our daylilies every year, the tree could do as it wished – grow, shed branches, attack the neighbor’s sewer lines with its roots, even decay and fall on the neighbor’s car – while you were exonerated of any responsibility. On the other hand, if your great-grandpa had planted the elm tree out back a century ago on returning home from the Great War, and it has become diseased and rotted (as trees are wont to do), the common law made you responsible for whatever damage its decay may cause.

You can imagine the furball this rule has caused. Who could tell whether your great grandfather planted that tree before catching influenza and cashing in? And for that matter, what possible should the agency by which the seed got into the ground have on whether a property owner ought to shoulder some duty to third parties for the condition of his or her property?

As society changed and population shifted to urban and suburban living, more often than ever courts have had the opportunity to question the rationale for the natural/artificial dichotomy. Today’s case is an excellent example of how appellate courts found themselves grappling with the issue.

One note: Despite the fact that the overwhelming reason for the damage to the Rowes’ house was that the McGees shirked their responsibility for the diseased tree, the Court found that the victims themselves had a very small role in the overall negligence. Under the old tort law doctrine of contributory negligence, if a defendant were 99% negligent, a plaintiff was only 1% negligent – contributorily negligent, we used to say – the plaintiff collected nothing. Zero. Nada. Zip. Bupkis.

The pernicious “contributory negligence” doctrine gave way in the late 20th century to “comparative negligence,” a much more sensible approach in which the percentage of negligence is weighed by the jury. If a defendant is 70% negligent and the plaintiff 30% negligent for the plaintiff’s injuries, the damage award is cut by 30%. Much more rational.

Rowe v. McGee, 5 N.C.App. 60, 168 S.E.2d 77 (N.C.App. 1969). Noah and Jeanette McGee sold a tract of land to Chuck, who built a house on it and promptly sold it to Ed and Josie Rowe. The McGees held on to a second tract of land which adjoined the Rowes’ new premises.

An oak tree stood on the McGees’ land, a towering old thing that was hollow and partially rotten, and leaning in a manner that suggested sooner or later it would fall. The tree was completely natural: no evidence suggested any landowner had planted or nurtured it. The oak was in this decrepit condition when Chuck bought the neighboring plot. Part of the McGees’ deal with Chuck was that he would remove the tree, but he did not. Instead, he completed the house and sold it to the Rowes, with the tree still leaning toward the new house.

The Rowes found it hard to enjoy their spanking-new thoroughly-modern luxury home with this next-door Sword of Damocles looming outside their living room window, so they demanded that the McGees eliminate the hazard. The McGees told the Rowes they wanted the great oak reduced to sawdust, they would have to do it themselves. The Rowes agreed to take it down.

Sadly, as of the night of April 22, 1967, they had not yet done so. That night, Mother Nature resolved the problem, blowing the decayed oak right onto the Rowes’ living room davenport and new RCA color TV.

The Rowes sued the McGees for damages. The trial court agreed the McGees had a duty to remove the tree and were responsible to the Rowes for damages. However, because the Rowes told the McGees they would remove the tree and did not, they were found to be contributorily negligent, so they were awarded nothing. The Rowes appealed.

Held: Because the McGees knew that their oak tree was decayed and liable to fall and damage Ed and Josie’s house, the McGees had a duty to eliminate the danger, and could not with impunity place the burden to remove the tree on the Rowes.

The Court of Appeals admitted that there were no North Carolina cases on the precise issue, and the state of the law – as reflected in The Restatement of the Law of Torts – was that “where a natural condition of land causes an invasion of another’s interest in the use and enjoyment of other land, the possessor of the land containing the natural condition is not liable for such invasion.” Thus, the Court said, at least historically, the law relieved the McGees of any obligation for mischief caused by the old oak.

The term “’natural condition’ comprehends trees which are the result of a natural condition,” the Court said, “not trees which have been planted by man.” But, as the Court conceded, it often was difficult to determine whether the tree’s origin was natural or artificial.

Ironically, in concluding that the natural-artificial distinction no longer mattered, the Court found direction in a case from Massachusetts, that flinty home of the self-reliant Massachusetts Rule. It cited a Bay State case in which a defendant owned a vacant lot with a large, dead elm tree. When a branch from the tree fell across the property line and hit a neighbor, the Massachusetts Court held that keeping such a tree near a property line constituted a private nuisance, observing that

public policy in a civilized community requires that there be someone to be held responsible for a private nuisance on each piece of real estate, and, particularly in an urban area, that there be no oases of nonliability where a private nuisance may be maintained with impunity.

In the Rowes’ row with the McGees, our North Carolina Court concluded that the greater probability of injury to other people or their property imposes a higher degree of care upon the owner of the tree or structure. In this case, the Court said, “where the defendants knew that the tree on their property was decayed and liable to fall and to damage the property of Edward and Josephine, we think and hold that the defendants were under a duty to eliminate the danger and could not with impunity place such burden to remove the tree on Edward and Josephine.”

But, the Court said, the trial judge was right to give the contributory negligence instruction due to the Rowes’ telling the McGees that they would remove the tree but did not, so the Rowes still took nothing.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray