Case of the Day – Monday, August 3, 2015
SURVIVOR – LAWSUIT ISLAND
Life (and law practice) sometimes imitates art. It may be a stretch to label the long-in-the-tooth CBS series, Survivor, as art, but any number of great artists, authors and composers were unappreciated during their day, just as the Survivor writers currently allege that they are unappreciated. Maybe some day, Survivor will be studied by college students as a paradigm of our day. Scary, isn’t it? Arthur C. Clarke once predicted just such a thing …
But our point – just like contestants are voted off the island in Survivor, weak cases are many times voted off the docket, so to speak, by summary judgment. Summary judgment is a mechanism for a judge to decide cases where the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
In today’s case, Stack was trimming Hernandez’s trees at Hernandez’s invitation. While working on a lawn with spotty and bumpy grass, Stack tripped on a small depression and broke his leg. He sued, of course – who wouldn’t? His suit alleged that Hernandez should have been aware of the depression and should have warned him of it. He didn’t have any proof that Hernandez was aware of the depression, and the Court very nearly granted summary judgment for Hernandez. But it concluded that a reasonable juror conceivably could — after hearing witnesses and cross-examination — conclude that Hernandez should have known about the depression, and should have either warned Stack or filled it in himself.
So after the summary judgment challenge, Stack remained a “survivor” — leaving it to a jury to vote his case off the island later.
Stack v. Hernandez, Not Reported in A.2d, 2007 WL 1893617 (Conn.Super.Ct., June 12, 2007). Stack was trimming trees at the defendant’s property at the invitation and permission of the defendant. While doing so, he stepped in a depression in the front lawn and broke his leg.
The depression was about 4 inches wide and 3 or 4 inches deep. Stack’s right toe went into the depression and stopped. The lawn was bumpy and had yellow patches in it. Stack did not see the depression before he stepped into it. Hernandez had no actual knowledge of the depression. He performed normal maintenance on the lawn himself but had never noticed the hole.
Stack sued Hernandez for negligence, alleging that Hernandez failed to remedy the depression in the lawn or to warn him of it, even though he knew or should have known of its presence. Hernandez filed for summary judgment on the grounds that there was no genuine issue of material fact on the issue of notice.
Held: Summary judgment was denied. The Court observed that summary judgment is not well adapted to negligence cases, where, as here, the ultimate issue in contention involved a mixed question of fact and law.
The conclusion that a defendant was negligent is necessarily one of fact. A possessor of land has a duty to an invitee to reasonably inspect and maintain the premises in order to render them reasonably safe. In addition, the possessor of land must warn an invitee of dangers that the invitee could not reasonably be expected to discover.
The existence of actual or constructive notice is a question of fact. Although Hernandez argued there was no evidence from which a judge or jury could conclude that he had actual or constructive notice of the depression or that it was a danger of which Stack was entitled to be warned, the Court found Stack’s allegation strong enough to survive a summary judgment motion.
The Court characterized Stack’s claim as weak, but conceded that a reasonable person could conclude that the depression in the lawn was a “danger” which Hernandez should have discovered and remedied with a reasonable inspection. The Court observed that a party has the same right to submit a weak case as he has to submit a strong one, and gave him his day in court to submit it.
Case of the Day – Tuesday, August 4, 2015
THEY DO THINGS FUNNY IN LOUISIANA
Things are different in Louisiana. It’s the only state in America not to have a legal system based on English common law. Counties are parishes, county commissioners are “police juries,” and when a party loses in court, it may file a devolutive appeal.
But Louisiana has a lot of trees and thus generates a substantial amount of neighbor and tree law. Today’s case is a little different, a case of a large farm seeking to get a county (parish) road – long closed due to a bridge being down – declared abandoned, so that ownership could revert to the farm. The evidence was all over the map, including minutes of the parish government showing an intent — albeit a desultxory one — to get the bridge fixed and the road reopened, recall of the people who lived around and near the road as to when it was closed, and even a tree expert, who dated a tree growing up through the roadbed of the abandoned stretch of highway.
The trial court weighed all of the conflicting evidence, and concluded that the weight of it supported a finding that the parish had abandoned the road more than 10 years before, meaning that ownership reverted to Richland. The appellate court didn’t necessarily agree, but appellate courts review lower court decisions deferentially. Here, the standard was whether the trial judge’s findings were reasonable, based on the record, and the court of appeals said they were.
Richland Plantation, Inc. v. East Feliciana Parish, 973 So.2d 179 (La.App. 1 Cir. 2007). The Parish of East Feliciana maintained a public road running north from Richland Creek to Louisiana Highway 422 through property owned by Richland Plantation, Inc. In 2005, Richland sued, maintaining that the Parish had abandoned the road. Richland alleged that public use and maintenance had been terminated for more than ten years, and therefore the road was abandoned and full ownership of the property reverted to it.
The Parish claimed the road was temporarily closed in December 1996 because the bridge across Richland Creek was unsafe. In September 2001, the Parish filed a petition for expropriation of some of Richland’s land for the bridge, and a judgment was rendered in its favor in March 2005, but was later reversed. The Parish said the expropriation suit established that it did not have any intention of abandoning the road.
Trial witnesses had varying recollections of when the road was closed. Photographs of the gravel road south of the bridge where it was still open and maintained were compared with photographs of the closed area of the road, which was overgrown with plants and seriously eroded. The bridge railings were twisted and bent, and the wooden planks were rotted and broken. A forester testified for Richland that one of the trees in the roadbed had been growing there for eleven years; a cross-section of the trunk showing its growth rings was submitted into evidence. In addition to witnesses’ testimony, the record included some bridge inspection reports, as well as the minutes from Parish meetings, showing when and why the road had been closed and when the expropriation process to rebuild the bridge was approved. The trial court agreed with Richland, and the Parish filed a devolutive appeal.
Held: The road was declared to have reverted to Richland. The Court said that under Lousiaina law, the public may own the land on which the road is built or merely have the right to use it. The courts have held that maintenance of a road by a Parish for three continuous years gives rise to a “tacit dedication” of the road to public use by its owner. Abandonment of a public road must be evidenced by (1) a formal act of revocation in accordance with Louisiana statute, (2) relocation of the public road by the governing body, or (3) clear and well-established proof of intent by the governing body to abandon. Nonuse of a strip of land as a public road or street for a period in excess of ten years may also result in termination of the public use.
Because the Parish didn’t execute any formal act of revocation and its meeting minutes showed its intent was to rebuild the bridge and re-open the road, the Court concluded there was no proof of any intent to abandon this roadway. Thus, the only means by which the Parish’s servitude of public use of the roadway could be terminated was by factual non-use for more than ten years. Within that period, even occasional use or use by only one person constituted public use.
Reviewing the record to determine whether a reasonable factual basis for the trial court’s findings, the Court held that while there were obviously some conflicting stories about exactly when and how the northern portion of Ellis Road was closed, there was reasonable factual basis in the record for the trial court’s finding that the road had not been used for over ten years and was, therefore, abandoned by the Parish.
Richland’s licensed forester testified concerning the age of a tree that was located in the roadbed of the old road, and determined from dendrochronology how long the tree had been there. He determined that the tree growing in the roadbed was 11 years old when it was cut in June 2006, thus dating the abandonment of the road at over 10 years.
Case of the Day – Wednesday, August 5, 2015
Sometimes, reality bites. Not just the movie, but real life. It especially bites when the very steps a prudent man takes to protect himself become the evidence on which a court relies to put him in the jeopardy he sought to avoid.
So it was with Mr. Jackson. He sold some land by land installment contract (also known as contract for deed or installment sale agreement) to Mr. Smith. Pay attention, because land contracts have become much more popular in the last five years. A land installment contract lets a property owner safely sell land with seller financing. The buyer puts down a small (sometimes no) down payment, with an agreement to make monthly payments for a period of time until the purchase price has been paid. At that time, the seller (sometimes called the “vendor”) transfers the land to the buyer (called the “vendee”).
Once in a blue moon (like the one last week), a land installment contract is necessary for the completion of a real estate deal between two parties of equal bargaining power and sophistication. We recall handling one once in our legal career. But only once. Land installment contracts are almost always not very good deals – not just because the terms are oppressive or one-sided (although they often are) – but because the contracts represent transactions that are only financing of last resort. The vendees are often scarcely able to handle the payments, let alone able to manage the rigors of home ownership. In our experience, many if not most land installment contracts fail, resulting in evictions or foreclosure (depending on the state laws).
Perhaps because of the likelihood that the property will fall into disrepair or the vendee will default, many vendors want land contract documents that provide them with as much control over their properties as possible. This is understandable. What is less understandable is that sometimes, the more control a vendor reserves to himself or herself, the less safe he or she becomes.
In today’s case, the vendor understandably required the vendee to buy insurance on the place that named the vendor as a named insured. That made sense. After all, the vendee only had paid about 17% of the purchase price, meaning he didn’t have a very big stake in the place. But the vendor wanted to be sure the vendee did what he was supposed to, so the vendor drove by the place on a nearly daily basis, and he bought insurance for the place himself. The vendee reimbursed him, but the arrangement was at odds with what the contract required. Partly because the vendee knew how closely the vendor was watching the place, he checked with the vendor about alterations and modifications before he undertook them.
When a 10-year old boy riding a bike was struck and killed, the boy’s mother blamed obstruction in sight lines caused by untrimmed trees on the property. After a suitable period of mourning, she sued. She went after not only vendee Smith but after Mr. Jackson, too. He was the guy who really controlled the property, she claimed. The trial court disagreed and dismissed Jackson from the suit.
The Court of Appeals reversed. The facts that the vendee had paid so little and Mr. Jackson had cared so much about the condition of the property — and especially because he had gotten his own insurance even though the agreement dictated that Smith would do so — suggested to the Court that there was a real question of fact as to whether Mr. Jackson had control of the premises. He just might be to blame, the Court suggested, for the tree that had never been trimmed and which had allegedly obscured the young boy’s view of oncoming traffic. The Court returned the case to the trial court for a jury’s consideration.
Poor Mr. Jackson. Normally, vendors aren’t liable for the conditions of premises they have conveyed pursuant to land installment contracts. But vendors want the best of both worlds, to have control over their property until they’re paid, while not being liable for anything that goes wrong. Mr. Jackson was like that. He probably thought he was being very prudent in approving changes, in making sure insurance was in place, and in driving by like a stalker in Hollywood Hills. Instead, his caution only made the Court suspect that he had retained a lot more control than the typical vendor.
There’s a lesson here. If you sell pursuant to land contract, get a good lawyer to write as strong a contract as is prudent. Then, enforce the contract. Stick to the deal. If you want to deviate from its terms, sign a written amendment. Don’t start “rewriting” the deal by your conduct.
Scheible v. Jackson, 881 N.E.2d 1052 (Ct.App. Ind. 2008). Jackson sold a parcel to Smith under a land installment contract. Smith lived on the premises. In early 2005, Jackson received a certified notice from the City of Columbus about saplings growing on the property that had to be removed. Jackson gave the notice to Smith, who took care of the problem.
However, a mature tree on the property hung over the sidewalk, the tree lawn and a part of 7th Street’s westbound lane. Branches of the tree drooped quite low, touching or almost touching the grass. One summer day, Mrs. Scheible’s ten-year-old son, Travis, was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk along the north side of 7th Street. Just west of the tree, Travis started to cross the street. The leaves and branches of the tree obstructed his view. A motorist struck Travis’ bicycle, killing the boy.
Travis’ mother sued Jackson and Smith. She alleged Jackson and Smith both exercised control of the property and that they owed a duty to the traveling public to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition. Jackson moved for summary judgment, arguing that he owed no duty of care to Travis. The trial court agreed. Mrs. Scheible appealed.
Held: The Court reversed. Noting that young Travis was not on the property when he was struck, the Court conceded that as an initial matter, it appeared that a vendor is not liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land. However, the law was clear that 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.
The Court focused much more on control that it did on mere possession. The evidence — taken in a light most favoring Mrs. Scheible (which it must be when summary judgment is being considered) suggested that Jackson retained substantial control. Smith, who lived on the land and was buying it under land contract, had paid only a small portion — about 17% — of the total price. He testified he consulted with Jackson on major alterations, and discussed removal of the tree that allegedly obstructed Travis’ view before the tree was cut down, after the accident. The Court said it wasn’t clear whether Smith just advised Jackson or actually had to obtain his approval for alterations. To be sure, Jackson maintained a substantial interest in the property as well as a financial stake: he testified he drove by the property often.
The Court held that where a person retains control of property, regardless of the contents of the land installment contract, liability may still attach. The Court said that “[o]ne who assumes the control and management of property cannot escape liability for injuries by showing a want of title in himself.” The fact of a land-sale contract, the Court said, is not itself dispositive as to the vendor’s non-liability.
What’s more, the fact that Jackson and Smith deviated from the precise terms of the contract bothered the Court. The contract terms provided Smith would carry insurance on the property, with the Jacksons and Smith being named as insureds. However, Jackson kept his existing insurance policies on the property in place. He paid the premiums and Smith reimbursed him. The Court held that this meant that Jackson’s use of the property was insured, but Smith — the person Jackson asserted to have been the only one with control of the property — had no coverage at all. The Court found it ironic that Jackson sought to avoid responsibility for the condition of the property, yet maintained two insurance policies on which he was the sole insured. Along with other elements of the case, the Court held, Jackson’s insuring himself to the exclusion of his vendee, Smith, supported the reasonable inference that Jackson controlled the property.
Summary judgment was reversed and the case was sent to trial.
Case of the Day – Thursday, August 6, 2015
WHO YOU GONNA CALL?
It’s not easy to defeat a utility company holding an easement for transmission lines, especially after the great power outage of a decade ago. The great Blackout of August 2003, after all, started primarily when power lines sagged into trees in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.
Yeah, it’s not easy to beat the power company and its chainsaw-wielding minions … but the Corrigans did it for awhile. They had granted an easement to a Cleveland electric utility for a transmission line. In the wake of the blackout, the utility told the Corrigans (and thousands of others) that it would vigorously pursue cleaning up vegetation in the easements. This mean, among other things, no trees within 25 feet of the lines.
The Corrigans had a big silver maple that was about 22.5 feet from the lines. They loved the tree, so they hired an arborist at considerable expense to trim the tree away from the lines and to inject the tree with a hormone to slow growth. Tough luck, the utility said, it’s coming down anyway.
So who do you call when the power company shows up with chainsaws and a gleam in its institutional eye? The Corrigans raced to the local common pleas court, and asked for an injunction. The trial judge agreed, and the Court of Appeals concurred. Both of those courts sided with the Corrigans that the utility could only cut trees that were “a possible threat to the transmission lines.”
It seemed important to the Court of Appeals that the community had not experienced any service interruptions since the Corrigans had pruned the tree, although that reasoning’s pretty thin. The tree has to only fall once, cascading one failed transmission lines into a continental disaster. But the Court seems to have been favorably impressed by the amount of money the Corrigans had spent getting the tree professionally trimmed.
The utility saw an issue here that was bigger than just the Corrigans and their lone silver maple tree. It framed the question as being just who was in charge here, the 88-odd common pleas courts spread throughout Ohio or the public utilities commission. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed that this was indeed the issue, and ruled that the inclusiveness of the state statute and regulations delegating power to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio gave PUCO the sole authority to decide questions of vegetation management.
We have to admit that the appellate decision had left us with the uneasy feeling that the Court of Appeals’ attempt to do some rump justice here may have made it much more difficult for a utility to exercise its easement rights. To be sure, a utility being sued in a case like this would have to be prepared with an expensive and eye-popping case that graphically depicts the dangers that a tree in the transmission path — even a well cared-for tree — can pose.
The Ohio Supreme Court’s holding provides electric utilities a much friendlier forum in which they must litigate issues of vegetation management, although that may not be a bad thing. Utilities have to walk a fine line, incurring ire if property owners think trees were pruned too aggressively, and facing universal fury (not to mention catastrophe) when service is interrupted by vegetation coming into contact with transmission and distribution lines.
Corrigan v. Illuminating Co., 122 Ohio St.3d 265 (Sup.Ct. Ohio 2009). The Corrigans granted a quitclaim deed to The Illuminating Company, the local electric utility, for a transmission line to run through their yard. The easement gave the Illuminating Company the right to “enter upon the right-of-way occupied by said transmission lines … with full authority to cut and remove any trees, shrubs, or other obstructions upon the above described property which may interfere or threaten to interfere with the construction, operation and maintenance of said transmission lines.” The Corrigans had a large silver maple tree located about 22.5 feet from the centerline of the transmission lines. At considerable expense, they had their own arborist trim the tree and inject slow-growth hormone to keep the tree from posing a risk to the transmission line. Nevertheless, the Illuminating Company decided to remove the tree, and the Corrigans sued for an injunction.
The trial granted an injunction barring the Illuminating Company from removing the tree, and the Court of Appeals agreed. The electric utility, seeing the issue as one that transcended the issue of one tree, but rather affected the company’s ability to manage vegetation in its rights-of-way throughout the state.
Held: The Corrigans argued that the issue was purely a contract matter, but the Supreme Court disagreed. Noting that “[t]here is no question that the company has a valid easement and that the tree is within the easement” and the easement’s language was unambiguous that the utility had the right to remove trees that might interfere with its transmission lines, the Court said the issue was the correctness of “the company’s decision to remove the tree instead of pruning it.” That was “really an attack on the company’s vegetation-management plan [and] that type of complaint is a service-related issue which is within PUCO’s exclusive jurisdiction.”
The statute creating PUCO to administer and enforce these provisions provides that the commission hears complaints filed against public utilities alleging that “any regulation, measurement, or practice affecting or relating to any service furnished by the public utility, or in connection with such service, is, or will be, in any respect unreasonable, unjust, insufficient, unjustly discriminatory, or unjustly preferential.” This jurisdiction is “so complete, comprehensive and adequate as to warrant the conclusion that it is likewise exclusive.”
The Court used a two-part test to reach its determination. First, it asked whether the commission’s administrative expertise was required to resolve the issue in dispute, and, second, whether the act complained of constituted a practice normally authorized by the utility.
The Ohio Administrative Code chapter on electric service and safety standards requires that utility companies establish a right-of-way vegetation-control program to maintain safe and reliable service. The Code requires that each electric utility inspect its electric-transmission facilities (circuits and equipment) at least once every year, in accordance with written programs, and takes a number of factors into consideration such as arcing, sagging, and line voltage as well as regulatory requirements from OSHA, FAA, and the Army Corps of Engineers. In addition, electric utilities are required to comply with the American National Standard Institute’s National Electrical Safety Code. The utilities are required to submit their programs to the Commission, which will resolve any disputes as to the efficacy of the plan.
The Court concluded that the Ohio Administrative made it clear that PUCO’s administrative expertise is required to resolve the issue of whether removal of a tree is reasonable.
The second part of the test determined whether the act complained of constitutes a practice normally authorized by the utility. Again, the Court said, the Administrative Code made it clear that vegetation management is necessary to maintain safe and reliable electrical service. Thus, the Supreme Court ruled, the second part of the test was satisfied, and the Corrigan’s complaint fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of PUCO.
That meant that the Illuminating Company’s decision that the silver maple interfered or threatened to interfere with its transmission line was a service-related question, and one that the Corrigans could only dispute in front of PUCO. The Court of Appeals judgment was thrown out.
Case of the Day – Friday, August 7, 2015
BUT WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT LIKE THAT …
At the same time, nothing is as misunderstood by homeowners as is the careful, prudent trimming of trees – vegetation management, if you will – by the professionals working to ensure that our electrical service is safe and reliable.
It depends on whose ox is being gored, we suspect. The utilities generally hire tree-trimming contractors, who are to trim to very specific standards. Some of those are national, like NERC’s FAC 003-01 standard for vegetation management. Utilities follow those for transmission lines. Under the distribution lines, those that carry power from the terminal of the transmission towers to your house, vegetation is generally trimmed according standards set by the state public utilities commission.
The major East Coast power outage on August 21, 2003, began with some operator error and software glitches that set the stage, but was triggered by a hot transmission line sagging into some trees that had gone untrimmed for too long. The resulting power failure affected 55 million people in Canada and the United States. Afterwards, the North American Reliability Corporation, a not-for-profit international regulatory authority whose mission is to assure the reliability of the bulk power system in North America, toughened up vegetation management standards in order to prevent another such blackout. State regulatory bodies followed suit for local vegetation management standards.
Suddenly, people who had gotten used to the electric company’s sporadic and desultory trimming of a few branches once every leap year found their yards overrun with tree service crews maniacally sawing down everything within a country block of a light pole. Naturally, some homeowners were a little disturbed. After all, the trees had always been trimmed a certain way, and just a little bit, and not very often. People may be in favor of progress, but no one likes change.
In California, the list of Luddites included a pair of walnut farmers, the Sarales of Linden, California, and Mr. Wilbur in Yuba County. Pacific Gas & Electric has an easement across both properties, 25 feet wide in the case of the Sarales, and a whopping 100 feet for Farmer Wilbur. Until November 2004, PG&E periodically trimmed the Sarales’ walnut trees within only about 10 feet away from the lines. After November 2004, however, over the Sarales’ protest, PG&E began trimming the walnut trees up to 20 feet away from the lines. Meanwhile, back at the Wilbur ranch, PG&E had been trimming the trees to a height of 12 feet for years, just enough to keep them clear of the power lines. But in February 2008, Wilbur learned that PG&E would start cutting 80 walnut trees to a height of only seven feet and 40 more to a height of 10 feet. The 10-foot trees would be of little value; the 7-footers would be worthless.
This being the United States of America, both the Sarales and Mr. Wilbur sued PG&E, demanding – what else – money and an order the PG&E cut out the cutting out.
Sometimes (say, once a month when the bill arrives), it can be tough to feel empathy for the electric company. But PG&E was really between a walnut and a hard place. It argued to the court that it was required by the California Public Utilities Commission (another entity it’s kind of hard to love) to maintain vegetation clearances, and the commission’s rules trumped whatever the court might say. In legal parlance, the utility argued, the court lacked jurisdiction to even entertain the Sarales’ plaints.
The Court of Appeals agreed. Applying what’s known as the “Covalt Test,” the Court first asked whether the Commission had the authority to adopt a regulatory policy on vegetation management. It then asked whether Commission had exercised its authority by adopting standards. Finally, the Court considered whether the lower court action requested by the plaintiffs would interfere with the Commission’s exercise of regulatory authority.
It was clear that the Public Utilities Commission had the power to regulate tree trimming in order to keep electric lines clear, and that it had used its power by adopting a standard that was being followed by PG&E. That being the case, the Court concluded that if the lower court ordered PG&E to pay damages to the Sarales and Mr. Wilbur because of trimming that was done according to Commission standards (not to mention banned such trimming in the future), the California Public Utilities Commission’s vegetation management rules would be frustrated.
Like it or not, regulatory agencies – those government bureaus put meat on sweeping, vague laws – control much of our lives. Some bureaucrats in Sacramento adopted standards that dramatically altered the vigor with which PG&E managed vegetation on its easements. It didn’t matter how the trees had been trimmed for the last 80 years or more.
Love progress. Hate change.
Sarale v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co., 189 Cal.App.4th 225, 117 Cal.Rptr.3d 24 (Ct.App. 3d Dist. 2010). These two case, consolidated on appeal, involved claims by landowners that PG&E engaged in excessive trimming of commercially productive walnut trees located under the utility’s power lines. The trial courts dismissed the complaints pursuant to Public Utilities Code section 1759. Section 1759 bars actions in superior court that will hinder or interfere with the exercise of regulatory authority by the California Public Utilities Commission.
On appeal, the Sarales and Wilbur contended the trial court erred by failing to adjudicate their claims under section 2106, because the court had jurisdiction to adjudicate the allegation that PG&E engaged in unreasonable tree trimming practices.
Held: The trial court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate claims that a power utility engaged in excessive trimming or unreasonable vegetation management when the utility has acted under guidelines or rules set forth by the Commission.
The Court of Appeals held that Section 1759 safeguards the Commission’s ability to adopt statewide safety protocols from being undermined by an unworkable patchwork of conflicting determinations regarding what constitutes necessary or proper management of power lines. Challenges that PG&E’s tree trimming is unreasonable, unnecessary, or excessive, lie within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Commission.
The Court noted that state law granted the California Public Utilities Commission “far-reaching duties, functions, and powers … including the power to fix rates, establish rules, hold various types of hearings, award reparation, and establish its own procedures.” Its broad authority authorizes the Commission to “do all things, whether specifically designated in [the Public Utilities Act] or in addition thereto, which are necessary and convenient’ in the exercise of its jurisdiction over public utilities.”
However, the Legislature has provided for a private right of action against public utilities for unlawful activities and conduct. Specifically, section 2106 provides for an action to recover for loss, damage, or injury “in any court of competent jurisdiction” by any corporation or person against “[a]ny public utility which does, causes to be done, or permits any act, matter, or thing prohibited or declared unlawful, or which omits to do any act, matter, or thing required to be done, either by the Constitution, any law of this State, or any order or decision of the commission.” But Section 2106 is limited by Section 1759, which construes 2106 “as limited to those situations in which an award of damages would not hinder or frustrate the commission’s declared supervisory and regulatory policies.”
The California Supreme Court has adopted what is called the “Covalt Test” determining whether an action is barred by section 1759: (1) whether the commission had the authority to adopt a regulatory policy; (2) whether the commission had exercised that authority; and (3) whether the superior court action would hinder or interfere with the commission’s exercise of regulatory authority.
As for the first test, the Court easily found that the Commission had the express authority to require every public utility to maintain its systems and equipment “in a manner so as to promote and safeguard the health and safety of its employees, passengers, customers, and the public.” The regulating of tree trimming distances around power lines effectuates this purpose, the Court held.
The second leg of the Covalt Test asked whether the Commission das exercised its regulatory authority over tree trimming. The Court cited Rule 35 of the Commission’s General Order No. 95, which had been rewritten after the 1994 death of a farmworker prompted the Commission to review the tree trimming practices of California electric utilities. The review resulted in the Commission’s adoption of “a table of specific clearances … to provide ascertainable minimum standards under … rule .”
The Court concluded that “it is quite apparent that the commission has exercised its jurisdiction to regulate tree trimming around power lines … For purposes of applying the Covalt test, it does not matter whether we characterize the commission’s actions broadly, as addressing ‘the management of vegetation near power lines,”’ or narrowly, as addressing ‘minimum [tree] trimming clearances.’ What matters is that the commission has exercised its authority to adopt a regulatory policy relating to tree trimming around power lines-regardless of how that policy may be characterized.”
Finally, the Court concluded that action by the trial court on the Sarales and Wilbur claims would hinder or interfere with the Commission’s exercise of its regulatory authority. The Commission’s stricter vegetation management did not apply a new, different, or additional use to the Sarale and Wilbur easements, but instead sought “only to correct a practice that turned out to be unsafe under previous formulation. In short, the commission’s guidelines for tree trimming addresses continuing safety concerns applicable to overhead power lines.”
The Court observed that the Sarales and Wilbur suits against PG&E essentially advanced claims of excessive tree pruning based on past vegetation management practices. Section 1759, the Court ruled, protects the Commission and utility companies from defending against lawsuits every time adjustments are made to protocols for vegetation management around power lines. The record in the case indicated that clearances for vegetation management surrounding power lines have been revised by the commission 13 times in the past 60 years. “Allowing owners of land containing overhead power lines to seek individualized judicial determinations of what might be ‘necessary’ or ‘proper’ vegetation would cause a regulatory nightmare for the commission that section 1759 was intended to prevent.
The Commission’s adoption of a minimum trimming standard reflected the agency’s determination that, in every situation, trimming clearance must meet the minimum standard in order to sufficiently ensure the safety of the electric system, surrounding property, and the public. That standard necessarily recognizes that, in some cases, safety considerations require that trimming exceed the minimum. The Court held that “the question of whether trimming must exceed the minimum standards on any particular section of an overhead power line is a factual issue that is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the commission to decide.”
The Court (disingenuously in our view) observed that its “holding does not leave the Sarales and Mr. Wilbur without a remedy for excessive tree trimming. The plaintiffs may contest Rule 35’s necessity and implementation before the commission.” Good luck with that.
Case of the Day – Monday, August 10, 2015
Today, we’re considering incorporeal hereditaments. Lawyers like cool terms like these, because they can charge more when their clients can’t understand what they’re saying. Here at Treeandneighborlaw.com, we demystify the law for you. That’s us – the homeowner’s friend.
Before we pull a muscle patting ourselves on the back, let’s get to today’s topic. A hereditament is nothing more than a right that can inherited. A corporeal one is that may be seen and handled, like a piece of real estate. Back in the day, conveyance of land was done by livery of seisin, wherein the propert seller would actually hand the buyer a twig or clump of dirt, a ritual conveyance of the real estate being sold. An incorporeal hereditament, on the other hand, is something that couldn’t be symbolically passed off, something intangible like an easement.
Sound boring? Some North Carolinians found out that boring or not, it’s important. A couple of landowners had, over the past 11 years or so, planted trees, built fences and otherwise taken actions inside a 30-foot driveway easement that encroached on the use of the passage by its owners. The easement owner, stymied in his use of the drive, sued. The defendants argued “too little, too late:” the plaintiffs were way beyond the 6-year statute of limitations for suing on incorporeal hereditaments. The plaintiffs said “poppycock!” (a legal term meaning “fiddlesticks!”). The statute didn’t start running until the invasion of the easement had passed the 20-year period for adverse possession of land or prescriptive easements. In other words, the plaintiff argued, he had 26 years from the time the trees were planted and fences were built to bring a lawsuit.
The Court of Appeals disagreed, siding with the defendants. This wasn’t a case of someone trespassing, taking land by adverse possession or a right by prescriptive easement. This was someone trying to undo an express easement. The lawsuit simply related to an incorporeal hereditament, and it was subject to the 6-year statute.
The result is curious. It means that an owner of an easement, a right that is often as valuable as the property itself, can lose that right by interference by the servient estate owner in a relatively brief period of time. To use a legal term, “you snooze, you lose.”
Pottle v. Link, 654 S.E.2d 64 (N.C.App., 2007). The Pottles owned Tract 6 on Cedar Island, and Snug Harbor South, LLC, owned Tract 4. Both of these owners held 30-foot wide easements allowing ingress to and egress from the public road to Tracts 6 and 4 and other lots. Mr. Link owned Tract 3 and Mr. Willets owned Tract 5, adjacent lots which were the servient estates over which the easements ran. About 11 years before the lawsuit was filed, Link planted several oak, cypress, holly, and cedar trees on Tract 3, joined several years later by two more oak trees to replacing two that had been destroyed by hurricanes.
He maintained the trees by installing an irrigation drip line and planting other vegetation on the tract In the summer of 2004, Willets installed a post and rope fence on Tract 5, and in 2005, Link built a fence. The Pottles and the LLC sued, arguing that Link’s trees and impeded traffic on the easement, and that Willets’ post and rope fence encroached on the easement as well. Plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Link and Willets had refused to clear the easements to provide access to property that had no other routes of access. Link and Willets moved for summary judgment, too, arguing that the 6-year statute of limitations for injuries to incorporeal hereditaments had expired, and that the plaintiffs’ actions constituted an abandonment of the easement. The trial court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, and defendants appealed.
Held: Summary judgment for the plaintiffs was reversed, and the defendants won on many of the issues. The Court of Appeals noted that the parties agreed that all encroachments, except the fences installed in 2004 and 2005, were planted or installed approximately nine to eleven years before the lawsuit. The only question, the Court said, was which statute of limitations applied. An affirmative easement is a right to make some use of land owned by another without taking a part thereof, while a negative easement prohibits the owner of a servient estate from doing something otherwise lawful upon his estate, because it will affect the dominant estate. Easements are incorporeal hereditaments, which is defined as “[a]n intangible right in land, such as an easement.” N.C. Gen.Stat. §1-50(3) requires that an action for injury to any incorporeal hereditament be brought within six years. The plaintiffs argued that the injury in this case was similar to an adverse possession, having a limitation period of twenty years, but the Court disagreed, holding that the cases relied on by the plaintiffs related to a defendant’s continuous trespass onto the plaintiffs’ property, not on plaintiffs’ incorporeal hereditament.
Because an injury to an incorporeal hereditament was at issue in this case, rather than a continuous trespass or a prescriptive easement to property held in fee, the Court held that N.C. Gen.Stat. §1-50(3) applied, and that plaintiffs’ case was barred where the six-year statute of limitations had been satisfied. All but two encroachments onto the plaintiffs’ easement began 9 to 11 years before the lawsuit. The defendants were therefore entitled to partial summary judgment as a matter of law. The fences had not been in place more than six years, but because the defendants argued that the fences did not encroach on the easement, an issue of fact existed, and summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs had to be reversed.
The case was sent back to go to trial on the question of whether the fences encroached on the easement.
Case of the Day – Tuesday, August 11, 2015
It’s very important when playing Frisbee to be accurate. Likewise in lawsuits, as poor Mr. Frisby! First, his trees get cut down by his neighbor, who was a little too aggressive in clearing timber up to his property line. Then, when he sues his neighbor for it, the tree-slasher suddenly gets hypertechnical on him.
Too bad Mr. Mugnier wasn’t as much a stickler for property boundaries as he was the rules of procedure. If he had paid a little more attention to detail back when he was swinging his Husqvarna with such reckless abandon, maybe there would be no lawsuit at all.
Mr. Frisby sued under the Louisiana timber trespass statute, but for good measure, his lawyer threw in a line “as well as any other legal and equitable relief deemed proper in the premises.” This is some of the usual legal mumbo jumbo lawyers always include in pleadings. Lucky thing for Mr. Frisby, too, because the timber trespass statute requires that a plaintiff introduce evidence of the fair market value of the timber, and Mr. Frisby’s lawyer forgot to do this.
“Gotcha!” yelled Mr. Mugnier’s mouthpiece (well, maybe he didn’t yell this precise phrase, but you get the idea). Mr. Mugnier argued that Mr. Frisby chose to sue under the statute, and because he forgot a necessary element of proof, he had nothing coming. It’s fairly clear that this clever argument offended the sensibilities of the trial court. After all, Mr. Frisby was left with a pile of cut timber on his land that Mr. Mugnier never denied having cut. It just didn’t seem right that Frisby should get something to compensate him for his loss.
The Court thought so, too. It seized on the catchall phrase in Mr. Frisby’s complaint asking for “any other legal and equitable relief deemed proper in the premises. “Hmm,” the trial court said, “sounds like he’s pleading general tort principles to me” (well, maybe the court didn’t mutter this precise phrase, but you get the idea). Under Louisiana’s general tort code, “[e]very act whatever of man that causes damage to another obliges him by whose fault it happened to repair it.”
That’s what Mr. Frisby was trying to say, the trial court reasoned, despite the fact that maybe he wasn’t all that clear in his pleading of it. The trial court found that the damage was about $21,000, plus expert fees, costs and interest. Fortunately for the aggrieved Mr. F, the Court of Appeals agreed.
There’s a lesson here for Mr. Frisby (or his counsel). An inadvertent failure in a critical element of proof — the fair market value of the timber cut down — came perilously close to costing Mr. Frisby any recovery at all. The legal thicket is littered with snares for the unwary: learned counsel has to be careful.
Frisby v. Mugnier, 971 So.2d 1045 (La.App. 2007). Mugnier and Frisby owned adjacent property. In November of 2003, Mugnier cleared out trees, brush, and undergrowth on his land, but went beyond the boundary line between the properties and cut trees on land owned by Frisby. Frisby filed a petition for damages claiming that Mugnier entered his property and cut or destroyed a number of trees. Frisby sought damages and attorney fees pursuant to Louisiana Revised Statute 3:4278.1, the timber trespass statute, as well as “any other legal and equitable relief deemed proper in the premises.” In order to win under the statute, Frisby was obligated to prove the fair market value of the trees, something his lawyer forgot to do. Nevertheless, the court issued judgment in favor of Frisby in the amount of $21,000.00 in damages, plus expert fees, costs, and interest. Mugnier appealed.
Held: The judgment was upheld. Under Louisiana law, a landowner whose timber has been removed without his consent may recover damages pursuant to timber trespass statute or under general tort principles. Such damages include the cost of restoration that has been or may reasonably be incurred, or, at the plaintiff’s election, the difference between the value of the property before and after the harm.
However, if the cost of restoring the property to its original condition is disproportionate to the value of the property or economically wasteful, damages are measured only by the difference between the value of the property before and after the harm. There is an exception to this rule, if there is a reason personal to the owner for restoring the original condition, or there is reason to believe that the plaintiff will, in fact, make the repairs.
In this case, the Court said, the allegations in Frisby’s petition seeking damages for Mugnier’s cutting down his trees was sufficient to support award of damages under the general tort damages statute — even though Frisby specifically sought treble damages under the timber trespass statute, because Frisby alleged that Mugnier trespassed and cut down trees without his consent — because he sought “any other legal and equitable relief deemed proper.” As long as the facts constituting a claim are alleged, a party may be granted any relief to which he is entitled under the pleadings and the evidence; the “theory of the case” doctrine, under which a party must select a theory of his case or defense and adhere to it throughout litigation, has been abolished.
Anyway, the Court said, award of $21,000 in damages was not manifestly erroneous where there was uncontradicted expert testimony as to the cost for replacement of the cut trees and removal of the damages trees, and there was no evidence that those costs were disproportionate to the value of owner’s property.
Case of the Day – Wednesday, August 12, 2015
WHERE THERE’S SMOKE, THERE’S A VICTIM
It’s the height of the vacation season, so we thought we’d give all you happy campers a surprising and useful piece of information: campfires can be hot, even when you can’t see flames.
Now, you may say, “this is transpicuously obvious!” (especially if you have a good vocabulary), but alas, this is not necessarily so. Ask the Morrises. They went camping at beautiful Goliad State Park, between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. At the Park, they occupied a campsite which had recently been vacated by another camper. Their 3-year old wandered into the campfire ring, where the child was burned.
The Morrises were not really the kind of parents who would look in a mirror and ask why they hadn’t supervised an inquisitive child who was exploring a strange and exciting new location. Nope. The Morrises were the kind of parents who would rather blame someone else. They sued the Parks and Wildlife Department for not making sure the campfire pit was cold, and the previous camper for not putting her fire completely out.
The Parks Department claimed it was immune from liability under the Texas Tort Claims Act and Recreational Use Statute, but the Morrises argued that the Department and the prior camper both were grossly negligent. If their claim was true, that would deny the Department the protection of the statute.
The trial court disagreed with the Morrises, as did the Court of Appeals. In a decision sure to be denounced by Smokey Bear, the Court held that it was socially useful for a prior camper to leave a smoldering fire for the next camper to build on. What’s more, it was somewhat foreseeable to the Morrises that a campfire pit might be hot and the kind of place from which you’d want to keep your 3-year old a little distant.
The Department was held to be immune from suit, and the prior camper left the courtroom a happy but smarter one. She’ll no doubt douse her campfires in the future, just like Smokey advises.
Morris v. Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept., 226 S.W.3d 720 (Tex.App., 2007). The Morrises arrived at Goliad State Park, where they set up their campsite. Shortly after arriving at the Park, their 3-year-old child fell into a campfire ring containing hot coals from a previous fire. The toddler suffered second- and third-degree burns requiring medical treatment. The Morrises sued the Texas Department of Parks & Recreation and Sandra Carson — the previous camper at the site — alleging common-law negligence and gross negligence. Carson filed a motion for summary judgment, and the Department claimed governmental immunity as a “plea to jurisdiction.” The trial court granted both defendants’ motions, and the Morrises appealed.
Held: The trial court was right to dismiss the case. As to camper Carson, the Court quickly disposed of the Morrises’ negligence claim. Carson, the Court said, had no legal duty to the next campers to extinguish her campfire. The campfire was left burning in a place designated for fires at that campsite, and it was hardly unforeseeable to the Morrises that hot coals might be found within the campfire ring. The Park did not require or expect campers to extinguish fires left in designated campfire rings. In fact, the Court held, there was significant social utility in a policy that encouraged campers leaving unextinguished fires from which the next camper could start his or her campfire.
As for the Department of Parks, the Morrises attempted to circumvent sovereign immunity by claiming that the Department was grossly negligent in not inspecting campfire rings to ensure that the fires are extinguished. Under the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity, the Court said, a governmental unit is immune from suit for the performance of governmental functions.- The Department had waived sovereign immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act to the extent specified by the recreational use statute, which is for injuries caused through gross negligence. To establish liability for a premises defect — which is what the hot campfire pit would be — under the Tort Claims Act, a plaintiff must prove either (1) willful, wanton, or grossly negligent conduct; or (2) that the defendant had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition, the plaintiff did not, and the defendant failed to warn of the condition or make the condition safe.
In this case, the Court ruled, the Morrises’ task was more daunting because a landowner has no duty to protect trespassers from obvious defects or conditions. A hot campfire ring from the previous night’s camping was a condition inherent in the use to which the land was put, and thus, the Department had no duty to protect Morrises’ child from the obvious and expected condition. Thus, the Court held, under the recreational use statute there could be no gross negligence on the part of the Department because there was no duty.
A substantial part of the case related to the proper venue for the case, a matter of great procedural interest to lawyers but not terribly relevant to application of the Recreational Use Statute.
Case of the Day – Thursday, August 13, 2015
We settled a particularly difficult case yesterday. Our 10-year old neighbor Christian found a Superball (remember those?) in the grass near his house. He was busy tormenting his little sister Lexia with it – something at which 10-year old boys are especially adept – when he wondered whether he could keep his find or he’d have to “give it back.”
We asked “Give it back to whom?”
He shrugged, having no idea who the owner had once been. His situation reminded us of a sad Ohio news story a few years ago about a contractor who found a wad of money in the walls of a house he was fixing up for a new owner. The contractor and the owner and — finally — the descendants of a prior owner — all became embroiled in litigation, and in the end, the lawyers got virtually all of it. Shades of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce!
Lucky for Christian, we knew what Ohio law had to say about “treasure troves,” those little bundles of cash, jewelry, art or old Hostess products that people occasionally stumble over. It turns out that the answer is, it depends on whether the property is lost, abandoned, stolen or mislaid. If it’s lost or abandoned, it turns out, Christian’s little sister was right in the advice she gave him: finders keepers.
In today’s case, a very lucky cop found thousands of gold and silver coins scattered on a city street at 4 a.m. He picked them up, and then, being a dutiful cop, turned them in. The owner never stepped forward — and we bet there’s a story in that — so after about a year, the police officer sued for ownership.
The City opposed him, arguing that the money was located on its street and the policeman was on its time clock when he found them. None of that mattered, the Court said. All that counted was that the lost or abandoned property was found by Officer Baker, who thus had ownership rights superior to anyone other than the rightful owner.
Our advice to Christian, then, was the Superball was probably lost property, because who’d willingly abandon such a cool ball? It was his to enjoy unless the true owner stepped forward.
Sadly, our legal efforts were for naught. Shortly after our sage advice to him, Christian lost the Superball on an especially high bounce into a nearby cornfield. Losers weepers.
Baker v. City of West Carrollton, Case No. 9904 (Ct.App. Montgomery Co., August 7, 1986) (unpublished), 1986 WL 8615. Police officer Charles Baker found a large number of gold and silver coins scattered on a West Carrollton public street. After reporting the find, he and city employees picked up 6,871 gold and silver coins and placed them in the police property room. When no one stepped forward to claim them, Baker sued to establish his right to the money. The City counterclaimed, arguing that the money was found on its street, and Baker was its employee, so the money belonged to it. The trial court agreed, and awarded the money to the City. Baker appealed.
Held: The money belonged to Baker, not the City. The money was considered to be “lost” or “abandoned” property. Under Ohio common law, a finder who takes possession of “abandoned property” acquires absolute title. A finder of a lost article, although he does not by such finding acquire an absolute property or ownership, has a prior claim thereto as against everyone except the actual owner. The rule is practically absolute and is not affected by special circumstances of the character of the thing found, the place of finding, or the relation of the finder to the third person, even where the finder is the employee of the owner of the premises.
At common law a finder who takes possession of lost property has a duty to protect the property; to seek the true owner, and to return the property to the true owner on demand. The state had no right to found property as against the finder. Although Ohio law governs disposition of lost or abandoned property by police departments, the law requires the property to be turned over to persons with a right of possession, and Ohio courts have held that a finder of lost property which is unclaimed by the true owner is a person “entitled to possession of property” under that law. Officer Baker was such a person.
West Carrollton argued that since Baker is a police officer he should not receive a reward for performing his duty. The Court agreed that rewards for police officers’ performance of their duties aren’t appropriate, but it said that the City’s award analogy was strained. It held that Baker’s primary duty was to the true owner of the coins, and he got no reward for that.
The Ohio Supreme Court later upheld the decision. Now, if those Justices can just help Christian search the cornfield.
Case of the Day – Friday, August 14, 2015
Yesterday, we wrote about our 10-year old neighbor’s remarkable good fortune in finding a Wham-O Superball, and what law governed whether he could keep it or had to return it to another claimant. All of that turned out to be moot, as he promptly lost it in a soybean field. But we had so much fun writing about finding lost property that we though we’d take up the obverse of that coin today – what happens when the lost property was stolen to begin with.
Now, ripped from the headlines … and based on a true story, we present the tale of poor driving instructor Martha Fuqua, whose purported avocation of haunting flea markets and garage sales brought her a brief shining moment of wealth and fame.
Martha is the woman who dropped $7.00 on a dusty and faded old painting in a dilapidated frame. Or so her story goes. She says it sat around her place for a few years before she decided to get it appraised at her late mother’s urging. Lo and behold, the painting turned out to be by the French impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir. What a lucky break for Martha! And it seemed to be worth somewhere north of what Martha had paid for it, about 15,000 times her initial investment.
Everyone loves a story like this, an everyday Joe or Jane unexpectedly becoming rich because of serendipity. Like the German teen who just stubbed her toe on a 1-lb. gold bar while swimming on vacation. Martha’s story was equally compelling – maybe even more so, because she had just lost her teaching position and was training to be a casino blackjack dealer. No question, Martha sure could stand to be Queen for a Day, maybe stub her toe on a windfall herself right about now.
But alas, nothing ruins a good story like an eyewitness. Or two.
When Martha sought to auction the piece of art in 2012, the word quickly spread that the piece was Renoir’s On the Shore of the Seine, a 5½ x 9-inch landscape. Martha, who began calling herself “Renoir Girl,” was basking in the publicity. Reporters and art enthusiasts tried without success to establish the provenance of the work, and someone eventually tracked it back to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Officials there denied ever having had it hanging on their walls. But shortly before the auction – which was expected to bring Martha over $100,000 – the Washington Post found documents showing that the May family, a prominent patron of the BMA, had loaned the work to the museum in 1937. Museum officials checked again, and this time found records showing the landscape had been reported stolen in 1951.
Enter Renoir Girl’s brother, Matt, who said that he had seen the painting among his late mother’s possessions several years before his sister said she had bought it for the price of a Subway foot-long and a medium drink. A mother who happened to have been an art student in Baltimore in the early 1950s, right when the diminutive painting was plucked from the wall of the museum. Other family acquaintances recalled seeing the painting at the Fuqua family’s home in Virginia in the 80s and 90s. Oh, those pesky eyewitnesses!
The BMA complained that it didn’t really care how Martha Fuqua came to possess the work, it belonged to the museum. The FBI bravely swept in, shot an unarmed civilian or two, wrestled the painting to the floor, probably tased the frame once or twice, and took possession of the work. Then the courts took over.
The government filed what is known as an interpleader action in Federal court. An interpleader action states in essence that the filer is in possession of some property to which there are competing claims for ownership. It asks the Court to separate the wheat from the chaff, and sort out the claims. Ms. Fuqua said that she found the Renoir fair and square, and that anyway, she possessed it and possession is nine-tenths of the law. The BMA said that the law doesn’t let anyone, even an innocent purchaser, take title to stolen goods.
In re “Paysage Bords De Seine,” Case No. 1:13-CV-347 (E.D.Va., Jan. 14, 2014): Only two parties remained of the four claimants named by the plaintiff United States of America, Martha Fuqua – who claimed she bought the artwork at a flea market – and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The BMA claimed the Renoir landscape had been reported stolen from its walls 60 years before.
Surprisingly enough to people who follow this kind of thing, the Court actually observed that “the Fourth Circuit has endorsed the truism ‘[t]hat possession is nine-tenths of the law’.” Virginia common law presumes that the person in possession of a piece of property has a superior claim to it, although the presumption can be rebutted by sufficient evidence. The Court noted that one way of rebutting the presumption was by proving the property was stolen, because the law was clear that “even a good-faith purchaser for value cannot acquire title to stolen goods.”
BMA essentially was bringing a detinue action, a common law action to obtain an order from the court that its property be returned to it from another person – not necessarily a wrongdoer – who for whatever reason is in possession of it. In order to prevail, BMA had to prove (1) a property interest in the item; (2) the right to immediate possession; (3) that the property is capable of identification; (4) that the property is of some value; and (5) that it possessed the property at some time in the past.
The parties didn’t dispute that the property – a painting – could be identified and that it had considerable value. Ms. Fuqua, however, claimed that the museum couldn’t prove it had ever possessed the painting. The BMA produced copies of the 1951 police report, copies of its records showing that the painting had been loaned to it, and copies of board minutes from the early 1950s citing the theft and an insurance claim. (In case anyone wonders, the May family descendents had been named in the suit as potential claimants, but they waived any claim to the Renoir).
Martha Fuqua argued that the BMA records weren’t reliable evidence, but the District Court found the internal records showing the painting was loaned to it, that it catalogued it and exhibited it in due course, were convincing. Even more persuasive was the official copy of the police report, proving that the BMA had reported the painting had been purloined. Ms. Fuqua complained that the police report was hearsay, but the Court correctly pointed out that the report wasn’t intended to prove that the painting had been stolen, but rather to prove that it had been reported stolen. Too fine a point for you? Such is the nature of the law of evidence.
The Court concluded that Ms. Fuqua hadn’t offered any evidence that the painting had not been stolen, and the BMA had provided plenty of proof that it had been. As a final “hail Mary,” the Renoir Girl speculated that maybe Saidie May – who had loaned the painting to the museum – hadn’t had her husband’s permission to do so. Like that mattered. The Court dismissed this canard as rank speculation.
The painting was ordered back to the museum. And by her reckoning, Martha Fuqua is out the price of a 12” meatball marinara and Coke.
Martha most recently has said she’d like to put all of the kerfluffle behind her. One can hardly blame her. As for Marcia “Light Fingers” Fouquet, Martha’s deceased mother, the Romans had a phrase for it: De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est (“Of the dead nothing but good is to be said.”) So we won’t talk about her at all.
Case of the Day – Monday, August 17, 2015
It seems that 63-year old Lance Crosby of Billings, Montana – who was apparently old enough to know better – went for a hike at Yellowstone National Park. Alone. Without bear spray. We’ve seen horror movies like this before, where the innocent victim walks into the empty, spooky old house alone, at night, with lightning flashing and foreboding, minor-key music playing, while we cover our eyes and scream, “No, no, don’t go in!”
But they go in anyway. Like GEICO put it, you make poor decisions when you’re in horror movies. Apparently, so does Lance when he’s on a hike.
It is a profound truth of life that sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. You might ask poor Lance (although your question will have to wait until the next life). The same goes for poor Tim Halston …
Mr. Hilston understood the bipolar nature of life, or maybe just the literal truth of the expression. Back about the turn of the century (this century), Mr. Hilston was field-dressing an elk carcass when he became a carcass himself at the hands — the paws, maybe — of a couple of grizzly bears.
Kind of a gory way to go … but the story doesn’t end there. After all, this is America. Nothing happens anymore, even in the wild, without someone being blamed for it, and this was no exception. The late Mr. Hilston’s estate promptly sued the State of Montana for letting the bears kill poor Mr. Hilston. The State defended under the Montana Recreational Use Act, saying that wild and hungry bears were a “condition of the land” for which it was not responsible. Mr. Hilston’s survivors argued that the State’s allegedly lousy bear management was a problem having nothing to do with the land.
The Court said ferae naturae — judges love to use Latin words, these meaning “wild animals” — were as much a condition of the land as a tree or a rock or a stump. Mr. Hilston’s tragic demise was not the State’s fault.
Estate of Hilston ex rel. Hilston v. State, 337 Mont. 302, 160 P.3d 507 (S.Ct. Mont., 2007). Mr. Hilston was hunting elk in the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area “BCW”). Mr. Hilston shot an elk, and while he was field dressing the carcass, he was attacked and killed by grizzly bears. State and federal wildlife investigators captured the two grizzly bears responsible for the attack, a 12-year-old female and one cub, and killed them.
The BCW is located in the Blackfoot Valley about 45 miles east of Missoula on state and private land, and is open to public access free of charge. Mr. Hilston’s estate sued the State of Montana for negligent grizzly management. The State filed a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court held it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law under the Recreational Use Immunity Act. Hilston appealed.
Held: Grizzly bears are a “condition of the property” under the Recreational Use Immunity Act (§70-16-302, MCA). Hilston contended that the Act applied only to defects in property, and that that grizzly bear management in the BCW is not a “condition of the property” for which the Act grants immunity. The Court disagreed.
The Act provides that a landowner otherwise qualified under the terms of the Recreational Use Immunity Act owes no duty of care to a user “with respect to the condition of the property, except that the landowner is liable to the person for any injury to person or property for an act or omission that constitutes willful or wanton misconduct …” In this case, there was no dispute that the late Mr. Hilston was using state-owned land for recreational purposes, that his use of the property was gratuitous, and the alleged mismanagement by the State was not willful or wanton. The only question was whether the statute provides immunity for an attack by an indigenous wild animal on the property, and, derivatively, whether wild animals are a “condition of the property” for which a landowner owes no duty of care.
The rule of law is a landowner cannot be held liable for the acts of indigenous wild animals occurring on his or her property unless the landowner has actually reduced the wild animals to possession or control, or introduced a non-indigenous animal into the area. Grizzly bears are wild animals existing upon the property, and, as such, are a “condition of the property” for purposes of Montana’s Recreational Use Immunity Act.
Thus, the State of Montana owed no duty to protect Mr. Hilston from the grizzly bear attack that led to his unfortunate death, and the District Court correctly granted summary judgment for the State.
Case of the Day – Tuesday, August 18, 2015
TAKING A MULLIGAN
There was trouble in Randolph County, Alabama, up near the Georgia line. The Ledfords had purchased a nice vacation home on a lake, next to a place owned by the Youngs. While the Youngs appreciated the natural setting, the Ledfords were more concerned that nature’s bounty – specifically one large pine tree on the boundary between the Ledford’s land and the Young property – was going to fall on their house. They wanted the tree cut down. The Youngs refused. The matter ended up in court.
Of course, regular treeandneighborlawblog readers know how that should have turned out: if the tree really sits on the boundary line, both landowners have to agree before it can be cut down. The trial court reasoned otherwise. Under the Massachusetts Rule, a landowner can trim parts of a tree that overhang or grow under his or her property, all the way from the center of the earth to the sky. So that meant the Ledfords could cut out half of the tree, the court mused. That would kill the tree, but the court interpreted the Massachusetts Rule to mean that since you’re allowed to hack at the roots and branches of a tree without regard to the damage you cause, then you can take down the whole boundary tree if you like. The trial court gave the Ledfords the go-ahead to take down the tree.
The Youngs appealed, and common sense prevailed. The Court of Appeals explained the proper boundary tree rule, and reversed the trial court’s errant ruling. But in so doing, a few judges on the appeal panel wondered aloud (or at least, in the written opinion) why the Ledfords hadn’t argued that they had the right to cut down the pine tree because it was a nuisance. Remember Fancher v. Fagella? One judge went so far as to say that if the record held evidence of nuisance, he would have upheld the trial court, wrong though its reasoning was.
Well, the Ledfords could take a hint. When the case went back to the trial court “for proceedings consistent with this opinion,” as the court of appeals decisions like to say, they asked for a do-over, a second hearing, this one on nuisance. ‘Hold the phone!’ the Youngs cried. ‘The Court of Appeals said the Ledfords lost. The tree stays standing. Game over.’
The trial court gave the Ledfords their Mulligan. It ordered a second hearing, and afterwards found the pine tree to be a nuisance. The Ledfords were told they could cut it down. Again.
The Youngs went back the court of appeals for a writ of mandamus, essentially a request that the court of appeals issue an order telling the trial court it couldn’t hold the second hearing. The court of appeals refused to do so. Applying an obscure rule called the “law of the case” doctrine, the appellate court held that while the trial court was required to apply the ruling the court of appeals had issued, that ruling was just that the Ledfords could not cut down a boundary tree without the agreement of their neighbors. The court of appeals did not say the tree had to remain – just that if it was to be cut down, it couldn’t be on the basis originally articulated by the trial court.
The lessons here? The Ledfords’ attorney should have argued nuisance to begin with. It should have been clear that arguing that his clients could cut down a boundary tree was a loser. Besides, in civil litigation, you argue as many alternative theories as possible to get your clients where they want to end up. Who knows which one will be a winner?
Of course, the Ledfords ended up winning, and the pine tree lost. But as an old judge once cautioned, you should never dig up more snakes than you can kill. Why buy a second trip to the court of appeals by leaving out an argument, and asking for a Mulligan later?
Ex parte Young, 79 So.3d 656 (Ala.Civ.App. 2011): The Ledfords owned a vacation house with a pine tree located slightly over 10 feet from Ledford’s house, on the boundary between their property and that of the Youngs. Fearing that [a] strong wind against the tree could cause it to fall on the home and could cause damage to the [house] as well as serious injury to any occupants,’ the Ledfords wanted a court order that they could cut it down.
The Youngs argued that the pine tree was ‘a true boundary line tree’ and contended that it could not cut down by either property owner without permission of the other. After a hearing in which the Ledfords, the Youngs, and a forester hired by the Youngs all gave testimony, the trial court held that Ledford and her husband could remove the tree at their convenience, taking steps to minimize damage to the Youngs’ lot. The trial court held that because Alabama law let a landowner remove any trees on his or her property up to the property line, and this right extended to the center of the earth and into the sky, the Ledfords were free to hack into the pine tree up to the property line and then cut from that point to the center of the earth and into the sky. The Court said that “[s]ince [the Ledfords] unquestionably has the right to remove any portion of the tree that is located on [their] side of the property line and since doing so would likely kill the tree, the Court is of the opinion that [they] should be allowed to completely remove the tree to ensure” that the property and the health of anyone there are protected.
When the case got to the Court of Appeals the first time, it was promptly reversed. Rejecting the trial court’s tortured “center of the earth to the sky” analysis, the appellate court ruled that “[i]n the special case of a boundary-line tree, … each adjacent landowner has ownership rights that cannot be trumped by the other’s desires in the manner suggested by the trial court’s judgment” and that the Ledfords – contrary to the trial court’s judgment – could not properly “‘cut into the tree to the property line and then cut from that point to the center of the earth and into the sky'” without incurring liability to the Youngs.
But the appellate court went a little further. In a concurring opinion, two of the judges on the appellate panel observed that the action had been argued on the basis of the Ledfords’ contention that they were entitled to remove the boundary-line tree at issue merely because its trunk was located in part on their property. The judges noted that whether the “boundary-line tree at issue in this case constituted a nuisance for which an exception to the general rule set forth in the main opinion might apply” had not been litigated. A third judge on the panel said that had the record contained evidence indicating that the tree at issue posed a danger to the Ledfords’ house,” he would have voted to affirm the judgment instead of reverse it.
After the appellate judgment issued, the Ledfords asked the trial court for another hearing to consider whether the pine tree was a nuisance. The Youngs argued that the appeals court had decided in their favor, and the case should be closed. But the trial court had another hearing, and afterwards decided that the tree was a nuisance, and that the Ledfords could remove it on that basis.
The Youngs filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the appeals court to order the trial court to enter judgment for them, and end the hearing.
Held: The Ledfords could cut down the tree. A court will issue a writ of mandamus only when the petitioner has a clear legal right to the order sought; the respondent has an imperative duty to perform, accompanied by a refusal to do so; there is no other adequate remedy at law; and the court has jurisdiction of the court.
Here, the Court of Appeals said, the only real question was whether the trial court had the right to hold a second trial in this matter. The Youngs contended that the prior appellate court’s decision was final as to all matters before it and that the trial court, after that initial appeal, was not allowed to hold another hearing and take additional testimony without permission of the appellate court to do so. The court of appeals agreed with that statement of the law, but said that only the particular issue that had formed the basis of the trial court’s judgment – whether Ledfords could unilaterally remove the boundary-line tree simply because the majority of it was located on their side of the common boundary – was addressed. Based upon that conclusion, the court of appeals had reversed the trial court’s judgment letting the Ledfords unilaterally remove the tree,” and remanded the cause “for further proceedings consistent with [that] opinion.”
Because of the limited scope of the trial court’s previous judgment, no one had ruled on whether the boundary-line tree posed a danger to Ledford’s home or amounted to a nuisance. While the prior decision was the “law of the case,” nothing in the prior opinion limited the trial court from ruling on the nuisance question, which the court of appeals admitted remained open for decision. Deciding to examine the nuisance question did not put the trial court in the position of doing something contrary to what the court of appeals had ordered.
Case of the Day – Wednesday, August 19, 2015
THE RISK WAS OBVIOUS TO A CHILD
Tort law has long been a popular target for those lamenting the demise of the Republic. You know, the folklore about the McDonald’s coffee case (which in reality, wasn’t so outrageous after all) and the phony “view with alarm” e-mails that circulate about absolutely fictitious decisions.
But truth be told, most tort law decisions aren’t nearly as outrageous as its would-be reformers would have us believe. Take today’s case. Some boys were playing at a school playground, and decided to raid oranges from a neighbor’s tree. After they had gotten all the low-hanging fruit, one of them stuck his bicycle handlebars in the chain link fence, climbed up his makeshift ladder, and reached across the fence. Naturally, the bike came loose from the fence and he fell, cutting himself on the sharp tines on top of the fence.
The boy sued the school district for maintaining a dangerous fence. The only outrage was that his lawyer decided to sue at all. The fact that no one had ever been hurt on the fence in 16 years didn’t matter. The boy’s attorney argued that it was reasonably foreseeable that young boys would be attracted to oranges adjacent to the fence and would use the fence (whether by climbing or using a bicycle or other means to fashion a ladder) to enable them to reach the fruit. The Court said ‘nonsense’.
Chain link fences are ubiquitous, the Court said, but not even kids — who are held to lower standards than adults — would think that it was a reasonable use of the property to thread bicycle handlebars through the links to make an impromptu ladder. The dangerous condition of property should be defined in terms of the manner in which it is foreseeable that the property will be used by persons exercising due care. After all, the Court said, any property can be dangerous if used in a sufficiently abnormal manner.
This decision would be refreshing were it not so commonplace. Less than 5 percent of all civil cases are torts, and only about 4 percent of those go to trial. Recent statistics show that plaintiffs only win about half of the trials, and only half of those winners get more than $24,000 in damages. Most tort lawsuits are losers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, tort law does not always come with a leprechaun and a pot of gold.
Biscotti v. Yuba City Unified School Dist., 158 Cal.App.4th 554 ( 2007). Nine-year-old Christian Biscotti and his friends were riding bicycles on the grounds of a public school. The boys decided to pick oranges from a tree located in a neighbor’s yard, which was separated from the school’s grounds by a metal chain link fence. The fence, installed when the school was built in 1959, had metal prongs across its top edge. After the boys had picked all the oranges they could reach from the ground, Christian placed a bicycle next to the chain link fence, poking one handlebar through an opening in the fence to help stabilize the bicycle. He then climbed up and stood on the bicycle, balancing himself with one foot on its seat and his other foot on the bar. While Christian reached over the fence and yanked on an orange, the bicycle slipped and he fell onto the fence. His left arm struck the metal tines and was cut.
For at least 16 years prior to the accident, there had been no reported complaints about the safety of the fence and no reported accidents or injuries related to it. That didn’t keep Christian from suing Yuba City Unified School District, which promptly won on summary judgment. Christian appealed.
Held: The school district was not liable. In California, public entity liability for personal injury — governed by statute — is imposed for injuries caused by a dangerous condition of public property where a plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition. A “dangerous condition” of public property is a condition of property that creates a substantial risk of injury when the property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used. The intent of these statutes, the Court said, is to impose liability only when there is a substantial danger which is not apparent to those using the property in a reasonably foreseeable manner with due care.
The Court held that Christian failed to raise an issue of material fact as to whether the school district maintained a dangerous condition on its property. The Court said that the risk of falling and being seriously injured would be obvious even to a nine-year-old boy at the time Christian poked the handlebar of his bicycle into an opening in the chain link fence, climbed onto the bicycle, balanced himself with one foot on the seat and his other foot on the bar, and reached over the fence to pick an orange from a tree on the adjacent property. While unfortunate, the injury that resulted when the readily apparent risk of falling became a reality is not compensable. The undisputed facts established that Christian was not using the fence with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.
The lesson the boy learned, the Court observed, is that tort law did not protect him from the consequence of his careless decision.
Case of the Day – Thursday, August 20, 2015
Lawyers and surveyors are the first to tell you that you should always carefully survey and protect the boundaries of your property. Daily. It’ as important as flossing. And the advice is ignored just as often.
This is especially so when the adjoining property owners are family. If you can’t get along with your kin …
In today’s case, a family farm — handed down from father to son to son — had adjacent farmland parcels. The brothers owning them agreed that a barbed-wire fence they laid — measured off the centerline of a county road — was the boundary between their lands. They measured carefully and marked the fence with fed flags and pennies crimped around the barbed wire, but they didn’t use a surveyor. After all, we’re all family, so who needs to waste money on a third-party?
The problem was that the county road centerline wasn’t accurate. As a result the 60-acre parcel and the 18-acre parcel were off by about a quarter-acre in favor of the bigger piece of land. But no one knew it, and the agreed-upon boundary survived the decay of the fence, the installation of a mobile home and the digging of a well to replace one end of the fence.
It wasn’t until the 18-acre parcel passed out of the family that the buyer discovered — four years after he took possession — that the presumed boundary was off a bit. What’s a quarter acre out in Nebraska farm country? For the buyer, Aaron Sila, it was a lawsuit.
A long-standing rule provides that mutual acquiescence between owners can establish a boundary line where the actual location of the line is unknown. The Nebraska trial court held, however, that the doctrine wouldn’t work in this case, because the line could easily have been calculated by a surveyor using the legal descriptions in the deed. The ruling, of course, begged the question: when exactly would a boundary be unknown if the owners hired a surveyor? Shades of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns,” back in the golden days of the Iraq invasion!
The Nebraska Supreme Court recognized that the trial court’s impossible standard effectively gutted the mutual acquiescence doctrine, and it reversed the decision. It didn’t matter, the Court said, that owners might be able to fix the actual boundary by hiring lawyers and surveyors. They in fact didn’t know where the line was for sure, and they agreed to what each knew was an approximation. It worked for longer than the 10-year statutory period, the Court found, and that was good enough to establish a new boundary by acquiescence.
Sila v. Saunders, 743 N.W.2d 641, 274 Neb. 809 (2008). This case arose as a boundary dispute between two adjoining farm property owners, Kirk and Aaron. The properties were once part of a single farm owned by Kirk’s grandfather, but the land was divided into three parcels and given to his three sons: Vern, George, and Kirk’s father, Eugene. George got an 18 acre parcel east of a county road. Vern and Eugene were each given adjacent 30-acre parcels to the east of George’s 18 acres.
A year later, Vern died, and his 30 acres were acquired by Eugene. Kirk eventually inherited a 20-acre segment of Eugene’s 60 acres. That segment abutted the disputed 18-acre parcel originally given to George. In the early 60s, George and Eugene established the shared boundary of their properties, “[t]o split the farm up to get a boundary line so [George] knew what he owned and what my dad owned,” according to Kirk’s brother, Elloite. George and Eugene decided not to hire a professional surveyor to mark the boundary, and they mistakenly believed that the middle of the county road represented a section line marking the west boundary of George’s 18 acres. George and Eugene took a 100-foot tape measure and some flags and measured 594 feet east from the middle of the county road. They crimped a penny over the barbed wire and tied red flags on the fence at the 594-foot line of both the north and the south ends of the properties. After this, George’s crops were farmed on the west side of the boundary, and Eugene planted his crops on the east side of the boundary. An aerial photograph from the time showed a clear demarcation between the two parcels that appeared to be parallel to the county road from which the boundary had been measured.
In 1965, Kirk removed the barbed wire fence on the south end of the property, but placed a water well next to the property line designated by the crimped penny. After the removal of the fence in 1965, the well was understood by George and Eugene to be the south visual marker for the boundary between their properties. George and Eugene farmed their respective lands with the well on the south end and the crimped penny on the north end of the boundary for 21 years. When George died in 1986, Eugene and Elliotte continued to farm Eugene’s 60-acre parcel, and they also farmed George’s land for his widow, but they maintained the crop boundary line according to the well/stump boundary. When Eugene died three years later, Elliotte continued to farm George’s land and the 20 abutting acres inherited by Kirk, and he still considered the well and the tree stump as boundary markers.
Aaron Sila bought the 18 acres from George’s widow in 2001. Four years later, he hired a surveyor, who found that the centerline of the county road along the west side of Aaron’s property did not — as George and Eugene had believed — correspond to the section line. Aaron’s surveyor didn’t notice either a stump or a well as visual markers of a boundary line.
Elliotte hired a surveyor, whose survey showed the disputed area as a trapezoid of about .264 of an acre in issue. The trial court found that Aaron owned the disputed parcel, because mutual acquiescence can only fix a boundary that is otherwise unknown. Since the true location of the boundary was set forth in the legal description and was readily ascertainable through conventional surveying techniques, the court concluded it was “known.” The court also rejected Kirk’s adverse possession claim. Kirk appealed.
Held: The trial court’s decision was reversed. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that under the doctrine of mutual recognition and acquiescence, while a boundary may be fixed in accordance with a survey, when a different boundary is shown to have existed between the parties for the 10-year statutory period, it is that boundary line which is determinative and not that of the original survey. The fact that the true boundary might be “knowable” because the deed contains a metes and bounds description that a registered surveyor could have properly marked on the land — but did not — does not preclude the property owners from acquiescing in a boundary that they believe corresponds with the deed’s description.
Here, the two owners knew that the boundary line was merely an approximation of the real boundary. Nevertheless, that fact did not preclude a finding of mutual recognition and acquiescence, so long as the acquiescing parties recognized this approximation as their actual boundary. In order for mutual recognition and acquiescence to operate, there had to be an assent, by words, conduct, or silence, in a line as the boundary.
Case of the Day – Friday, August 21, 2015
THAT EQUITY MAY PREVAIL
Sometimes you really wish you knew the back story on a lawsuit. To merely read the recitation of facts and the application of the law in some cases leaves you wondering – why is this case even in the courtroom?
Today’s case is a perfect example. The Mannings lived in a housing development. Behind their well-manicured lawn lay some scrubby, undeveloped woods. Their neighbors had a back lawn that was about 30 feet deeper, and the Manning family mistakenly thought that their own lawn must be that long, too. So they cleaned and chopped weeds and took down some saplings, and installed a park bench and baseball batting cage.
But it turned out that the land wasn’t theirs. Presently, they got a letter from some limited liability company’s lawyer, telling them to cease and desist forthwith, govern their actions accordingly, and all of that legal mumbo-jumbo. Chastened, the Mannings withdrew to their own boundary.
End of story? Nope. The owner of the land, CUDA Associates, LLC — “CUDA” undoubtedly being short for “barracuda” — sued the Mannings for the grievous harm they obviously had done to its rather decrepit piece of real estate. The ‘Cuda sued for trespass, for intentional and wrongful cutting of timber in violation of Connecticut law, and for “unjust enrichment.”
And exactly who was unjustly enriched? You have to wonder why CUDA would have sued at all. After all, there was no damage to the CUDA land. In fact, the Court suggested the Mannings had improved it. What’s more, the trespass was an honest mistake, and the trespassers withdrew as soon as their attention was called to the error. We’ll never know the whys. But the trial court pretty clearly agreed with us that the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot: the judge dryly observed that “[t]he equities in this claim clearly rest with the defendants, and as such must be balanced with the nominal losses that the plaintiff has suffered.” In other words, the Mannings’ trespass was pretty minor and done honestly enough, and CUDA didn’t really suffer for it. In fact, it was better off for the trespass, because its property was left in better shape than it would have been in had the Mannings stayed home. The whole case seems like a monumental waste of the court’s time.
However – and we should all know this by now – litigants are allowed to waste the court’s time, and they do so daily. As maligned as lawyers are, sometimes the fees they charge are the only brakes ever applied to the wacky legal claims their clients want to press in the courtroom. Unfortunately for the Mannings, no cooler heads prevailed in the offices of CUDA’s counsel, so the suit was litigated to judgment.
The court recognized that Connecticut law dictated that damages had to be awarded, even where the trespass was trifling. So it awarded CUDA $1,500, an amount which (we hope) was probably much less than its attorney’s fee. So some justice prevailed in the end, even if it was only found in a lawyer’s pocket.
CUDA Associates, LLC v. Manning, Not Reported in A.2d, 2008 WL 249974 (Conn.Super., Jan. 8, 2008). CUDA Associates owned 3,000 square feet from which the Mannings cleared trees, removed underbrush and in effect extended the back boundary of their property line by approximately 30 feet along the entire easterly line of their backyard. All of the surrounding land owned by CUDA or its successor was undeveloped. The Mannings’ house was located in a developed residential area with housing on both sides of White Avenue, and abutting the plaintiff’s property to the east and south. The Mannings installed a park bench, a baseball practice apparatus and the cutting of certain trees and undergrowth, an intrusion into the CUDA’s property that ended when CUDA wrote to them. The Mannings were operating under a mistaken belief that the property that they had encroached upon was theirs and roughly matched the back property line of their neighbor. This mistaken belief led them to do certain clearing and cutting of trees and underbrush and to use the property for their own benefit. CUDA sued for trespass, removal of timber in violation of statute and unjust enrichment.
Held: The Court found that the Mannings commited a trespass upon a portion of CUDA’s property for their own use and benefit, but any loss of use for CUDA was not measurable. The trespass was negligent and not intentional and, therefore, only minimal damages were awarded. As for the cutting of trees, timber or shrubbery in violation of Connecticut General Statute §52-560, while the Mannings did cut trees, CUDA failed to establish the quantity or the value of any of the trees that had been removed. In fact, the Court said, the cutting may have actually improved the overall site appearance for CUDA’s benefit. Nothing more than reasonable and ascertainable value under the statute can be awarded.
As for unjust enrichment, the Court held that the non-permanent intrusion by the Mannings was unintentional. What’s more, any benefit derived by them from the CUDA land was coincidental to the use of their own backyard property, and was of a de minimis nature. The Court said that equities in this claim clearly rested with the Mannings, and had to be balanced with the nominal losses that the CUDA suffered. The Court awarded CUDA $400 for the common-law trespass, $600 for the timber statute violation, and $500 for unjust enrichment.
Case of the Day – Monday, August 24, 2015
DOING IT ON THE CHEAP
Over the next few days, we’re going to talk about independent contractors in the legal sense. With Uber, Lyft and a host of other “gig” companies emerging, all of which save money by calling their workers “independent contactors,” the topic is very timely. The tree business worries (or should worry) a lot about the status of a worker. A lot of bad things can happen when a worker is misclassified as an independent contractor when he or she is an employee. In the next five days, we’ll try to look at a lot of the pitfalls.
You’d think that determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor ought to be pretty cut-and-dried. Fred Flintstone at the Bedrock quarry? Well, he used his employer’s equip ment, he did what he was told, he punched a timeclock … clearly an employee. On the other extreme we have the A-Team. They came to you, brought their own weapons (and usually a homemade armored vehicle or two) and a helicopter. They came to do a job, and then left (usually just a step ahead of the Army authorities). No question, they were independent contractors. Very independent contractors.
The difference between B.A. Baracas and Fred Flintstone is significant and obvious. But that hardly prevents people from calling one the other when the mood strikes them. Some employers think it’s crafty to label their employees as “independent contractors.” It’s irresistible: no tax withholding, no pesky employer matching of social security payments, no unemployment insurance, and no time-and-a-half for overtime. The IRS fights a never-ending battle against this dodge, and even mandates a test to determine whether your worker is a Fred or a B.A.
There are reasons besides taxation for a principal to try to pound a square employee into a round independent contractor hole. Liability and worker’s compensation are two of those. Over the next few days, we’re going to examine the problem of worker classification as it relates to the arboriculture industry. Today, we’re looking in on a real cheapskate, and how his tightfistedness nearly killed a teenage girl.
Penny-pincher Sulcer had a tenant named Quimby. No, not the Mayor of Springfield, but instead a long-haul trucker. The landlord ignored his tenant’s pleas to trim a dangerous tree, until the tree got in the way of the landlord’s plans. Then he told his tenant — a tree-trimming tyro — to trim it for him, for free, of course.
For some unfathomable reason, Quimby did so. Unfortunately, in so doing, Quimby dropped a limb in a freak accident that struck his high school senior daughter Leslie’s chest, requiring emergency open heart surgery to fix. She survived (even marrying lucky young Mr. Allen during the pendency of the litigation). Sulcer argued that he wasn’t at fault, because Quimby was really just an independent contractor, and it was Leslie’s and Quimby’s fault that she stood too close to the tree while Quimby was cutting limbs.
The trial court bought it, but the Court of Appeals — offended, we hope, that the landlord was getting off scot-free— looked at the issue differently. The question, it properly held, was what Sulcer owed Leslie as a tenant, not as a volunteer worker for her volunteer worker tenant Dad. And clearly, he had breached his duty to keep young Leslie safe from the perils of an unskilled tree-cutter. Of course, the Court couldn’t help but notice the report of Leslie’s arborist: he said a professional trimming job would have cost ol’ tightwad Sulcer $300 to $500. The Court didn’t say it, but we think it was a bit disgusted that the landlord was willing to jeopardize the life and health of his tenants for $500.00.
Allen v. Sulcer, 255 S.W.3d 51 (Tenn.Ct.App., 2007). A landlord told his tenant, Mr. Quimby, to prune large limbs from a tree on the rental property with a chainsaw. The tenant’s 18-year old daughter, Leslie Quimby (now Leslie Allen), was assisting by clearing the limb debris, and suffered an aortic valve rupture and other internal injuries that required emergency open-heart surgery, resulting from the impact of a tree limb that had fallen and ricocheted off the ground, striking her in the chest and chin. At the time of the incident, her father was in an ash tree (about 15 to 20 feet off the ground) in front of his rental house, pruning overgrown limbs with a chainsaw. Ms. Allen was standing in front of the house and assisting her father by clearing the limb debris.
The tenant had previously requested more than once that William E. Sulcer, his landlord who lived 100 yards from the rental house, have the tree pruned. Quimby had voiced his concern that the overgrown limbs, hanging over the house and driveway, would hurt someone. Even though Sulcer had used professional tree services on his farm in the past, he asked Quimby agreed to perform the work because he was tired of the limbs hanging over the house and driveway. Sulcer did not offer to compensate Quimby for his services. Quimby had no training or expertise in pruning or felling trees, or with operating chainsaws, even though he owned one and used it on the limb in question. Sulcer knew Quimby didn’t have experience pruning trees but relied on the fact that Quimby had cut limbs on the property before with no problems. Even so, Quimby had never before trimmed large limbs or climbed into a tree to do so. Other than selecting the limbs, Sulcer provided no other instruction, provided no equipment, and was not present at the time of the injury.
Ms. Allen sued Sulcer, alleging he was negligent as landlord and as the principal of the negligent agent Quimby. She asserted that Sulcer was negligent in instructing her father to undertake such a task, in failing to supervise his activities, and in failing to maintain the leased premises in a safe condition. She argued the negligence of her father should be imputed to Mr. Sulcer under the principles of vicarious liability. Sulcer responded that if there were any relationship between Quimby and himself, it was that of employer and independent contractor. He contended he did not create the alleged dangerous condition and that, if it existed, he had no duty to Ms. Allen because the dangerous condition was known (or should have been known) to her. He argued that, as an employer of an independent contractor, he was not liable for the negligent acts of the contractor, or for injury to the contractor’s helpers.
The trial court found Quimby to be an independent contractor, and it was a well settled principle of law that employers of an independent contractor owe no duty to the employees or “helper” of the independent contractor engaged in an inherently dangerous activity. The trial court granted judgment for the defendant, and Ms. Allen appealed.
Held: The summary judgment for Sulcer was reversed. The Court observed that a successful negligence claim requires the plaintiff to establish a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; conduct by the defendant falling below the applicable standard of care that amounts to a breach of that duty; an injury or loss; causation in fact; and proximate cause. The Court said that although the parties agreed that Quimby acted as an independent contractor on behalf of Sulcer, the facts of the case more directly implicated landlord/tenant law. The trial court had overlooked the fact that Ms. Allen was a tenant of Sulcer and failed to account for the possibility of Sulcer’s negligence as a landlord. Thus, the Court held, the dispositive question was whether Ms. Allen encountered a harm whose foreseeability gave rise to a duty of reasonable care on the part of Mr. Sulcer, the landlord, to protect her from the danger of falling limbs.
In general, landlords owe a duty of reasonable care to their tenants. When a landlord undertakes to repair or maintain some part of the premises, he owes his tenants a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in seeing the repairs are properly made. In other cases, landlords were held liable for injuries to tenants where they sent unskilled employees to repair units. Here, Sulcer knew that Quimby was unskilled in tree trimming, that he did not want to perform this work, and was afraid of heights. Sulcer didn’t even offer to pay Quimby. He didn’t inquire into safety precautions or any other methods Quimby might use. Sulcer argued he had no duty to Ms. Allen because the danger of falling limbs was open and obvious, and, because the danger was so open and obvious, it was not foreseeable that Quimby would allow her to collect the limbs or be anywhere near the work site. But Tennessee courts have concluded that an open and obvious danger does not automatically result in a finding of no duty and therefore no landowner liability. As in any negligence action, a risk is unreasonable and gives rise to a duty to act with due care if the foreseeable probability and gravity of harm posed by a defendant’s conduct outweigh the burden upon the defendant to engage in alternative conduct that would prevent the harm.
Here, limbs falling from a tree are not so obvious a danger as to relieve Sulcer of his duty to hire a competent tree trimmer. Sulcer created an unreasonable risk of harm when he asked an unskilled tenant to conduct work that is dangerous. While the force of a falling limb is predictable, its trajectory while falling and after striking the ground is not. This unpredictability makes the risk of injury from a falling limb more salient when unskilled hands attempt the task. The alternatives available to Sulcer, the Court said, ranged from discussing pruning methods to offering assistance to hiring a professional tree trimmer, all of which, to varying degrees, would have materially lowered or eliminated the probability of such harm with very little burden to the defendant. The Court found that Sulcer had a duty to select someone who would know how to minimize the risk of trimming such large branches.
Case of the Day – Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Remember T. Hewitt Edward Cat? His hangout at the jazz joint Casa del Gato? Lalo Schrifin’s cool theme music?
That’s OK if you don’t, because the cat we’re talking about today is anything but the black-clad suave Robert Loggia. More Garfield than cool cat, the Dinuccis’ tabby kept wandering into Mr. Lis’s yard. The Dinuccis — who, face it, didn’t have a great rapport with their neighbor to begin with — didn’t give a hairball about Lis’s complaints.
Finally tired of it all, Mr. Lis trapped the feckless feline and turned it over to the City. The City charged with Dinuccis with an “animal at large” minor misdemeanor. About this time, old softie Mr. Lis contracted a case of the “guilts.” He could hardly live with himself if the Dinuccis found themselves doing 30-to-life in some hard-labor gulag. So he relented, and asked the city law director to dismiss the charges.
Big mistake. Proving the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished, the Dinuccis promptly sued Lis for malicious prosecution.
After the long-suffering neighbor paid a metric ton of legal fees, the trial court threw the case out, and the Court of Appeals agreed. The Dinuccis’ case suffered from a simple problem: they never denied their cat was free range (how could they?), and that was all the ordinance required. Because there was probable cause to believe that the peripatetic pussycat had gone feral, there was probable cause to believe ordinance had been violated. That being the case, there could not be malicious prosecution.
Nevertheless, if it happens again, we’d bet Mr. Lis’ll demand the City Prosecutor throw the book at ‘em — and probably overdose their sweet little kitty with industrial strength catnip. Ingratitude isn’t only unbecoming … often, it’s self-defeating, too.
Dinucci v. Lis, Slip Copy, 2007 WL 2269740 (Ct.App. Ohio, Aug. 9, 2007). This dispute between neighbors started over involving the capture and eventual safe release of a house cat. The parties were before this court in an earlier dispute, which involved trespass, property damage, and continuing nuisance claims by the Dinuccis against their next-door neighbor Matthew Lis. Then the Dinucis had claimed Lis was liable for 1) delays in the construction of their house due to his’ objections, 2) damage to their lawn caused by trespassing, 3) willow tree branches hanging over their property, and 4) creating a nuisance by having the Lis yard look like a construction site for over two years. Out of all of that the Dinuccis won a princely $150 for damage to their lawn, the rest of their claims having been thrown out. The Dinuccis appealed to no avail.
At the same time, it appears that Lis had been complaining since 2004 about Dinuccis’ cat wandering around the Lis homestead. Lis contacted the North Royalton, Ohio, animal control department. The City’s animal control officer told the Dinuccis that the city had received complaints from neighbors concerning their cat, and warned them that they would be cited if the problem wasn’t resolved.
It wasn’t, and a few months later, Lis captured the feline on his property and turned it over to the City. The Dinuccis were charged with a violation of North Royalton Ordinance 618.01, the “Animal At Large” provision. The North Royalton prosecutor met with the parties, at which time Lis agreed with the recommendation that the criminal charge against the Dinuccis be dismissed. But after the charges were dismissed, the Dinuccis filed a civil lawsuit against Los, alleging malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted Lis’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. Dinuccis appealed.
Held: The case was correctly thrown out. The Court observed that, after all, North Royalton Ordinance 618.01 clearly stated that ‘[n]o person who is the owner or keeper of horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, swine, dogs, cats, geese or other fowl or animals shall permit them to run at large upon any public way or upon unenclosed land” and that [t]he running at large of any such animal in or upon any of the places mentioned in this section is prima-facie evidence that it is running at large in violation of this section.” In order to establish the tort of malicious prosecution, the Dinuccis had to prove malice in instituting or continuing the prosecution, a lack of probable cause, and termination of the prosecution in favor of the accused. And here, the Dinuccis couldn’t show a lack of probable cause.
Probable cause does not depend on whether the claimant was guilty of the crime charged, but instead, only on whether Lis had probable cause to believe that the Dinuccis were guilty. Lis wasn’t bound to have evidence sufficient to insure a conviction, but instead was required only to have evidence sufficient to justify an honest belief of the guilt of the accused. Here, the Court said, the evidence show that both the city and Lis had a reasonable belief that Dinuccis violated North Royalton Ordinance 618.01.
Indeed, the Dinuccis didn’t deny violating the ordinance either at the trial court level or in their brief. Their cat was captured on Lis’s property. As a result of a reasonable belief that the violation occurred, probable cause to investigate existed. The evidence was sufficient to justify an honest belief of the guilt of the accused.
Case of the Day – Wednesday, August 26, 2015
ME AND MY SHADOW
We had occasion recently to round up a majority of 55 subdivision owners in order to revoke some 25 year-old restrictive covenants. The rules were pretty harsh – no work vehicles with signage in front of the house, no sheds, no yard signs …
It helped that almost everyone in the subdivision was violating one or more of the covenants. We explained – over a several-month education program – that all it would take is one jerk moving into the neighborhood who wanted to stick it to his neighbor, and we’d all face trial court Armageddon.
We got a majority to sign on, but it was like herding cats, an exhausting effort. We made our filing deadline by a nose. The whole experience gave us a heightened appreciation for the long suffering neighbor in today’s case.
The case concerns poor Robby Ricciardello. Well, maybe not poor in the fixed asset sense. Robby owned five lots in a subdivision, and he had big plans — plans like build a barn, store bulldozers, hunt, grow mangoes — you know, the kinds of things we all like to do with our lots in the middle of subdivisions.
But he had a problem. His deed contained one of those pesky restrictive covenants that restricted the use of the lots to the construction of one-family homes only. Fortunately for Rob, the restrictive covenants provided that they could be amended or terminated by a vote of the owners of six of the subdivision lots.
Robbie hatched a plan, and thus decided to build a barn anyway. He told his neighbor Jim Carroll what he was going to do. Jim panicked, because he knew Rob had five lots and only needed the concurrence of one more owner. So Jim hatched a plan of his own, starting a drive to amend the covenants in order to make them harder to circumvent. Finally, Rob announced he wouldn’t build a barn after all, so Jim abandoned his efforts.
Any sense of relief Jim felt was short-lived, because Rob did an end run on the subdivision owners. He formed his own limited liability company, which he had to buy an additional lot. Rob essentially had a meeting with himself as an owner of five lots and Connecticut Outfielder LLC – of which he himself was the president – being the sixth lot owner. Rob took a nose count, and — mirable dictu — the owners of the minimum six lots were present! The vote was unanimous, unsurprisingly, as Rob agreed with himself to terminate the covenants.
Pretty slick, Rob. But Jim didn’t think so, and he sued. Connecticut Outfielder protested that it had done nothing wrong. It just agreed to terminate the covenants, something it as an owner had a right to do. Rob and his alter ego LLC moved for summary judgment, pointing out that the restrictive covenants had been terminated. The court disagreed, finding that issues of fact existed, not the least of which being whether Rob had misled James to induce him to abandon trying to amend the covenants, and whether one guy – by controlling six lots himself or through corporate devices – could validly terminate the covenants.
Carroll v. Ricciardello, Not Reported in A.2d, 2007 WL 2080583 (Conn.Super., Apr. 4, 2007). It seems that Robert Ricciardello and James Carroll were adjacent landowners in the Ferrando Subdivision of Glastonbury Connecticut. The Subdivision lots were subject to a “Declaration of Covenant and Restrictions” that provided, in part, that “[e]ach lot shall be used and maintained solely and exclusively for one-family residential purposes … No trailer, tent, shack, garage, barn or other outbuilding erected on any Lot shall at any time be used as a residence temporarily or permanently … [The] covenants and restrictions are to run with the land and shall be binding on the Declarant, purchasers or owners of any Lot … for a period of twenty (20) years from the date of recording … During the twenty-year period that this Declaration is in effect, any or all of the covenants, conditions and restrictions contained herein may be amended or terminated by an instrument signed by the then owners of at least six (6) of the Lots described on Schedule A hereto, which instrument shall be recorded on the Glastonbury land records.”
In June 2004, Ricciardello told Carroll he intended to build a barn on one of the six lots he owned. Carroll started talking to the other owners about amending the covenants to, among other things, raise the number of lot owners needed to amend or terminate the covenants. Then Ricciardello told Carroll he had decided not to build the barn, and Carroll abandoned his efforts to get the covenants stiffened.
But Ricciardello, ever the crafty one, formed a Connecticut limited liability company named “Connecticut Outfielder LLC.” The same day it was formed, it bought lot two of the subdivision. Three weeks later, Ricciardello and Connecticut Outfielder — who together owned six lots in the subdivision — executed a “Release of Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions,” that was recorded in the Glastonbury town clerk’s office, which wiped out all of the covenants and restrictions on the books.
Ricciardello proceeded to do as he liked with his lots, planting an orchard, hunting and storing construction equipment. Carroll sued, claiming that the release of the covenants was improper, and asked for an injunction. Ricciardello and Connecticut Outfielder answered, counter-claimed and filed for summary judgment. Connecticut Outfielder contended there are no genuine issues of material fact and that Connecticut Outfielder is entitled to judgment as a matter of law for the breach of restrictive covenants count and the counterclaim seeking a declaration judgment that the release of covenants is valid. Connecticut Outfielder’s grounds of the motion are that Carroll testified that Connecticut Outfielder did not breach the covenants, and, the plaintiff did not allege any wrongdoing by Connecticut Outfielder in the operative complaint. Carroll objected that there were genuine material issues of fact.
Held: Summary judgment was denied. Summary judgment, of course, is appropriate where the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Here, the Court said, genuine issues of material fact exist concerning whether Ricciardello and Connecticut Outfielder breached the covenants and whether the covenants were properly released. Also, an issue existed whether Carroll relied on Ricciardello’s false assurances that he wouldn’t build a barn in deciding to abandon his quest to amend the covenants to block Ricciardello’s plans.
As long as those issues remain, the case must go to trial.
Case of the Day – Thursday, August 27, 2015
WRITE ME UP A VERBAL CONTRACT
A miniature golf operation called Oasis Park hired Bill Oberholtzer – who was both a miniature golf course owner and a mini golf course builder – to jazz up Oasis Park before the mini golf season started up in the Troy, New York, area. Disregarding the universally-accepted good practice in construction of starting with a nice, neat signed agreement setting out the scope of the work, payment terms, time to completion and other such details, the Oasis Park people and Bill pretty much sketched out their agreement on the back of a cocktail napkin. And that was a mistake.
Later, Oasis Park needed a more formal document in order to get its bank to release financing. Bill, of course, accommodated Oasis Park by signing one. You can guess what happened. When the parties’ working relationship soured, Oasis claimed that the accommodation document – and not the “cocktail napkin” – was the real deal between the parties covering the scope of the work. Bill countered that he had already been working for weeks, and the plans had changed.
Nevertheless, within six weeks after some fateful April 29 “thing” occurred — and even the Court couldn’t tell what the “thing” was — Oasis fired Bill amid claims that he hadn’t adhered to some nonexistent schedule, hadn’t provided workers, and hadn’t provided materials. For good measure, Oasis claimed that Bill’s work was substandard.
Bill naturally argued just the opposite, asserting that he couldn’t buy supplies because Oasis Park wouldn’t pay him. The whole mess ended up in federal court, where the Judge threw up his hands and said no one was getting summary judgment. The entire kerfluffle was going have to be sorted out at trial.
So now, let’s all grab our calculators and figure out how Bill saved by not wasting money on a lawyer preparing a contract with Oasis Park up front. Not much, we guess. And you arborists, tree trimmers, loggers and owners – let’s remember this: No contract, no winners.
Paone, Inc. v. Oberholtzer, Slip Copy, 2007 WL 2455074 (N.D.N.Y., Aug. 23, 2007). Oberholtzer agreed to provide all labor and materials necessary to remodel Paone’s miniature golf course. Beyond that fact, the parties could agree on nothing.
Paone said that under a contract dated April 29, 2004, Oberholtzer to build a bumper boat pond, including walls, docks, light fixtures, a cave, a filter system, a perimeter walkway, and a staging-area deck. As well, Paone said, the contract required Oberholtzer to renovate the course’s clubhouse entrance, the third hole, and the practice green. Paone said that under to the contract, Oberholtzer began working in May 2004, but its laborers did not show up for work, causing the project to fall behind schedule. To rectify the situation, Paone claims that it hired temporary workers.
Even with these outside laborers, the project did not move forward because Oberholtzer failed to provide supervision and direction. Paone said it had to supply all materials to the site and hire various construction professionals to inspect the work. Paone contended that these professionals found that Oberholtzer’s work violated building-code requirements and was below the industry standard. After the project had gone on about a month, Paone notified Oberholtzer that it was in default of the contract.
Oberholtzer, on the other hand, claimed that he reached an agreement to perform work for Paone well prior to April 29, 2004. Oberholtzer said he began preparatory work in March. The April 29th document, Oberholtzer contended, was merely an estimate prepared at Paone’s request,intended by both parties to help Paone get a bank loan released. The April 29, 2004, agreement was conformed to an earlier budget from the winter of 2003-2004, which Paone had submitted to the bank to support its initial loan application.
Consequently, Oberholtzer argued, the estimate did not reflect intervening changes of which both parties were aware, including a different location for the bumper boat pond, changes in site elevations for the clubhouse and parking lot which required alteration of a ramp and deck, and additional concrete walkways on the course.
Oberholtzer said, he had already made significant progress before April 29, 2004, including filling in traps, reconfiguring the practice green, removing an existing sidewalk near the old practice green, building a deck between the seventh and eighth holes, and removing fixtures and equipment from the old clubhouse. What’s more, Oberholtzer asserted, he had also cleared and trimmed trees for a new picnic area, built retaining walls for a walkout basement, constructed a deck attached to the clubhouse, erected bumper boat pond walls and skimmer baskets, and backfilled the pond.
As far as the schedule went, Oberholtzer argued that the April 29, 2004, document did not contain a schedule or other time-related requirements. Oberholtzer said that Paone knew Oberholtzer would be opening and operating his own miniature golf course in Georgia at the end of May. Therefore, Oberholtzer claimed, Paone knew that Oberholtzer would not be available to work on the project on a regular basis. Furthermore, Oberholtzer argued that several weeks of delay resulted from the actions of an unrelated contractor, who placed heavy equipment in the area of the future bumper boat pond. Also, he said, Paone failed to make timely payments to enable Oberholtzer to buy materials and to progress with the project. Finally, Oberholtzer complained that Paone approved all building plans, and that town building inspectors routinely inspected the progress and noted no building code violations.
Paone sued for breach of the contract and for negligence, and then moved for summary judgment.
Held: Summary judgment was denied in this fact-laden morass. The Court observed that Paone’s causes of action for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing both required first that there be an enforceable contract with sufficiently definite terms. Here, the parties could not even agree on whether the document was a contract, let alone what its terms might be. Paone contended the document represents the parties’ complete agreement, but Oberholtzer asserted that the document was an estimate used solely for the purpose of obtaining funding. While Paone said that the time for performance commenced in May 2004, Oberholtzer alleged that it had already completed substantial portions of the project prior to that time.
What’s more, the Court found, reference to the April 29, 2004, document wasn’t helpful because it contained no details about the parties’ responsibilities or the construction schedule. The document was labeled “Spring 2004 Construction” and merely set forth the various projects and the price for each. In light of these disputes, the Court held, it could not determine whether an enforceable contract existed between the parties without evaluating the parties’ conflicting factual accounts. Moreover, on the basis of the April 29, 2004 document alone, the Court could not determine the construction schedule or the parties’ respective contractual responsibilities.
A trial would be necessary to straighten the whole mess out.
Case of the Day – Friday, August 28, 2015
LET’S LEAVE GOD OUT OF THIS
There’s plenty of old-time religion around these days, from presidential politics to Tibet to radical Islam. We probably shouldn’t try to enlist the Almighty too easily as justification for falling trees.
But the folks at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources are all too willing to overlook the separation of church and state when it’s especially convenient to do so. When one of ODNR’s decrepit cottonwoods fell on Mr. Vondrell’s seawall (or perhaps “lakewall,” because there’re only freshwater lakes in Ohio), the State said, “oops, an act of God.” The winds were blowing pretty fiercely that day, but the DNR figured that was enough to claim that the tree fell in a storm. Just a capricious Almighty, don’t you know? Which of course meant that the DNR wasn’t liable.
It may have been breezy, Mr. Vondrell countered, but the cottonwood that crushed his concrete wall fell because it was good and dead, and had been for a long time. Perhaps so, DNR responded, but we didn’t know it was dead.
The Court of Claims sided with Mr. Vondrell. An act of God has to be all God, the Court said. If the cause of the falling tree is aided at all by the agency of man, even the fact that the deadfall resulted primarily from an act of God won’t relieve a defendant from liability.
Still, for a defendant to be negligent, he, she or it had to be on actual or constructive notice of the hazard posed by the tree. Here, the fact that tree had been dead for over five years and DNR employees had been seen in the area of the tree was enough for the Court to conclude that DNR reasonably should have known about the defective tree.
So when there’s an act of God, it better be all God and no man.
Vondrell v. Ohio Dept. Natural Resources, 2007 Ohio 7232, (Ohio Ct. Claims, Dec. 4, 2007), 2007 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 503. Mr. Vondrell had a seawall on his lakefront property. A cottonwood tree next door in a state park fell during a windstorm and damaged the concrete. The agency managing the park, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, argued that the damage was due solely to an “act of God,” the high winds that caused the tree to fall. Mr. Vondrell argued the damage-causing tree was dead, that DNR personnel had years of prior knowledge the tree was dead, and that DNR knew or should have known the dead tree presented a falling hazard. Photographic evidence showed the tree was clearly dead.
Mr. Vondrell argued the tree that fell was very tall and was dead when he had bought his adjacent property in 1999, five years before the collapse. Additionally, he said, DNR personnel were seen in the area around the dead cottonwood trees many times between 1999 and 2005. He contended his property damage was proximately caused by negligence on the part of DNR in maintaining a known hazard on park premises and not merely by high winds falling a healthy tree.
Mr. Vondrell sued in the Ohio Court of Claims, which has jurisdiction over claims against the State.
Held: DNR was negligent, and had to pay. The agency adduced all sorts of evidence as to high wind speeds on the day in question, but high winds alone do not an act of God make.
It’s true, the Court said, that no liability can attach to an act of God. However, an act of God must proceed from the violence of nature or the force of the elements alone: the agency of man must have nothing to do with it.
The Court held that Mr. Vondrell proved that DNR had constructive notice of the condition of the tree. The tree stood dead for over five years, and DNR employees were seen around it often. Under Ohio law, the Court said, it wasn’t enough that DNR argued it didn’t know about the condition of the tree. It was on constructive notice of the condition of the tree.
In a situation such as this one, where two causes contributed to an injury, one cause which is a defendant’s negligence and the other cause an act of God, defendant may be held liable if a plaintiff’s damage would not have happened but for defendant’s negligence. If proper care and diligence on the part of DNR had avoided the act, it is not excusable as an act of God. Essentially, if DNR’s negligent act concurs with an act of God to cause damage, defendant cannot escape liability.
Case of the Day – Monday, August 31, 2015
RECREATIONAL USE STATUTE AND NATURAL DEFECTS
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 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.
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.
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.