Cases from July 2014

Case of the Day – Tuesday, July 1, 2014

IF A TREE FALLS ON A CAR, AND THERE’S NOBODY TO SUE, DOES IT STILL MAKE A NOISE?

After the Virginia Supreme Court decided in Fancher v. Fagella that Linda Landowner has a duty to ensure that her trees doesn’t become a nuisance to her neighbor Arnie Adjacency, you could be forgiven for reasoning that she also has a duty to be sure that her trees don’t fall on Mortimer and Mildred Motorist. After all, a duty to protect others from physical harm ought to rank higher on the hierarchy of social good than keeping Arnie’s retaining wall from collapsing.
Retain_wall

One of the beauties of the law, however, is that it often does not make sense. The Virginia Supreme Court had an opportunity to underscore that unsurprising phenomenon last year, when it ruled that Fancher’s departure from the old Virginia Rule of Smith v. Holt didn’t extend to a landowner’s duty to the passing public. When a tree on the front yard dies, decays and falls in the road, let the driver beware …

Cline v. Dunlora South, LLC, 726 S.E.2d 14 (Sup.Ct. Virginia, 2012). Facts: Cline was driving on a public road when a tree fell and crushed the roof of his car. Cline suffered severe and permanent injuries, including fractures of his cervical spine.

The tree was located about 16 feet from the edge of the road, on land owned by Dunlora South. At the time of the mishap, the road was traveled by about 25,000 vehicles per day. The tree, approximately 25 inches wide was “dying, dead, and/or rotten” at the time it fell, and had been in this condition for a period of “many years and exhibited visible signs of decay, which were open, visible and/or obvious.” According to Cline, the tree’s condition was or should have been known by Dunlora, just as it should have been aware of the hazards presented by trees being next to the public highway. Cline sued, but the trial court held that Virginia law did not provide for recovery of personal injury damages caused by a private tree falling on a public highway. Cline appealed, and the case reached the Virginia Supreme Court.

Another Latin phrase ... this one more familiar ...

Another Latin phrase … this one more familiar ...

Held: The Court held that, even after Fancher v. Fagella, a private landowner was not responsible for damages to a person using a public highway, when that damage was caused by a tree located on the landowner’s property. At common lawthat is, law imposed and changed incrementally by decisions handed down judicial decision – a landowner owed no duty to those outside the land with respect to natural conditions existing on the land, regardless of the danger posed by such dangerous conditions. Although Virginia courts had never recognized that principles of ordinary negligence apply to natural conditions on land, in Smith v. Holt, an adjoining landowner was held to have a nuisance cause of action if injury was inflicted by the protrusion of roots from a noxious tree or plant on the property of such adjoining landowner. The Court observed that the duty it recognized in Smith v. Holt was “in accord with the broad common law maxim: “sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas” – one must so use his own rights as not to infringe upon the rights of another … The principle of sic utere precludes use of land so as to injure the property of another.” It was this principle that gave birth to the “Virginia Rule,” a splitting of the difference between the Massachusetts Rule and the Hawaii Rule.

Fancher changed a lot, the Court admitted. It modified Smith’sVirginia rule” by discarding the subjective requirement of “noxious” nature, and imposing a limited duty on owners of adjoining residential lots to protect against actual or imminent injury to property caused by intruding branches and roots. Fancher articulated a rule allowing relief where trees encroaching onto the land of another begin to constitute a nuisance, that is, when they encroach upon the property of another such that they cause actual harm or the imminent danger of actual harm. Fancher thus recognized that a trial court must determine whether circumstances are sufficient to impose a duty on the owner of a tree to protect a neighbor’s land from damage caused by its intruding branches and roots.

We bet the driver heard this one ...

We bet the driver heard this one …

The Court held here that the Fancher rule imposing a duty on a tree owner to protect a neighbor’s land from damage caused by the tree, only “addresses a narrow category of actions arising from nuisance caused by the encroachment of vegetation onto adjoining improved lands.” The Fancher and Smith duties are dramatically different than imposing a duty on a landowner to monitor the natural decline of his or her trees adjacent to a roadway. Fancher does not impose a duty on a landowner to inspect and cut down sickly trees that have the possibility of falling on a public roadway and inflicting injury.

Instead, the duty owed by adjoining property owners is to not do anything to make the highway more dangerous than it would be in its natural state. In this case, no one suggested that Dunlora engaged in any affirmative act that made its property adjoining the highway different than it had been in its natural state. Cline’s complaint was that Dunlora failed to act, and Virginia common law tort principles do not hold that a landowner owes a duty to take affirmative acts to protect travelers on an adjoining public roadway from natural conditions on his or her land.

Case of the Day – Wednesday, July 2, 2014

STAKING A CLAIM

We’ve all seen those spindly trees that cities and towns plant by the hundreds, skinny things supported by one or more posts and guy wires, standing on tree lawns and in medians with not much more than a pathetic possibility that thy might someday be majestic shade trees.

Guyedtrees

One of these staked and wired sentinels fell in high winds one night, and the City of Kenner, Louisiana, sent one of its crews to repair it. They replanted it in the same home and rewired it with the same guy wires — hardly a prescription for a tree with a future. And it turned out that the tree’s future at that point could have been measured on a stopwatch. Within hours, it fell again in high winds, this time onto Mrs. Sampedro’s car.

The Sampedros sued, claiming that the City had negligently placed guy wires on the tree, and that anyway, the City should be strictly liable whenever one of its trees fall. The trial court granted summary judgment for the City.

Strict liability’s a great thing for a plaintiff. A plaintiff is generally relieved from proving any more than that something injured him or her, and that the defendant owned or controlled it. Negligence is irrelevant. But in 1995, the Louisiana legislature gutted strict liability where a municipality was a defendant. Even in strict liability cases, the lawmakers said, the plaintiff had to prove that the municipality had notice of the defect.

The Court here ruled that it didn’t matter that the Sampedros had an expert who testified that the guy wires should have been placed differently. There were no published guidelines on how to guy a tree, and anyway, the City had planted hundreds of trees in the year before the accident, with only about a dozen of them falling. That’s about a 4% failure rate for those math whizzes among us. Not bad: imagine if the airline industry only had 2,000 crashes per day out of its 49,000 flights.

But the numbers seemed right to the Court. High winds had knocked over the tree, it said, not bad guy wires. Of course, this begs the question of why guy wires were there to begin with, if not to keep trees from falling in high winds. But Mrs. Sampedro had to repair her own car. The City was not liable.

Sampedro v. City of Kenner, 989 So.2d 111 (La.App. 5 Cir., 2008). Rosa Sampedro was driving past the intersection of Williams Boulevard and Granada Street when a tall, slender oak tree fell into the path of her vehicle. Mrs. Sampedro, who was wearing her seat belt, braked quickly and struck her knees on the dashboard of her vehicle. The tree damaged her vehicle but no other vehicles were involved. A police officer said he thought that high winds caused the tree to fall. The Sampedros sued the City of Kenner and its insurer.

Stake1

Trial testimony showed that the day before the accident, a driver lost control of his pickup truck at the same intersection and knocked down the oak tree in question. The next day, a maintenance crew from Kenner’s Department of Public Works re-planted the tree, securing it with guy wires on three sides as it had been prior to the accident. The Public Works crew used the same guy wires attached to the tree and placed them close to the base so as not to interfere with the mowing of the grass on the median. A witness from the city admitted the alternative would have been to put the guy wires farther out and instruct the mowers to be careful. The Public Works Department had planted 200 to 300 trees in Kenner in the prior year, and the department had received about a dozen complaints of leaning or fallen trees since that time. It had never received a complaint regarding the tree in question.

The court found for the City, concluding it did not have notice of a defect before the accident so it was not strictly liable for Mrs. Sampedro’s damages. Even if it had had notice, the City was not negligent under for the placement of the tree in question. The Sampedros appealed.

Held: The City was not liable. Louisiana law provided two theories under which the City might be held liable for damages: negligence under Louisiana Civil Code §2315 and strict liability under Civil Code §2317. Under strict liability, a plaintiff was relieved of proving that the owner of a thing which caused damage knew or should have known of the risk involved. In 1985, however, the Louisiana Legislature eviscerated this distinction in claims against public entities by requiring proof of actual notice of the defect which causes damage, thus making the burden of proof the same under either theory.

The Sampedros argued the City of Kenner was negligent because of its “want of skill” in replanting the tree that had been struck by a car the previous night. They claimed the City was negligent because the Public Works Department improperly erected the tree by placing the guy wires too near the base of the tree and too low on the trunk of the tree. They presented an affidavit from a horticulturist stating that the City “improperly tied the guy wires too low on the trunk to provide adequate stability.” The record, however, contained no guidelines for guy-wire placement that were not followed by the City of Kenner or procedures that were lacking in its installation of trees. By 2003, the City had planted between 200 and 300 trees since 2000 in the same manner as the tree in question under the direction of a landscape architect and had received only a dozen complaints of leaning or falling trees.

Sometimes, the trees fall even when they're staked and guyed in place ... like this poor thing, which toppled after a careering drunk hit it.

Sometimes, the trees fall even when they’re staked and guyed in place … like this poor thing, which toppled after a careering drunk in a pickup truck drove over it.

The Court ruled that the Sampedros had not met their burden by merely arguing that the placement of the guy wires was improper, causing the tree to fall over in high winds.

As for the Sampedros’ claim that the City was strictly liable for their damages because it knew of the defective guy wires and failed to correct the defect, the Court ruled that the complaint was foreclosed by law. Under the 1995 amendment to Louisiana’s Civil Code, “no person shall have a cause of action against the public entity for damages caused by a condition under its control absent a showing of actual or constructive notice of the particular condition and a reasonable opportunity to remedy the defective condition.”

The Sampedros had to establish that the thing which caused the damage was in the custody of the defendant, that it was defective, and that the defendant had actual or constructive notice of the defect and failed to take corrective measures within a reasonable time. The law defines constructive notice as the “existence of facts which infer actual knowledge.”- The Sampedros contended that the City of Kenner was aware that the tree had been knocked downed the night before this accident so it was aware that “the defective guy wire locations … had failed the night before the accident.” The Court didn’t buy it. The record supported the theory that the tree fell because of high winds the night before. The fact that a tree was knocked down then re-planted “securely” did not constitute constructive notice of a defect in the guy wire or the tree’s placement.

Case of the Day – Thursday, July 3, 2014

FUN WITH TREE LAWNS

 

paradewatch140703Confusion reigns over who owns and controls the tree lawn, that strip between your front sidewalk and the street.  With July 4th coming up, we’ll hear the same question we hear every year: can I, Harry or Harriet Homeowner, keep parade watchers off my beautiful tree lawn (or, in the alternative, can I reserve the best seats for my family and friends)?

We can’t answer that, but we can again remind you that generally speaking, it’s your tree lawn (subject to the rights of the city to maintain it’s right-of-way).  That’s what the Miller-Lagro family established in today’s case.  It seems that they arrived home one day to find that the electric utility and its tree trimming subcontractor had butchered the trees on their treelawn.  This being America and all, they sued, citing a Minnesota statute giving them the right to treble damages for wrongful cutting on their property.

The trial court sided with the utility, holding that because the tree lawn was land dedicated to the road right-of-way, the Miller-Lagros could not recover.

The Court of Appeals reversed.

The Minnesota Supreme Court sided with the Miller-Lagros.  It held that they had standing under common law and the statute.  Sure, the Court said, their interest in the trees was subordinate to the right of the city, as exercised by the electrical utility in its utility line maintenance function.  But the utility’s rights to trim, derived from the city’s right-of-way maintenance rights, existed only to the extent that the trimming was reasonable and necessary.

The Miller-Lagros had the right to their day in court to prove that the trimming was unreasonable.

Depending on the number and nature of the people perched on your tree lawn, you may find it ill advised to loudly assert your right to exclusive possession of your tree lawn.

Depending on the number and nature of the people perched on your tree lawn, you may find it ill advised to loudly assert your right to exclusive possession of the space for the duration of the parade.

Normally, a landowner owns property to the center of the roadway passing the land, including the tree lawn. Obviously, the public has the right to occupy the roadway and sidewalks for their intended purpose, to transit across the land. However, there is no similar public purpose that would let people occupy the tree lawn. It seems to us that a landowner has the exclusive right of possession to the tree lawn, subject only to utility easements and rights-of-way (if the city wants to widen the street, you’re probably out of luck). As for the sofa, beer refrigerator, umbrella and roped-off area that some people from the other side of town have erected on your tree lawn (with the parade still a day away): they’re trespassers.

That’s the legal end of it … of course, there are social and political considerations in evicting them as well, especially if the patriarch of the parade squatters is 6’5”, 290 lbs. and goes by “Bubba.”

You’re on your own. Happy 4th of July.

Miller-Lagro v. Northern States Power Co., 582 N.W.2d 550 (Sup.Ct. Minn. 1998). When Heidi Miller-Lagro and Kent Lagro returned to their home in Medicine Lake on the afternoon on October 21, 1992, they were shocked to discover that Northern States Power Company and Asplundh Tree Company had cut down several trees that were located on the city right-of-way between their lot and the paved roadway. The Lagros sued NSP and Asplundh, who promptly submitted surveys showing the trees were on land that was dedicated as public roadway in 1887 and property of the City of Medicine Lake, not property of the Lagros.

Celebrate and enjoy the 4th of July, honoring the purpose of the day. (Photo of flag hanging on the fence of St. Paul church, next to the World Trade Center, taken in spring 2002).

Celebrate and enjoy the 4th of July, honoring the purpose of the day. (Photo of flag hanging on the fence of St. Paul church, next to the World Trade Center, taken in spring 2002).

The trial court granted NSP’s and Asplundh’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the Lagros lacked standing and could not recover because the trees were not located on their property.  They appealed, citing Minn.Stat. §561.04, that stated “[w]hoever without lawful authority cuts down or carries off any … tree .. on the land of another person, or in the street or highway in front of any person’s house, … is liable ….” The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the statute did apply, remanding the case for further proceedings on the issue of whether NSP had lawful authority to cut down the trees.

Held:  The Miller-Lagros control the tree lawn.  The Minnesota Supreme Court held that homeowners had standing, under both common law and wrongful tree removal statute, to bring claim for removal of trees located on the tree lawn in front of their residence by a utility company’s contractor. 

The homeowner’s interest in the trees is subordinate to the right of the city, as exercised by the electrical utility in its utility line maintenance function, to trim or cut trees in performance of its public works, the broad grant of authority provided by the statute governing utility’s maintenance of its lines, and the corresponding city ordinance. However, the statutes do not divest the property owner of ownership or control of the tree lawn, but rather only give] utility companies the lawful right to trim or remove trees to the extent that the trimming is reasonable and necessary for purpose of constructing, using, operating, and maintaining lines.

Case of the Day – Friday, July 4, 2014

A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR JULY 4TH

 

As millions of dollars worth of largely illegal fireworks are deflagrated in honor of America’s birthday, it’s a pretty good idea to consider the precautions people need to take in order to remain safe.

There's a reason this was the adult refrain in "A Christmas Story ..."

There’s a reason this was the adult refrain in “A Christmas Story …”

Today’s case reminds us of potential legal ramifications. The incident happened on New Year’s Day, not July 4th, but the risks are similar. A young kid in the neighbors’ yard with their permission … a bottle rocket set off by an adult guest of the neighbor … an eye lost.

The adult who lit the bottle rocket was liable, but inasmuch as she let a default judgment be entered against her, she probably had nothing. So the injured boy’s mother began prowling for a deep pocket. She claimed the homeowner was liable for several reasons, the most interesting of which was the doctrine of attractive nuisance.

Attractive nuisance balances two competing societal interests, that of protecting children (recognizing that most children will trespass on occasion and sometimes are injured when they do so) and landowners’ interest in not being unreasonably burdened to ensure that their property is safe for those children who trespass. Under the doctrine, a landowner who maintains dangerous instrumentalities on the premises easily accessible to children and likely to attract them in play, or permits dangerous conditions knowing that children are in the habit of using such things for play and who fails to exercise ordinary care to prevent children from playing with them, is liable for injuries to the children.

What is a “dangerous instrumentality?” Check out the top ten …

Brandon Keith fell into the 17% of kids with eye injuries ...

Brandon Keith fell into the 17% of kids with eye injuries …

In today’s case, the landowner escaped liability because he had exercised ordinary care. But amidst the picnic food and beer and adults playing with fireworks, some kids are going to get hurt on the Fourth, and some landowners who let it go on knowing that kids might be attracted — even without permission — may be liable.

Have a safe Fourth of July.

Keith v. Peterson, 922 So.2d 4 (Ct.App. Miss. 2005). Young Brandon Keith was struck in the eye by a bottle rocket while playing with friends in the Petersons’ back yard.

The Petersons had held a New Years Eve party the night before, and some of the Petersons’ friends were picking up unused fireworks — which a few of previous night’s partygoers had brought with them the night before — which were strewn around the yard. Brandon, who had attended the party because he was visiting his grandmother across the street, got permission to play in the Petersons’ yard by his grandmother as well as by Mrs. Peterson. While the children were playing hide and seek (and Brandon was hidden in the bushes), one of the people cleaning up the yard lit a bottle rocket and threw it into the air. The rocket ignited, flew across the yard and put Brandon’s eye out.

Mr. Peterson was on his way home from an errand at the time, and didn’t know Brandon was in the yard. The woman who had lit the rocket had no idea Brandon was hidden in the bushes. Brandon’s mother sued Mae Langston, who had lit the rocket, and the Petersons. Mrs. Keith obtained a default judgment against Mae for $350,000, but the trial court granted summary judgment for the Petersons and dismissed the case against them.

Held:   The trial court’s dismissal was upheld.

The Court of Appeals first considered whether Brandon was an “invitee” — one who enters the property of another in response to an express or implied invitation of the owner or occupant for their mutual benefit — or a “licensee” — who enters another’s property for his own benefit or pleasure — or a mere trespasser. A landowner owes the highest duty to an invitee, the duty to maintain his property in a reasonably safe condition, and when not reasonably safe to warn only where there is hidden danger or peril that is not plain and open view. For a licensee or trespasser, on the other hand, a landowner owes only the duty to have refrain from willfully or wantonly injuring him or her. Normally, the status of the plaintiff is a jury question, the Court said, but where the facts aren’t in dispute, the court can make the determination as a matter of law. In this case, young Brandon was on the Peterson property as a “licensee,” because he had the Petersons’ permission to be there and he was there for his own pleasure — to play with other children — rather than for the Petersons’ benefit. Because Brandon was a licensee, the Petersons only owed him a duty to refrain from willfully or wantonly injuring him.

Want the kids to enjoy some fireworks?  Take them to a display put on by trained and licensed professionals.  And have a great July 4th ...

Want the kids to enjoy some fireworks? Take them to a display put on by trained and licensed professionals. And have a great July 4th …

To breach that duty, the Court said, requires more than mere inadvertence or lack of attention. Instead, the landowner’s conduct must show conscious disregard of a known serious danger. Here, the Court ruled, the undisputed evidence showed the Petersons didn’t engage in wanton or willful conduct. The property owner was riding his bicycle towards his property when he saw children playing in his yard and two adults cleaning up fireworks, and it was at this time that Mr. Peterson saw one of the adults ignite the bottle rocket. He didn’t know that Brandon was one of the children playing on his property until he heard his scream, and Brandon testified that Mae Langston didn’t know that he was hiding behind hedges. And because the guests cleaning the yard weren’t paid employees, the doctrine of respondeat superior did not apply to make the Petersons liable.

Brandon’s mother argued that the doctrine of attractive nuisance applied to this action. The Court noted that the theory of attractive nuisance was that a landowner was subject to liability for physical harm to children trespassing thereon if the property owner failed to exercise ordinary care in maintaining the dangerous instrumentality which attracted the children. That didn’t apply here, the Court said, because the record showed that Mr. Peterson exercised ordinary care, he was not liable. There was no testimony that he had allowed children to ignite the remaining fireworks without supervision. In fact, he had two adults removing fireworks from his yard, and he was not on his property at time of incident and was unaware of licensee Brandon’s presence on his property.

Case of the Day – Monday, July 7, 2014

ASSUMPTION OF RISK

Your typical summer family softball participants ... notice how no one's brought a lawyer along.

Your typical summer family softball participants … notice how no one’s brought a lawyer along.

With the Fourth of July just passed (and the traditional family softball game under our belts), here’s another cautionary tale from the safety scolds at treeandneighborlaw. This one is from our “I got hurt, so I need someone to sue” department.

Dan was a healthy, 26-year old recreational football league kind of guy. He was playing flag football with some buddies in the Dome Football League, using an indoor facility owned by the Town of Tonawanda. Of course, you need to mark the boundaries of the football field, and — necessity being the mother of invention — someone used a softball glove as a marker. (Aha! Our softball tie-in.)

Dan stepped on the glove during a moment of football derring-do, and he was injured. So of course, he threw a yellow hankie at the Football League and the Town. The Town and League threw their own red flags, asking the booth, that is to say, the trial court, to review and throw out the case. The trial court refused to do so.

The appellate court, however, penalized Dan 15 yards and loss of down. When someone engages in an injury-prone event, like flag football, he or she (usually “he” in case of football, but there are exceptions), consents to reasonably foreseeable consequences of the activity. There are always sidelines markers, the Court observed, and Dan didn’t show that using a softball mitt was created a danger any greater than using the usual cones or plastic flags employed by the League.

Footballplayer

So what does this have to do with trees? When people engage in outdoor activities in which they come in contact with trees, roots, stumps and holes in the ground, it’s always a fair question whether they assumed the risk when they elected to ski, mountain bike, run a 5k or whatever they were doing at the time. And if you’re a Dan, be prepared to prove that the hazard you confronted was something over and above what you could reasonably expect to encounter in the activity.

Gardner v. Town Of Tonawanda, 850 N.Y.S.2d 730 (N.Y.A.D. 4 Dept., 2008). Dan Gardner, a 26-year old flag football enthusiast, slipped and fell on a baseball glove that he and his buddies were using as a sideline marker during a recreational indoor flag football game organized by the Dome Football League and played in a facility owned by Town of Tonawanda. Dan was experienced in playing recreational flag football games on the indoor artificial turf field and he knew the sidelines of the field were marked with orange plastic cones and that the referee had discretion to use other types of markers on the sidelines as well. Dan said he was unaware that a baseball glove was being used as a sideline marker, but he didn’t have any evidence supporting his contention that the risk of slipping on the baseball glove was greater than the risk of slipping or tripping on the cones or plastic flags usually used as sideline markers. But that didn’t stop him from suing the Football League and the Town. The defendants moved for summary judgment, but the trial court denied it.

umpire140707Held: Summary judgment was granted to the Town, and the case dismissed. The Court concluded that Dan assumed the risk of the injuries that he sustained because the use of the baseball glove as a sideline marker didn’t create a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in recreational flag football.

The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk generally constitutes a complete defense to an action to recover damages for personal injuries and applies to the voluntary participation in sporting activities. As a general rule, the Court said, participants properly may be held to have consented by their participation to those injury-causing events which are known, apparent or reasonably foreseeable consequences of their participation. Such injury-causing events include the risks that are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation.

Yer out, Dan!

Case of the Day – Tuesday, July 8, 2014

NO, RODNEY, WE CAN’T JUST GET ALONG

Rodney King (1965-2012), whose DUI stop turned into a beating at the hands of the police,  making him an unwitting icon  of racial injustice and a plainspoken advocate for understanding.

Rodney King (1965-2012), whose DUI stop turned into a beating at the hands of the police, making him both  an unwitting symbol of racial injustice and a plainspoken advocate for understanding.

From California, the land of pleasant living … we take you to a war zone. Compton? South LA? No, it’s the City of Rolling Hills, California, perched on the Rancho Palos Verde peninsula, a place where poverty, indeed, vehicles costing under a hundred grand, appear to have been banned.

It’s unlikely Rodney King would have lived here.

Remember Rodney? The man should have known better than to be driving around after dark while being Black. After some of the police officers involved in his beating were acquitted, rioting ensued. Rodney plaintively pled for peace, asking,can we all get along?

Amid its 23 miles of horse trails, the 690 homes and the 26 miles of roads, the people in Rolling Hills apparently cannot. The Fullers made it a habit to complain about the Murrells’ trees because it spoiled their view (probably something people on Rodney’s side of town didn’t worry much about). The Murrells kept trying to get along, acceding to trim job after trim job, until they had finally had enough. But they didn’t sue the Fullers. Instead, they sued the Rolling Hills board of directors, and specifically Donald Crocker, for having caved in to years and years of the Fullers’ fulminations about the trees.

Naturally, Mr. Crocker, who was a volunteer board member, didn’t much like being sued. After all, he was just doing his job. And the Court agreed. Directors of corporations, for-profit and not-for-profit alike, are protected by a “business judgment rule,” which shields them from liability when they have acted in good faith, haven’t engaged in self-dealing and acted on an informed basis. (Note: the “business judgment rule” varies by state, and you should not assume that this case represents what would happen in your own state).

Besides, the Court said, the Murrells couldn’t benefit after leading the Board and everyone else to believe they were agreeing, however reluctantly, to the tree trimming for year after year, and only when they reached the breaking point, then sue for everything that had ever happened.

Sgt. Joe Friday, iconic LA cop who would not have approved of the   Rodney King beating,  but would have used the Murrells' prior acquiescence against them, just as the court did.

Sgt. Joe Friday, iconic LA cop who would not have approved of the Rodney King beating, but would have used the Murrells’ prior acquiescence against them, just as the court did.

There are a couple of morals here. One is that if you just try to get along, it “can and will be used against you in a court of law,” as Sgt. Joe Friday liked to tell defendants. The second, and more basic moral, sadly enough, is that turning the other cheek in Rolling Hills is just an invitation to your neighbor to smite you on that one, too.

Sorry, Rodney. Guess we can’t “just get along.” That’s why there are lawyers and courts.

Murrell v. Crocker, Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2007 WL 1839478 (Cal. App. 2 Dist., June 28, 2007). The Murrells and Fullers are neighbors in Rolling Hills, California. They are members of the Rolling Hills Community Association, a nonprofit cooperative corporation governed by a five-member board of directors, one of whom is Mr. Crocker.

A governing document called the CC&R sets out the rights and obligations among the RHCA, the Murrells and the Fullers. According to the CC&R, in order to improve the view and to protect adjoining property, the RHCA has the authority to cut back or trim trees and shrubs on a member’s property. The RHCA also has a 10-foot wide easement along the boundary of each lot in which it has the right to remove trees or shrubs.

In 1997, the RHCA passed a resolution establishing procedures for maintaining and improving views. At that time, the Fullers demanded that the Murrells remove foliage to create a view for the Fullers. To be good neighbors and to avoid a dispute, the Murrells did so. In 2000, the Fullers brought a view complaint to the RHCA, which “caused the removal” of five trees and the trimming of an additional 12 trees on the Murrell property.

In 2002, the Board adopted yet another resolution, which contained more detailed procedures to maintain and improve views.
The next year, the Fullers submitted a second view complaint to the RHCA, which recommended that two of the Murrells’ trees be trimmed. The Murrells did so, but the Fullers complained that the trees were not trimmed enough, and in 2004 the Board ordered that a pine in the RHCA easement be removed and that other trees not on the easement be severely trimmed.

Finally the Murrells had had enough. They sued Crocker and the RHCA Board for taking actions inconsistent with their fiduciary duties and the CC&Rs, including failing or refusing to inform other Board members that the CC&Rs did not permit the removal of trees or other plantings from the portion of the Murrells’ property outside of the easement; adopting resolutions inconsistent with the powers granted to the RHCA under the CC&Rs; letting the Fullers pretty much call the shots, and trimming of trees so that the trees would not grow back for three or four years.

Crocker moved for summary judgment on the grounds that he had no individual liability to the Murrells, and that the claims in the complaint were specious. He complained that the first view complaint was resolved by an agreement between the Murrells and the Fullers after meetings with the Committee and an arborist. He argued the Murrells had agreed or acquiesced to almost all of the trimming. Although George Murrell denied any such agreement, he felt that because the Committee and the Board had a negative attitude toward him and his wife, he “had no choice but to play along with the concept that some agreement had been reached as the Association Board and View Committee were claiming.” His wife said she had been trying to “avoid a confrontation in the hope that the … Board would, in the end, make some effort to protect some aspect of our privacy.”

The trial court dismissed Crocker as a party. The Murrells appealed.

The Palos Verde peninsula offers stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean, when the neighbors' trees aren't in the way.

The Palos Verde peninsula offers stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean, when the neighbors’ trees aren’t in the way.

Held: Crocker was dismissed as a party. The Court noted that under California law, directors of nonprofit corporations, such as a homeowners association, are fiduciaries who are required to exercise their powers in accordance with the duties imposed by the Corporations Code. A director fulfills his duty to a member of the association by strictly enforcing the provisions of the CC&Rs but has no fiduciary duty to exercise his discretion one way or the other with regard to a member so long as the director’s conduct conforms to the standard set out in § 7231 of the Corporations Code.

That section of the law sets out the standard of care for directors of nonprofit corporations, known as “California’s statutory business judgment rule,” providing that a “director shall perform the duties of a director … in good faith, in a manner such director believes to be in the best interests of the corporation and with such care, including reasonable inquiry, as an ordinarily prudent person in a like position would use in similar circumstances.” In performing such duties, a director “shall be entitled to rely on information, opinions, reports or statements … prepared or presented by … one or more officers or employees of the corporation whom the director believes to be reliable and competent in the matters presented; counsel … or a committee of the board upon which the director does not serve … so long as, in any such case, the director acts in good faith, after reasonable inquiry when the need therefore is indicated by the circumstances and without knowledge that would cause such reliance to be unwarranted.” A person who performs the duties of a director according to the rule has no liability based upon any alleged failure to discharge his or her obligations as a director.

Here, Crocker provided a declaration that he performed his duties in connection with both view complaints in good faith and with due care within the meaning of the rule, and the Murrells had no evidence to the contrary. The Court found that Crocker’s only involvement with the Murrells or the Fullers has been in public meetings of the RHCA or in officially sanctioned trips to their property, that he has no personal relationship with either the Murrells or the Fullers and had no personal interest in the outcome of their dispute, that Crocker was not the “primary driving force” behind the alleged improper treatment of the Murrells, that the votes were unanimous in all Board actions regarding the Murrells and the Fullers, and that he did not knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth take any action, or encourage any other Board member, to take any action inconsistent with a Board member’s fiduciary duties or the CC&Rs.

The Court also noted that the Murrells admitted that they engaged in conduct leading Crocker and the RHCA to believe that the Fullers and the Murrells had come to agreements involving the removal and trimming of the trees. The Court held that because there was no reason for Crocker to suspect that the Murrells were laboring under any mistake as to their legal rights, there was no duty for him to make any disclosures on the point. Any unexpressed position on the part of the Murrells concerning the view complaints did not, the Court said, create an issue of fact as to Crocker’s good faith compliance with his duties.

Case of the Day – Wednesday, July 9, 2014

LET’S ALL GET TOGETHER AND STIFF THE INSURANCE COMPANY

Tal Mims owned a rental house. He also owned a landscaping company. So when Rosemary Stills, his tenant, called to say a tree had fallen on the house, who better to come over to clean up the mess that Tal’s landscaping crew?  It seemed like perfect synergy.
Treeonhouse
But things got worse. While the tree was being cut up, a large branch fell on the tenant’s son, breaking his leg. The tenant sued Tal, and then she added his homeowner’s insurance carrier as a defendant. Then both the plaintiff and the defendant Tal ganged up on the insurance company.

The policy pretty plainly excluded bodily injury and property damage “arising out of the rental or holding for rental of any part of any premises by any insured” and “arising out of premises owned or rented to any insured, which is not an insured location.” But Tal and Rosemary argued that while the falling tree related to the rental property, the accident — which occurred while it was being cut up — did not. Tal Mims argued rather disingenuously that he was acting on his own behalf at the time of the accident and that he was not engaged in any business pursuit or employment.

Here’s the problem, the Court said. While throttling insurance companies is something courts do fairly often, the companies still are free to limit coverage so long as the limitations do not conflict with statutory provisions or public policy. The business pursuits exclusion in a homeowner’s policy is intended to exclude risks that should be covered under different policies. Here, the Court said, the property on which the accident occurred was never listed in his homeowner’s policy, but instead happened on another piece of property that should have been covered by its own policy. Besides, the accident happened because Tal was removing a tree from the roof of the rental house. The Court guessed that if Tal had left the tree on the roof, it would have badly affected the value of the house.

That being true, the Court said, this was pretty clearly a project related to a rental property, and pretty clearly excluded from the Tal’s insurance policy, a happy ending for common sense but not so happy for Tal and Rosemary, both of whom hoped State Farm’s deep pocket would solve their problems.

Stills v. Mims, 973 So.2d 118 (La.App., 2007). Stills rented her home from Tal and Tommie Lee Mims. Tal operated a business named Tal’s Custom Landscaping, Inc. When a storm caused a tree to fall on the roof of the home. Stills informed Tal of the damage, and he came to remove the tree. In doing so, a limb fell from the roof onto the ground and injured Stills’ son, LeWilliam. HurtinStills sued Tal and Tommie Lee Mims, and added State Farm as a defendant. She alleged State Farm had in effect at the time of the accident a policy covering the Mims’ actions of the defendants.

State Farm filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that the homeowner’s policy issued to Tal Mims was for his personal residence at 2508 Lindholm Street, and that State Farm never issued a policy for 604 Central Avenue, where the accident occurred. State Farm asserted that the liability and medical payments coverages provided in the policy excluded bodily injury and property damage “arising out of the rental or holding for rental of any part of any premises by any insured” and “arising out of premises owned or rented to any insured, which is not an insured location.” The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of State Farm, finding no coverage under Mims’ homeowner’s policy. Both Stills and Mims appealed.

Held:   The trial court’s dismissal of State Farm Insurance was upheld. Stills argued that her claim was based on Mims’ negligence in cutting the tree down, and not on any property defect, making the insured location issue irrelevant. Both Stills and Mims asserted that the business pursuit exclusion did not apply, because Mims’ actions fell under the exception for activities ordinarily incident to non-business pursuits.

Mims denied being in the business of renting homes. He claimed that he was acting on his own behalf at the time of the accident and that he was not engaged in any business pursuit or employment. The Court noted that insurance companies are free to limit coverage so long as the limitations do not conflict with statutory provisions or public policy. Exclusions must be strictly construed against the insurer with any ambiguities construed in favor of the insured. The insurer bears the burden of proving the applicability of an exclusion to a claimed loss.

The Court said that the business pursuits exclusion in a homeowner’s policy is intended to exclude risks that should be covered under different policies. For example, the commercial risks of a business would typically be covered by a commercial liability policy, whereas the risks associated with a rental dwelling would typically be insured by rental property insurance. The removal of the risks associated with business enterprises or rental properties helps to lower the rates of homeowner’s insurance by eliminating non-essential coverages.

Stills and Mims argue that her claim does not arise from any business pursuit by Mims, but rather, the claim is based on his personal liability and involves activities that are ordinarily incident to non-business pursuits. They cited Blue Ridge Insurance Co. v. Newman — where the Court found that such a tree mishap was covered by a homeowners’ policy – in support of their position. But the Court said Blue Ridge was different. First, plaintiff Newman’s property on which the tree was located was insured under his homeowner’s policy. Here, the house leased by Stills was not insured under Mims’ State Farm policy. Mims was not seeking coverage for an accident that occurred on his insured residence, but instead, the Court held, he sought to have his homeowner’s insurance cover an incident that occurred on an unrelated rental location that should have been insured by some other policy. The very purpose behind the business pursuits exclusion, the Court said, supported a finding of no coverage.

scamSecond, Newman’s property had been his family’s home since 1965, and had only been rented to a friend for less than a year prior to when the accident occurred. In Mims’ case, there was no indication that the Stills residence was anything other than a rental property.

Third, Newman’s house was vacant when the tree fell, whereas Stills and her son were residing in the Central Avenue home when the tree fell on it. Fourth, the damage in Blue Ridge arose when the tree from Newman’s property fell on a neighboring property. Here, the existence of the tree on the property and its falling during the storm did not cause the damage. Instead, young LeWilliam’s injury arose from Mims’ removal of the tree from the roof of the rental dwelling.

Finally, the Blue Ridge court’s major consideration was that the mere existence of the tree on the property had no bearing on the use of the property- as a rental. The fact that a tree fell on the roof of the rental home in this case, particularly if left there, would likely affect the suitability of Stills’ rental dwelling. While the existence, or maintenance, of a tree on Newman’s family property was an activity usually incident to non-business pursuits, Mims’ removal of a fallen tree from the roof of a rental dwelling by Stills was clearly not.

Pretty clever argument, the Court conceded – but State Farm was not liable.

Case of the Day – Thursday, July 10, 2014

WINNING THE BATTLE, LOSING THE WAR …

 

"But I can't see the Pacific!"  A tree probably feels better about being sacrificed for an ocean view when its cutting results in a $1 million plus payday for lawyers.

“But I can’t see the Pacific!” A tree probably feels better about being sacrificed for an ocean view when its cutting results in a $1 million plus payday for lawyers.

Those fun-loving Murrells of Rolling Hills, California, are back! The couple’s quixotic effort to hold their condo association liable for all sorts of alleged backroom dealing and breach of trust in cutting down their trees to improve the view of their neighbors, the Fullers, was covered in our Case of the Day for July 8, 2014. Lest you think that the 2007 decision we covered was the end of the saga, we bring you Murrell II, the Very Expensive Sequel.

You recall that the Rolling Hills Community Association held an easement across the Murrell’s’ property for “[r]oads, streets, or bridle trails, parkways and park areas[, p]oles, wires and conduits for the transmission of electricity…; [p]ublic and private sewers, storm water drains, land drains, and pipes, water systems, water, heating and gas mains or pipes; and … [a]ny other method of conducting and performing any public or quasi-public utility service or function on, over and under the surface of the ground.” The easement gave the Association the right to trim or cut trees within its limits. The Fullers, whose view of the ocean was obscured by the Murrells’ trees, convinced the RHCA to trim back some of the Murrells’ trees and whack down a few others, so that they could enjoy the million-dollar vista they had paid for when they bought their place.

That’s “long story short.” The actual history of the tortured litigation and thundering herd of parties is Byzantine, and is amply (if not fully) recounted in the full opinion. The Murrells ended up suing the Fullers, the RHCA, an individual member of the RHCA (who was seemingly picked at random). There were counterclaims and crossclaims. When the 2007 dust settled, the board member was dismissed, and judgments or pieces of judgments were rendered against the RHCA and the Murrells. Board member Donald Crocker was held not to have breached any duty. And a judge ordered the Murrells to pay more than $700,000 in legal fees for the Fullers and RHCA.

Naturally, everyone appealed. And that brought us to today’s 2011 decision.

You may recall that the Murrells argued that the RHCA had no right to cut down trees to improve someone else’s view. In this case, they added the argument that the community association should have been equitably estopped from cutting down the trees because it had approved their construction of an addition to their home with a wall of windows, and the Fullers had not objected. Both parties had lulled them into building something that depended on their trees for privacy, the Murrells contended, and the defendants could not fairly be allowed to strip their privacy away by cutting down those trees, even if it otherwise had the legal right to do so.

Britney Spears, shown here in one of her less glam moments, spent over a million on lawyers just to get through rehab.  But the Murrells and Fullers weren't far behind ...

Britney Spears, shown here in one of her less glam moments, spent over a million on lawyers just to get through rehab. But the Murrells and Fullers weren’t far behind …

The Court of Appeals made short work of the Murrells’ latest complaint. First, it concluded that the easement let the RHCA cut down trees for any reason it liked. As for the “equitable estoppel” argument, the judges held that “[t]he Murrells fail to cite pertinent authority that RHCA should be estopped from removing a tree on its easement because of the Murrells’ addition plans.” Not elegant, but then, the Court pretty clearly thought the argument was so foolish as to not deserve much analysis.

Much of the remainder of the decision is dedicated to the Murrells’ complaints about how much they were forced to pay for the RHCA’s and Fullers’ attorneys. The lengthy recitation is mind numbing (unless you happen to be a lawyer, in which case $250.00 an hour for a second-year associate who carries your briefcase is a “feel good” story).

The Murrells ended up winning $30,000 from RHCA and nothing from the Fullers. It cost them $500,000 in legal fees for themselves and another $492,000 in the defendants’ legal fees, all to fight for their recently departed Aleppo pine tree.

“Another such victory and I am undone!” King Pyrrhus is reputed to have said. So could the Merrills. At the same time, most of us find it difficult to imagine being able to drop $1.6 million on a legal battle over some trimmed trees.

Murrell v. Rolling Hills Community Association, Case No. B202019 (Ct.App. Cal., Jan. 31, 2011). A contentious and costly feud over trees and a neighbor’s view has spawned multiple legal actions, cross-actions, five appeals and two cross-appeals. To obtain an unobstructed ocean view, the Fullers wanted certain trees on “the Murrell property” trimmed or removed. The Murrells, who sought to preserve privacy, resisted. So began a decade-plus dispute.

After many attempts to mediate, the case went to trial in 2007. The Fullers obtained judgment in full against the Murrells in the amount of $10,000, and the Murrells obtained judgment in the amount of $30,000 against RHCA on RHCA’s breach of its covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) and breach of fiduciary duty.

pyrric140710The Murrells incurred $892,000 in attorney fees. They were awarded $400,000 as attorney fees against RHCAbut were ordered to pay $159,000 as attorney fees to RHCA on a separate claim and $334,000 as attorney fees to the Fullers.

The Murrells claimed the CC&Rs did not authorize RHCA to “trim, top and/or remove trees and foliage on the Murrell property” for the purpose of providing the Fullers with an ocean view. The Fullers sued in turn for injunctive and declaratory relief that they had the right to have the trees cut or trimmed. The Murrells also sued RHCA for breach of the CC&Rs, breach of fiduciary duty, trespass, and conversion, alleging that by going onto the Murrell property and removing a pine tree in order to benefit the Fullers’ view at the expense of the Murrells’ privacy, RHCA acted contrary to the CC&Rs and its fiduciary duty to act in good faith and fair dealing. In so doing, the Murrells claim RHCA violated the CC&Rs because they did not empower RHCA “to remove trees in the easement on the Murrell property for any reason unrelated to the express and implied purposes of the easement, which are the creation of and maintenance of roads, bridle trails, utilities, parkways, park areas, above ground poles, wires and conduits as well as sewers, drains, pipes and below ground conduits.” denied the complaint’s material allegations and pleaded 17 affirmative defenses.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the RHCA. The Murrells contended summary judgment was improper on the grounds that neither RHCA nor the trial court addressed their equitable estoppel claim. The Murrells argued the CC&Rs cannot be interpreted to authorize RHCA to remove the pine tree, which was on RHCA’s easement, for the purpose of enhancing the Fullers’ view. They further argued that even if such authority existed, questions of fact existed regarding whether RHCA complied with its fiduciary duty to the Murrells in light of expert evidence that removal of the pine tree was unnecessary to improve the Fullers’ view.

So many say.  But it's their clients who are driving the train ...

So many say. But it’s their clients who are driving the train …

The Murrells argued RHCA was estopped from asserting any right to remove the pine tree for the reason RHCA and the Fullers did not complain to the Murrells about their plans to construct an addition to their residence involving floor to ceiling windows, and in reliance on this “silence, ” the Murrells constructed this addition with the expectation that their “foliage and mature trees[, including the pine tree ]” would preserve their privacy.” The Court held that the Murrells failed to cite pertinent authority that RHCA should be estopped from removing a tree on its easement because of their addition plans. The estoppel argument failed.

The Murrells also contended RHCA was not authorized to remove the tree to enhance the Fullers’ view, which was not a reason recognized as an easement use under section 2(b) of article V under the CC&Rs. The Court held that the “fallacy of their position lies in their misinterpretation of the pertinent provisions of the CC&R’s. When viewed in context, these provisions reveal RHCA has the right to remove trees located in its easement, without regard to purpose.”

The Court said that the “language of the CC&Rs governs if it is clear and explicit, and we interpret the words in their ordinary and popular sense unless a contrary intent is shown.” The Court interpreted the CC&Rs “to make them lawful, operative, definite, reasonable and capable of being carried into effect, and [to] avoid an interpretation that would make them harsh, unjust or inequitable.” Here, it was uncontroverted that the Murrell property is burdened by an easement in favor of RHCA and that the pine tree was located on this easement portion of that property. RHCA had the right to remove trees located on that portion of the Murrell property burdened by its easement. The Court said that the unambiguous language of the CC&Rs in the phrase “in or along any easements” referred to the physical location of the tree which RHCA is authorized to remove rather than to any particular qualifying reason for its removal, for example, solely for an easement use or purpose. Thus, the fact that enhancing a member’s view is not an enumerated easement use is inconsequential.

Case of the Day – Friday, July 11, 2014

PYRRHIC VICTORIES, THE SEQUEL

 

We’ll end the week with a second tale of arrogant parties, clever lawyers and Pyrrhic victories.  Like the Murrells yesterday, today’s plaintiff wins, but her victory was a hollow one.

This case starts as a tale of lawyers screwing up. Yes, the very idea that a trained legal professional who habitually exercises the utmost care could err taxes one’s credulity. But just for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that such a thing is possible …

The mistake was made by the professionals in the Massachusetts Land Court way back in the 1940s. Visualize the plot … two lots located next to each other, a power line easement granted way back in antiquity that didn’t describe the corridor of the easement at all, and … well, like a sophomoric sitcom, you can see where this is heading. When the Land Court issued certificates of title (a Massachusetts thing) it recorded the easement on Lot 2. The problem is that the power lines went across Lot 1. Hilarity ensued.
power-line-1

No one really notices power line poles – they’re just there. So it’s no surprise that nobody noticed the blunder until the neighbor on Lot 2 wanted to increase the size of his electrical service. The power company needed to install a transformer, and as a matter of course, it checked land records to verify its easement. Lo and behold, it found that the easement had been recorded on the wrong land. “No probalo,” the power company said, and it sued Leslie MacCardell — on whose land the power lines were located — to have the easement sort of eased on over to Leslie’s lot.

Not so fast, Leslie exclaimed. She fought back, arguing that she was a purchaser in good faith, and nothing in the records she had searched when she bought the place revealed a power company easement. “Good faith, indeed!” hooted the power company. She had actual knowledge of the easement when she bought. After all, the poles were there and her lights turned on (yeah, the utility actually said this) and she got a bill. How’d she think all of that happened if not for an easement?

Well, said Massachusetts highest court, in any of several ways. Despite the power company’s rather arrogant suggestion that it was just inconceivable that it would not have a proper easement, the Court said the poles could have been there permissively, or maybe — as it turned out — it was nothing but a trespass. Whatever it was, the Court held, it wouldn’t just assume that a landowner had actual knowledge. Rather, it was up to the power company to prove she did. And it didn’t.

We’re guessing that, just like the Murrells in yesterday’s case, this turned out to be kind of a Pyrrhic victory for our plucky heroine. Clearly, the power company’s poles had been on her property, openly and notoriously and continuously and adversely for many years. The utility probably had an open and shut case for a prescriptive easement, and it seems curious that it didn’t plead that as an alternate cause of action.

Commonwealth Elec. Co. v. MacCardell, 450 Mass. 48, 876 N.E.2d 405 (Sup.Jud.Ct. Mass. 2007). Thomas Murray owned two parcels of land. He granted an easement to the electric company for installation of transmission lines. The easement didn’t provide compass directions, but instead mentioned that the land was located in Duxbury and that the pole lines could “enter from land now or formerly of Plum Hill Avenue and cross to land now or formerly of Chester L. Churchill.” In 1944, the Murray estate filed an action in the Land Court to register and confirm the title to the two parcels. Both the certificate of title and the Land Court decree of registration mistakenly said that Lot 2 was subject to the pole easements when in fact was Lot 1. MacCardell owns Lot 1, the lot that contains the actual poles (which supply electricity to both her place and the adjacent property). Neither MacCardell’s title nor the next-door neighbor’s title mentions the utility easement. When her neighbor asked for increased electrical service, the power company decided it had to install a transformer.

oopsDuring its routine check on its easement, the utility found that there was an easement on Lot 2 but no easement on for Lot 1. The utility petitioned the Land Court to amend MacCardell’s title for Lot 1 to include the easement. MacCardell argued that in 1944 the Court’s decree imposed the easement on Lot 2, not Lot 1. She claimed she purchased a title with no encumbrances, and allowing the electric company to amend her title would impair her property. The Land Court entered judgment in favor of MacCardell. The utility appealed, but the Appeals Court affirmed the Land Court’s judgment. Thereafter, the electric company appealed to Massachusetts’ highest court.

Held: MacCardell owned her land free of the easement. Massachusetts law is settled that title holders and subsequent purchasers of registered land for value and in good faith take “free from all encumbrances except those noted on the certificate.” With respect to easements, the general rule is that in order to affect registered land as the servient estate, an easement must appear on the certificate of title. There are two exceptions to the general rule: (1) if there were facts described on the certificate of title that would prompt a reasonable purchaser to investigate further other certificates of title, documents, or plans in the registration system; or (2) if the purchaser had actual knowledge of a prior unregistered interest. In this case, no one disputed that the easement was not recorded anywhere in MacCardell’s chain of title. However, the utility argued that she had actual knowledge of the easement.

Who even notices utility poles?

Who even notices utility poles?

The “actual knowledge” exception means that for a titleholder to benefit from the protections afforded by the land registration system, the title holder must not possess actual knowledge of unregistered easements. The burden of proof lies with the party seeking to encumber an owner’s registered land, in this case, the electric company. Unfortunately for the utility, the Court said, it had presented no proof that MacCardell had actual knowledge of the easement.

All it argued was she had utility poles on her property, she could turn her lights on every morning, and she received a monthly utility bill. All of that proved she had knowledge, the utility claimed, because it was “inconceivable that a utility company’s installation and use of poles” would ever be permissive rather than a claim of right. The Court rejected this, suggesting that the poles, the power and the bill might equally suggest that the use may be adverse, which does not create an easement under the law, or a registered owner might have granted permissive use. What’s more, the Court said, the mere presence of a utility pole didn’t automatically place a registered landowner on notice that her property might be encumbered, because the actual owner of a utility pole isn’t readily ascertainable, and the average person may be unaware of the exact boundaries of the land. To meet the actual knowledge exception, the Court held, there must be some intelligible oral or written information that indicates the existence of an encumbrance or prior unregistered interest.

Case of the Day – Monday, July 14, 2014

ENCROACHMENT WEEK

The tree crew we hired seemed sort of smallish, bu they had really cool trucks ...

The tree crew we hired seemed sort of smallish, but they were always smiling and had these really cool trucks …

Last week, we got our trees trimmed. Our sugar maple at the corner of the property needed shaping and some deadwood removed, and we have a hawthorne badly in need of care.

While our tree service people were trimming, the neighbor came over to ask the foreman whether he could hire the crew to trim some branches at his place. His request included trimming back a long branch from our oak tree that stuck through his arbor vitae and provided unwanted shade and twig debris to his backyard. The foreman agreed, provided that we approve the trimming of the branch back to the property line.

We were surprised to be asked. “But surely you know the Massachusetts Rule,” we said. “Our neighbor doesn’t need permission to trim the oak branch back to the property line. That’s well settled law!” The foreman was both surprised and a little skeptical. He was sure he couldn’t touch the branch – even though it extended well into the neighbor’s property – without the tree owners’ OK.

Luckily for our tree service, their client happened to blog on the best tree law site in the entire solar system (this one). We gave the foreman the website address and invited him to check in this week. We confidently predicted that the site would be devoting the whole week to encroachment.

Are we ever prescient! As it happens, this week we are going to talk about encroachment … not the neutral-zone penalty that costs a defense five yards. That’s for football season, still one to two months away (depending whether your tastes run to high school, college or pro). The encroachment we care about is different.

Beginning140714Encroachment is what happens when your neighbor’s tree roots break into your sewer system, when leaves and nuts are dumped into your gutters, or when the branches rain down on your car or lawn. The law that governs rights and responsibilities when a neighbor’s tree encroaches on your property only developed in the last 80 years. Before that time, a simpler time perhaps, people didn’t resort to the courts quite so much.

In the beginning, there was the “Massachusetts Rule.”   That Rule, something we talk about so much you’d think everyone would have heard of it by now, arose in Michalson v. Nutting, 275 Mass. 232, 175 N.E. 490, 76 A.L.R. 1109 (Sup.Jud.Ct. Mass. 1931). This is the granddaddy of all encroachment cases, the Queen Mother. The Massachusetts Rule is the self-help mantra of neighbors everywhere.

In Michalson, roots from a poplar growing on the Nuttings’ land had penetrated and damaged sewer and drain pipes at Michalson’s place. As well, the roots had grown under Michalson’s concrete cellar, causing cracking and threatening serious injury to the foundation. Michalson wanted the Nuttings to cut down the tree and remove the roots. They said “Nutting doing.”

Encroaching tree roots can sometimes be unsightly

Encroaching tree roots can sometimes be unsightly…

Michalson sued, asking the court to permanently enjoin the Nuttings from allowing the roots to encroach on his land. Besides an order that the Nuttings essentially stop the tree from growing, Michalson wanted money, too, to ease the pain of leaf raking and root cutting. The trial judge found the Nuttings were not liable merely because their tree was growing. He threw Michalson’s lawsuit out, and Michalson appealed.

Held: In what has become known as the “Massachusetts Rule,” the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that a property owner’s remedies are limited to “self help.” In other words, a suffering property owner may cut off boughs and roots of neighbor’s trees which intrude into another person’s land. But the law will not permit a plaintiff to recover damages for invasion of his property by roots of trees belonging to adjoining landowner. And a plaintiff cannot obtain equitable relief — that is, an injunction — to compel an adjoining landowner to remove roots of tree invading plaintiff’s property or to restrain such encroachment.

Our takeaway today, therefore, are two concepts embodied in the Massachusetts Rule. The first is that you, the neighbor, need no permission from the tree owner to trim away roots and branches that overhang your property. That rule survives to this day just about everywhere. The second – which has been questioned to a much greater extent (as we shall see later this week) – is that you can’t sue your neighbor for the effects of encroachment by one of his or her trees.

Hold those concepts close, because tomorrow, we’ll see how things on the other end of the country – Hawaii – developed very differently, all because of a tree that was a little too much for the court to ignore.

Case of the Day – Tuesday, July 15, 2014

 

YESTERDAY CHOCOLATE, TODAY VANILLA

 

Like ice cream, there are many flavors of encroachment law theories.

Like ice cream, there are many flavors of encroachment law theories.

The law of encroaching overhanging trees runs a continuum from total self-help to the exclusion of any judicial remedy (theMassachusetts Rule,” which we discussed yesterday – to tree owner liability (the “Hawaii Rule”), with many variations in between. If the law of encroachment were at Baskin Robbins, the Massachusetts Rule would be chocolate ice cream, and the Hawaii Rule would be vanilla.

In Whitesell v. Houlton, 632 P.2d 1077 (App. Ct. 1981), a Hawaiian appellate court first adopted what is generally known as the “Hawaii Rule,” which held that when there is imminent danger of overhanging branches causing “sensible” harm to property other than plant life, the tree owner is liable for the cost of trimming the branches as well as for the damage caused.

Maybe the court’s holding that the Whitesell v. Houlton tree was a nuisance arose from the hard facts of the case: the tree was a massive banyan tree, with a 12-foot trunk and 90 foot height. There is, after all, an old legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law,” and the banyan tree in this case was pretty clearly monster flora, sort of the kudzu of trees. Perhaps it was that the laid-back political and cultural nature of the Sandwich Islands is far removed from the flintier New Englanders and the type of self-reliance embraced by the “Massachusetts Rule.” For whatever reason, Banyanif a branch from a healthy tree in Massachusetts is in danger of falling into a neighbor’s yard, he may trim it at his own expense … but that’s it. In Hawaii, overhanging branches or protruding roots constitute a nuisance when they actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit. Then, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may either use self-help to cut back on the encroaching tree or require the owner of the offending tree to pay for damages and to cut back endangering branches or roots. If such is not done within a reasonable time, the neighbor may even have the trimming done at tree owner’s expense.

As we said, nothing in this ruling prevents a landowner — at his own expense — from cutting any part of an adjoining owner’s trees or other plant life up to his property. It’s just that the Massachusetts says that’s all a landowner may do. Hawaii thinks differently. Tomorrow, we’ll see that Hawaii may be on the right side of history in this debate.

Whitesell v. Houlton, 632 P.2d 1077 (App. Ct. 1981). The Whitesells and Mr. Houlton lived next to each other. Mr. Houlton owned a 90-foot tall banyan tree with foliage extending 100 to 110 feet from the trunk. The tree overhung the Whitesells’ property. and the two-lane street fronting both properties. The Whitesells asked Mr. Houlton repeatedly over a two-year period to trim the tree, and they took it upon themselves to do so at various times. Their VW microbus was damaged by low-hanging branches, their garage roof was damaged by some intruding branches from the tree, and they identified branches damaged in a storm that were in danger of falling.

Despite their entreaties, Mr. Houlton did nothing. Finally, the Whitesells hired a professional tree trimmer who cut the banyan’s branches back to Houlton’s property line, and then sued Mr. Houlton to get him to pay.

The trial court sided with the Whitesells, and ruled that Mr. Houlton had to pay. He appealed.

Held:   Mr. Houlton had to pay. The court surveyed different approaches taken by other states, identifying the “Massachusetts Rule” holding that Mr. Houlton had no duty to the Whitesells, or the “Virginia Rule” that said Mr. Houlton had a duty to prevent his tree from causing sensible damage to his neighbor’s property.

nuisance140221The Court agreed with Mr. Houlton that “the Massachusetts rule is ‘simple and certain’. However, we question whether it is realistic and fair. Because the owner of the tree’s trunk is the owner of the tree, we think he bears some responsibility for the rest of the tree. It has long been the rule in Hawaii that if the owner knows or should know that his tree constitutes a danger, he is liable if it causes personal injury or property damage on or off of his property . . . Such being the case, we think he is duty bound to take action to remove the danger before damage or further damage occurs.” This is especially so, the Court said, where the tree in question was a banyan tree in the tropics.

Thus, the Court adopted what it called “a modified Virginia rule.” It held that “overhanging branches which merely cast shade or drop leaves, flowers, or fruit are not nuisances; that roots which interfere only with other plant life are not nuisances; that overhanging branches or protruding roots constitute a nuisance only when they actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit; that when overhanging branches or protruding roots actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may require the owner of the tree to pay for the damages and to cut back the endangering branches or roots and, if such is not done within a reasonable time, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may cause the cutback to be done at the tree owner’s expense.”

The Court pointed out that this rule did not strip a landowner of the right, at his or her expense, to trim a neighbor’s overhanging tree or subterranean tree roots up to the property line. It’s just where Massachusetts limits you to helping yourself, Hawaii lets you enlist the courts to do the heavy lifting.

Case of the Day – Wednesday, July 16, 2014

ENCROACHMENT, NUISANCE … AND THE MARCH OF TIME

camelhorse140429Not the football kind, the tree kind. Encroachment governs the rights of adjoining property owners when the trees on one of the properties encroaches on the property of the other. Overhanging branches, invasive root systems, falling debris … those kinds of problems.

Monday, we explored one of the two different approaches to encroachment under American law, the  “Massachusetts Rule” that landowners are limited to self-help – but not lawsuits – to stop encroaching trees and roots. And at the other end of these 50 United States was the “Hawaii Rule,” a holding that a landowner could sue for damages and injunctive relief when a neighbor’s tree was causing actual harm or was an imminent danger to his or her property.

Between the two competing rules, Virginia found herself firmly straddling the line. The fair Commonwealth may be for lovers, but it was also for temporizers. The landmark Old Dominion case on the issue, Smith v. Holt, hailed from the 1930s, holding that the Massachusetts Rule applied unless the tree in question was (1) causing actual harm or was an imminent danger; and (2) “noxious.” This holding brings to mind the maxima camel looks like a horse designed by a committee.” Frankly, Smith v. Holt had “committee’ written all over it. It seemed to hold that the Massachusetts Rule applied except where it didn’t. And what did “noxious” have to do with anything?

hoist140715The Virginia Supreme Court finally addressed the confusing situation several years ago in Fancher v. Fagella. There the Court found itself hoisted on its own “noxious” petard. Everyone could agree that poison ivy was noxious, and most people could agree kudzu was noxious. But how about a cute little shade tree? Shade trees are definitely not in the same league with poisonous or entangling pests, but yet, a cute little shade tree can come out of the ground harder and do more damage than poison ivy or kudzu ever could.

Take the tree in Fancher. It was a sweet gum, a favored landscaping tree as well as a valuable hardwood. But for poor Mr. Fancher, it was Hydra covered in bark. Only halfway grown, Fagella’s sweet gum’s roots were already knocking over a retaining wall, kicking up patio stones, breaking up a house foundation and growing into sewers and even the house electrical system. Fancher sued for an injunction, but the trial court felt obligated to follow Smith v. Holt. There was just no way that a sweet gum tree could be noxious, the local court held, and thus, it would not help the frustrated Mr. Fancher. But the Virginia Supreme Court, wisely seeing that the “noxious” standard was of no help in these cases, abandoned the hybrid rule of Smith v. Holt., an unwieldy compromise that had already become known as the “Virginia Rule.” The Court – noting that the “Massachusetts Rule” was a relic of a more rural, bucolic age – decided that the “Hawaii Rule” was the best fit for modern, crowded, helter-skelter suburban life. It sent the case back to the trial court, instructing the judge that the court should consider whether an injunction should issue.

This decision fits neatly into what we have been considering for the past week on negligence and nuisance. Here, the tree had become a nuisance, possibly because Fagella had not cared for the tree before it began damaging the neighbor’s property. All the tree had ever done is what trees do – it grew.  And grew and grew.  It was healthy, perhaps amazingly so, but Fagella was ordered to shoulder the cost of damages caused not because it was dangerous, or dead, or anything other than an inconvenience.

Like the decision or hate it, you could see this coming. From an age in which trees grew and lived and died, and effects of the life cycle were not chargeable against the landowner, we may be arriving at a point where trees aren’t much more than big, woody pets, with their owners responsible for whatever the tree may naturally do.

Fancher v. Fagella, 650 S.E.2d 519, 274 Va. 549 (2007). Fancher and Fagella were the owners of adjoining townhouses in Fairfax County, Virginia (a largely urban or suburban county west of Washington, D.C., and part of the Washington metropolitan area). Fagella’s property is higher in elevation than Fancher’s, and a masonry retaining wall runs along the property line to support the grade separation. Fancher has a sunken patio behind his home, covered by masonry pavers.

FancherillusFagella had a sweet gum tree located a few feet from the retaining wall, about 60 feet high with a 2-foot diameter trunk at its base. Sweet gums are native to the area, and grow to 120 to 140 feet in height at maturity, with a trunk diameter of 4 to 6 feet. The tree was deciduous, dropping spiky gumballs and having a heavy pollen load. It also has an invasive root system and a high demand for water.

In the case of Fagella’s tree, the root system had displaced the retaining wall between the properties, displaced the pavers on Fancher’s patio, caused blockage of his sewer and water pipes and had begun to buckle the foundation of his house. The tree’s overhanging branches grew onto his roof, depositing leaves and other debris in his rain gutters. Fancher attempted self-help, trying to repair the damage to the retaining wall and the rear foundation himself, and cutting back the overhanging branches, but he was ineffective in the face of continuing expansion of the root system and branches. Fancher’s arborist believed the sweet gum tree was only at mid-maturity, that it would continue to grow, and that “[n]o amount of concrete would hold the root system back.” The arborist labeled the tree “noxious” because of its location, and said that the only way to stop the continuing damage being done by the root system was to remove the tree entirely.

Fancher sued for an injunction compelling Fagella to remove the tree and its invading root system entirely, and asked for damages to cover the cost of restoring the property to its former condition. Fagella moved to strike the prayer for injunctive relief. The trial court, relying on Virginia law set down in Smith v. Holt, denied injunctive relief. Fancher appealed.

Held: The Supreme Court abandoned the “Virginia Rule,” adopting instead the “Hawaii Rule” that while trees and plants are ordinarily not nuisances, they can become so when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. Then, injunctive relief and damages will lie. The Court traced the history of the encroachment rule from the “Massachussetts Rule” — which holds that a landowner’s right to protect his property from the encroaching boughs and roots of a neighbor’s tree is limited to self-help, i.e., cutting off the branches and roots at the point they invade his property — through the modern “Hawaii Rule.” The Court noted that Virginia had tried to strike a compromise between the two positions with the “Virginia Rule” set out in Smith v. Holt, which held that the intrusion of roots and branches from a neighbor’s plantings which were “not noxious in [their] nature” and had caused no “sensible injury” were not actionable at law, the plaintiff being limited to his right of self-help.

Invasive_rootsThe Court found the “Massachusetts Rule” rather unsuited to modern urban and suburban life, although it may still work well in many rural conditions. It admitted that the “Virginia Rule” was justly criticized because the classification of a plant as “noxious” depends upon the viewpoint of the beholder. Just about everyone would agree that poison ivy is noxious. Many would agree that kudzu is, too, because of its tendency toward rampant growth, smothering other vegetation. But few would declare healthy shade trees to be noxious, although they may cause more damage and be more expensive to remove, than the poison ivy or kudzu. The Court decided that continued reliance on the distinction between plants that are noxious, and those that are not, imposed an unworkable and futile standard for determining the rights of neighboring landowners.

Therefore, the Court overruled Smith v. Holt, insofar as it conditions a right of action upon the “noxious” nature of a plant that sends forth invading roots or branches into a neighbor’s property. Instead, it adopted the Hawaii Rule, finding that encroaching trees and plants are not nuisances merely because they cast shade, drop leaves, flowers, or fruit, or just because they happen to encroach upon adjoining property either above or below the ground. However, encroaching trees and plants may be regarded as a nuisance when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. If so, the owner of the tree or plant may be held responsible for harm caused to adjoining property, and may also be required to cut back the encroaching branches or roots, assuming the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance. The Court was careful to note that it wasn’t altering existing law that the adjoining landowner may, at his own expense, cut away the encroaching vegetation to the property line whether or not the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance or is otherwise causing harm or possible harm to the adjoining property.

The Court warned that not every case of nuisance or continuing trespass may be enjoined, but it could be considered here. The decision whether to grant an injunction, the Court held, always rests in the sound discretion of the chancellor and depends on the relative benefit an injunction would confer upon the plaintiff in contrast to the injury it would impose on the defendant. In weighing the equities in a case of this kind, the chancellor must necessarily first consider whether the conditions existing on the adjoining lands are such that it is reasonable to impose a duty on the owner of a tree to protect a neighbor’s land from damage caused by its intruding branches and roots. In the absence of such a duty, the traditional right of self-help is an adequate remedy. It would be clearly unreasonable to impose such a duty upon the owner of historically forested or agricultural land, but entirely appropriate to do so in the case of parties, like those in the present case, who dwell on adjoining residential lots.

Case of the Day – Thursday, July 17, 2014

ONE STATE’S TREE IS ANOTHER STATE’S PEST

Fast growing ... and messy as a 3-year old ...

Fast growing … and messy as a 3-year old child …

Long before the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Fancher v. Fagella, a little-noticed New Mexico decision grappled with the problems caused by cottonwood trees. They can be majestic, and they were welcome enough to the pioneers that the cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas. But at the same time, there are some arborists (and more than a few homeowners) who label them as dangerous, messy and a tree that should “be removed from most residential property.

Mr. Fox had a cottonwood tree he loved dearly. His neighbors didn’t fall into the same category, however. They hated the constantly shedding tree with the invasive and prolific root system. Like the banyan tree in Whitesell v. Houlton, there was a lot about Mr. Fox’s cottonwood not to like.

A few days ago, we mentioned the time-honored legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law.” It bears repeating here. Like the Whitesell v. Houlton banyan tree, Mr. Fox’s cottonwood generated sufficient horror stories in the trial transcript to explain the trial court’s decision that Mr. Fox’s tree had to go. A more level-headed weighing of the competing property and societal interests was undertaken by the Court of Appeals.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas ...except it's June, and the cottonwood is shedding cotton like a plantation in a tornado.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas … except it’s June, and the cottonwood is shedding cotton like a plantation in a tornado.

None of that changed the outcome for Mr. Fox. He had to pay damages, and Abbinetts were free to hack away at the tree’s root system to the full extent of the Massachusetts Rule. But for those of us who admire the process, the Court of Appeals’ thoughtful opinion was a breath of fresh air.

Abbinett v. Fox, 103 N.M. 80, 703 P.2d 177 (Ct.App. N.M. 1985). The Abbinetts and Fox formerly owned adjoining residences in Albuquerque. The Abbinetts sued, alleging that while Fox owned his place, roots from a large cottonwood tree on his property encroached onto their land and damaged a patio slab, cracked the sides of a swimming pool, broke a block wall and a portion of the foundation of their house, and clogged a sprinkler system.

The Abbinetts asked for an injunction against Fox. The trial court found against Fox for $2,500, but denied injunctive relief to force Fox to remove the tree roots. Instead, the Court entered an order authorizing the Abbinetts to utilize self-help to destroy or block the roots of the cottonwood trees from encroaching on their land.  The Foxes appealed the decision.

Cottonwoods are known for their intricate and aggressive root systems

Cottonwoods have intricate and aggressive root systems …

Held:   The New Mexico Court of Appeals grappled for the first time with the Massachusetts Rule, the Hawaii Rule and the Smith v. Holt-era Virginia Rule. Instead, it adopted a modification of all of these, finding that when overhanging branches or protruding roots of plants actually cause – or there is imminent danger of them causing – “sensible harm” to property other than plant life, the damaged or endangered neighbor may require owner of the tree to pay for damages and to cut back the endangering branches or roots. Such “sensible harm” has to be something more than merely casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers or fruit. In so doing, the New Mexico Court anticipated the Virginia Supreme Court’s Fancher v. Fagella holding by about 22 years.

The New Mexico Court also opined that it is duty of a landowner to use his property in a reasonable manner so as not to cause injury to adjoining property. This is the Hawaii Rule. And the landowner who suffers encroachment from the tree of another may — but is not required to — “abate it without resort to legal proceedings provided he can do so without causing breach of peace.” This, of course, is the heart of the Massachusetts Rule. The New Mexico Court called all of these holdings a “modified Virginia Rule,” as indeed it was.

The Court held that a trial court may grant both damages for already incurred injuries and injunctive relief to prevent future harm, where there is showing of irreparable injury for which there is no adequate remedy at law.

Case of the Day – Friday, July 18, 2014

WRAPPING UP OUR WEEK – A PRÉCIS ON ENCROACHMENT

North Dakota - you can see the gas flares from outer space.

North Dakota – you can see the gas flares from outer space.

Well, campers, it’s been a great week here at treeandneighborlawblog exploring the law of encroachment. And who better to wrap it up than our friends on the North Dakota Supreme Court, here in camp for some R & R after an exhausting term?

North Dakota’s a pretty busy place, you know. It’s the No. 2 oil producer in the country, unemployment there is at a measly 2.6%, 18,000 more people moved there in 2013 than left … and the state’s got so much natural gas that it’s flaring $100 million in natural gas a month that it can’t use.

The natural resources we care about around here, however, are only underground to the extent of their root systems – root systems that, along with branches, can occasionally encroach on the neighbors. And that can be a real pain in the neck. Recently, our guest justices took time  from deciding mineral rights, liability for train derailments, mobile home park regulation and the like, to consider the law of tree encroachment. They did a bang-up job of summarizing the history, policy bases and goals of the various rules, before thoughtfully consigning the Massachusetts Rule’s proscription against lawsuits to what we here at treeandneighborlawblog call the “wood chipper of history.”

Back to the pain-in-the-neck tree.  Dr. Richard Herring knows something about pains in the neck. They’re his livelihood, as long as they’re found in his patients. But this chiropractor had to deal with another pain the neck, too. The property next door, on which sat an apartment building, had a large tree with branches that were overhanging Dr. Herring’s bone-crunching office. He fought back with self-help, trimming branches, cleaning up the debris that clogged his gutters, and raking up the mess the tree made every fall. But he couldn’t keep ahead. Finally, the branches damaged his building, and the debris created an ice dam on his roof that flooded the place.

pain-neck140211The absentee owners and hired managers at the apartment house next refused his entreaties to care for the tree. So he sued, claiming that they had a duty to manage the tree so it didn’t mess up his place. The trial court threw the suit out, telling the good doctor that he could trim the parts of the tree that were overhanging his place, but that was his only remedy.

“Wait,” you say, “that’s the Massachusetts Rule.” Right you are. But, as the North Dakota Supreme Court decided, there are other rules out there as well, including some that it thinks are a whole lot better than the doddering relic from Michalson v. Nutting. It reversed the trial court, holding that a tree owner does indeed have a duty to care for his or her trees so as to avoid damage to others.

In its thoughtful opinion, the Court wrote perhaps as fine a roundup on tree encroachment rules as has yet been written.

Herring v. Lisbon Partners Credit Fund, Ltd., 2012 N.D. 226, 823 N.W.2d 493 (Sup.Ct. N.D., 2012). Dr. Herring owned a commercial building in Lisbon housing his chiropractic practice. The apartment building next door is owned by Lisbon Partners and managed by Five Star. Branches from a large tree located on Lisbon Partners’ property overhang Herring’s property and brush against his building. For many years, Dr. Herring trimmed back the branches and cleaned out the leaves, twigs, and debris that would fall from the branches and clog his downspouts and gutters. He claimed that the encroaching branches caused water and ice dams to build up on his roof, and eventually caused water damage to the roof, walls, and fascia of his building. Herring contends that, after he had the damages repaired, he requested compensation from Lisbon Partners and Five Star but they denied responsibility for the damages.

Encroaching tree roots and branches can sometimes be unsightly

Encroaching tree roots and branches can sometimes be unsightly

Dr. Herring sued Lisbon Partners and Five Star for the cost to repair his building, claiming the companies had committed civil trespass and negligence, and maintained a nuisance by breaching their duty to maintain and trim the tree so that it did not cause damage to his property. The district court granted Lisbon Partners and Five Star’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing Herring’s claims. The court held Lisbon Partners and Five Star had no duty to trim or maintain the tree, and Herring’s remedy was limited to self-help. He could trim the branches back to the property line at his own expense, but that was it.

Held: The trial court’s dismissal was reversed, and Dr. Herring was given his day in court.

The North Dakota Supreme Court began its analysis by observing that the Massachusetts Rule was the original common law on tree law in the United States, holding that a landowner has no liability to neighboring landowners for damages caused by encroachment of branches or roots from his trees, and the neighboring landowner’s sole remedy is self-help: the injured neighbor may cut the intruding branches or roots back to the property line at his own expense. The basis for the Massachusetts Rule is that it is “wiser to leave the individual to protect himself, if harm results to him from the exercise of another’s right to use his own property in a reasonable way, than to subject that other to the annoyance and burden of lawsuits, which would likely be both countless and, in many instances, purely vexatious.

The Hawaii Rule, on the other hand, rejected the Massachusetts approach as overly simplistic. Instead, it held that the owner of a tree may be liable when encroaching branches or roots cause harm, or create imminent danger of causing harm, beyond merely casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit. When overhanging branches or protruding roots actually cause, or there is imminent danger of them causing, sensible harm to property other than plant life, in ways other than by casting shade or dropping leaves, flowers, or fruit, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may require the owner of the tree to pay for the damages and to cut back the endangering branches or roots and, if such is not done within a reasonable time, the damaged or imminently endangered neighbor may cause the cutback to be done at the tree owner’s expense.

The Restatement Rule, based upon the Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 839-840 (1979), distinguishes between natural and artificial conditions on the land. Under the Restatement Rule, if the tree was planted or artificially maintained it may be considered a nuisance and its owner may be liable for resulting damages, but there is no liability for a naturally growing tree that encroaches upon neighboring property.

The Virginia Rule, adopted in 1939, makes a distinction between noxious and non-noxious trees. Under the old Virginia rule, a tree encroaching upon neighboring property will be considered a nuisance, and an action for damages can be brought, if it is a “noxious” tree and has inflicted a “sensible injury.”

The district court concluded that under N.D.C.C. § 47-01-12, Herring had a “right” to do as he wished with the overhanging branches and underlying roots of the tree, and therefore this portion of the tree was “just as much the responsibility of the adjacent landowner as it is the owner of the trunk.” In effect, the district court concluded that because Herring had the “right” to the branches above his property, he therefore had the responsibility to maintain them as well.

The state Supreme Court complained that the district court had essentially nullified N.D.C.C. § 47-01-17. That statute expressly provides that when the trunk of the tree is wholly upon the land of one owner, the tree “belong[s] exclusively to that owner.” The district court’s holding that Herring in effect owned the branches above his property was thus contrary to statute. Statutes must be construed as a whole and harmonized to give meaning to related statutes, and are to be interpreted in context to give meaning and effect to every word, phrase, and sentence. The interpretation adopted by the district court did not give meaning and effect to that portion of N.D.C.C. § 47-01-17 which provides that the owner of the tree’s trunk “exclusively” owns the entire tree.

Our thanks to the Supreme Court of North Dakota for its comprehensive opinion ...

Our thanks to the Supreme Court of North Dakota for its comprehensive opinion …

Contrary to the district court’s conclusion that the Massachusetts Rule was more consistent with North Dakota statutory law, the Supreme Court held that the Hawaii Rule more fully gives effect to both statutory provisions. The Hawaii Rule is expressly based upon the concept, embodied in N.D.C.C. § 47-01-17, that the owner of the trunk of a tree which is encroaching on neighboring property owns the entire tree, including the intruding branches and roots. And because the owner of the tree’s trunk is the owner of the tree, the Supreme Court thought he or she should bear some responsibility for the rest of the tree. The Court said “we think he is duty bound to take action to remove the danger before damage or further damage occurs.”

The Supreme Court also observed that “the Hawaii Rule is the most well-reasoned, fair, and practical of the four generally recognized rules. We first note that the Restatement and Virginia rules have each been adopted in very few jurisdictions, and have been widely criticized as being based upon arbitrary distinctions which are unworkable, vague, and difficult to apply … In fact, the Supreme Court of Virginia has … abandoned the [old] Virginia rule in favor of the Hawaii Rule [in] Fancher …”

The Court said the Massachusetts Rule fostered a "'law of the jungle' mentality" among landowners.

The Court said the Massachusetts Rule fostered a “‘law of the jungle’ mentality” among landowners.

The Court also complained that the Massachusetts Rule has been widely criticized as being “unsuited to modern urban and suburban life.” The Massachusetts Rule fosters a “law of the jungle” mentality, the Court said, because self-help effectively replaces the law of orderly judicial process as the only way to adjust the rights and responsibilities of disputing neighbors. The Court observed that while self-help may be sufficient “when a few branches have crossed the property line and can be easily pruned by the neighboring landowner himself, it is a woefully inadequate remedy when overhanging branches break windows, damage siding, or knock holes in a roof, or when invading roots clog sewer systems, damage retaining walls, or crumble a home’s foundation.”

Accordingly, the North Dakota Supreme Court held that “encroaching trees and plants are not nuisances merely because they cast shade, drop leaves, flowers, or fruit, or just because they happen to encroach upon adjoining property either above or below the ground. However, encroaching trees and plants may be regarded as a nuisance when they cause actual harm or pose an imminent danger of actual harm to adjoining property. If so, the owner of the tree or plant may be held responsible for harm caused by it, and may also be required to cut back the encroaching branches or roots, assuming the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance.” The rule does not prevent a landowner, at his or her own expense, from cutting away the encroaching vegetation to the property line whether or not the encroaching vegetation constitutes a nuisance or is otherwise causing harm or possible harm to the adjoining property.

Case of the Day – Monday, July 21, 2014

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

revveduplikeadeuce140721Hey, none of us really knew what the lyrics were to that great piece of mid ‘70s music by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (written and first recorded by Bruce Springsteen). You know, Springsteen wrote the second line as “cut up like a deuce.” Not until Manfred Mann rewrote the line to be “revved up like a deuce,” did the mondegreen of the line famously become a reference to a feminine hygiene product.

Anyway, we digress. We’re really talking light and soybeans here.  Last weekend, the vigilent treeandneighborlawblog editors read a book review for a new tome on light pollution called The End of Night.”  It reminded us how soybeans like the dark, and the plight of Farmer Smalley.

Farmer Smalley raises soybeans in Wyandot County, Ohio. When the Ohio Department of Transportation installed high mast lighting at the US 30/US 23 interchange, Mr. Smalley’s soybeans would not flower and flourish under the bright nighttime lights. This is apparently not an unknown effect. He sued the DOT in the Ohio Court of Claims, seeking damages in a self-written complaint.

soybeans140721The Clerk heard the matter administratively, and concluded that the lights were not a nuisance, apparently because of the benefit such lights had for the motoring public. However, the loss of two acres of beans did constitute a constitutional “taking of property” for which he should be compensated. The damages were pretty meager for 2007: $512 plus his $25 filing fee.

Still, the Clerk did not dismiss out of hand the notion that light pollution could constitute a nuisance in some circumstances, those where the social benefit of the light was insignificant next to the interference caused the neighbor.

A few months later, the full Court of Claims reversed the judgment. It held that the Ohio constitution did not permit compensation for consequential damages to property, only for the actual taking of property. Because of that. Farmer Smalley’s loss was not compensable.

Even so, both the Court and the Clerk apparently accepted the notion that the light pollution damaged Smalley’s property. It was just that the damage, however real, could not be compensated.

lightpoll140721Smalley v. Ohio Dept. of Transp., 142 Ohio Misc.2d 27, 869 N.E.2d 777, 2007 -Ohio- 1932 (Ohio Ct.Cl., Mar. 15, 2007). Farmer Smalley has a soybean field next to a four-lane highway intersection. The Ohio Department of Transportation constructed high-mast lighting at the intersection in 2005, and since then, and Farmer Smalley’s soybeans failed to mature during the growing season. Smalley was forced to mow down two acres of failed crop, a failure he attributes to the lighting. He lost about 120 bushels of beans, which — at $6.00 a bushel — were worth $720.

Farmer Smalley sued the DOT in the Ohio Court of Claims. DOT admitted it had installed the mast lighting, which it said was intended to “safely illuminate the expressway.” DOT argued the installed lights “are the safest and most efficient lighting source given the traffic flow and lighting required at interchanges.” It admitted that light did “occasionally bleed onto adjacent property [and] there is little doubt that defendant’s light encroaches upon plaintiff’s property.” It argued, however, that it could not be held liable for any damage to plaintiff’s bean crop caused by its light encroachment. It also argued that Farmer Smalley’s cost to raising the beans was $256.47 an acre, reducing his net loss to $512.94.

Held: The Clerk of the Court held that the light pollution was not a nuisance. However, he found that the actual harm suffered by farmer was different in kind from harm suffered by general public, as required to establish a taking under “Takings Clause” of Ohio Constitution.

It appears that farmer Smalley filed his complaint himself, because DOT flailed about in its defense, as if it wasn’t sure where the farmer was going. It argued at length that its lighting was not a nuisance, because Smalley had offered no proof that DOT was negligent in erecting the lighting. It asked the Court to weigh the benefit that the high mast lighting gave to thousands of motorists against the harm the lights caused plaintiff in destroying two acres of his bean crop.

lights140721The Clerk sagely noted that DOT “… essentially proposed that plaintiff should have to bear a financial burden for his crop loss in a situation where he was legally using his land for a specific valuable purpose and the harm caused was attributable to the acts of DOT.”

He defined an absolute nuisance as a distinct civil wrong arising or resulting from the invasion of a legally protected interest, and consisting of an unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of the property of another. Such a nuisance was the doing of anything without just cause or excuse, the necessary consequence of which interferes with or annoys another in the enjoyment of his or her legal rights, or the collecting and keeping on one’s premises of anything inherently dangerous or likely to do mischief, if it escapes, which, escaping, injures another in the enjoyment of his legal rights. A qualified nuisance, on the other hand, was distinguished from absolute nuisance as being dependent upon negligence consists of anything lawfully but so negligently or carelessly done or permitted as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm which, in due course, results in injury to another.

Considering the utility of the high mast lighting to the motoring public, the Clerk correctly concluded that the lighting was neither an absolute nor qualified nuisance. But that didn’t mean that Mr. Smalley was out of luck. Under the “Takings Clause,” any taking — whether it be physical or merely deprives the owner of an intangible interest appurtenant to the premises — entitles the owner to compensation. In order to establish a taking, a landowner must demonstrate a substantial or unreasonable interference with a property right, and such an interference may involve the actual physical taking of real property, or it may include the deprivation of an intangible interest in the premises. Something more than loss of market value or loss of comfortable enjoyment of the property is needed, to constitute a taking under the “Takings Clause:” governmental activity must physically displace a person from space in which he was entitled to exercise dominion consistent with the rights of ownership. To constitute a taking actual harm suffered by the plaintiff must differ in kind rather than in degree from the general public.

Later, the full court reversed on different grounds, holding that the Ohio Constitution did not permit compensation for less than a full loss of land.

Nevertheless, the notion that light can constitute a nuisance and that a property owner suffering from light shining onto his or her land from another location, appears to be accepted.

Case of the Day – Tuesday, July 22, 2014

IT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE

Every good trial lawyer knows how to employ the Chewbacca Defense.

Every good trial lawyer knows how to employ the “Chewbacca Defense” to his or her client’s benefit.

Sometimes you wonder when you read a decision, “What were they thinking?  That does not make sense.”

Today’s case is something like that.  The facts are straightforward enough. Smith sold a gas station-restaurant-bar to Mendonsa, but carefully secured Mendonsa’s promise that he wouldn’t let the trees on the plot get so high that they shaded Smith’s adjacent orchard. Wouldn’t you know it, Mendonsa at some point decided he liked tall trees, or he didn’t like trimming tree, or he couldn’t find his clippers, or something. He let the trees grow, and they shaded four of Smith’s something-berry trees (we have no idea what he was raising in the orchard, but this being California, they probably weren’t plantain trees).

Anyway, Smith sued, and Mendonsa, for some foolish reason, fought the action. The trial court of course found for Smith, and then worked some rump math, figuring the past damages were about $140.00 a year (this was 1952, when a dollar was worth a bit more than now), and multiplied over three years, the damages were $420.00. The Court also enjoined Mendonsa from maintaining trees over 15 feet or branches which were hanging over on Smith’s land.

On appeal, Mendonsa complained that the damage calculations were too imprecise, and that the injunction was unduly burdensome on him. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding the calculations pretty good for an uncertain case, and anyway complaining that “[t]he wrong was that of the appellants and they are not in a favored position to urge the technical rules governing awards of damages.”

This case may be the legal equivalent of this - what were they thinking?

This case may be the legal equivalent of this – what were they thinking?

Huh? In the words of South Park’s parody of Johnnie Cochran in the legendary Chewbacca defense: “that does not make sense.” If the wrongdoer isn’t entitled to argue that the court has to follow the “technical rules” of assessing damages, then who is? It’s a cinch the plaintiff isn’t going to do anything to restrain the court in calculating damages. This is probably one of those “hard cases make bad law” kind of decisions … but even so, it’s hard to feel much sorrow for Mr. Mendonsa, who should have been enjoined and been made to pay damages.

A deal’s a deal, after all.

Smith v. Mendonsa, 108 Cal.App.2d 540, 238 P.2d 1039 (Ct.App. Cal. 1952). Smith entered into an agreement with Mendonsa concerning the use of a gas station, restaurant and bar he had sold to him. Mendonsa agreed that he would permit no trees to remain on the site which exceeded a height of 15 feet;, and that if any tree got taller than that height, Smith would have the right to remove the same. The purpose of the agreement was to prevent the shading of Smith’s orchard next door. land and to prevent trees on the appellants’ property from overhanging it. Mendonsa let the trees get too tall, and Smith sued to enforce the deal. The trial court agreed with Smith, and awarded him money damages for past violation as well as an injunction prohibiting Mendonsa from maintaining any tree in excess of 15 feet in height or from permitting branches of any tree to overhang the orchard. Mensonda appealed, complaining that the damages awarded weren’t supported by the record and that the injunction was too harsh.

Held:    The damages and injunction were upheld. The Court observed that the record showed that the shading of the orchard trees near the appellants’ property line was detrimental to the growth of the trees themselves and would, during some seasons, decrease the yield of fruit on the affected trees. Four trees were affected, the evidence showed, the Court found, and while the proof of damage was not exact, it nonetheless gave some fairly definite basis for computation.

Mendomsa let the trees get a little too tall ...

Mendonsa let the trees get a little too tall …

With respect to growing crops, the measure of damages is the market value of the probable yield without detriment, minus the cost of producing and marketing, and minus the return actually received. The damages awarded amounted to about $140 per year, and the period of the damage was three years. Additionally, there was damage in that the trees themselves were retarded in growth by the shade.

The Court concluded that the record furnished adequate support for the award made. Anyway, the Court said, Mendonsa was in the wrong, and thus he was not in any position to demand application of the technical rules governing awards of damages. Where a party has suffered damage, the Court held, a liberal rule should be applied in allowing a court or jury to determine the amount, and that, given proof of damage, uncertainty as to the exact amount is no reason for denying recovery.

As for the injunction, the Court held, in cases involving promises as to use of property, injunctive relief — depending upon inadequacy of damages — may be granted. A deal is a deal, the Court seemed to say, and where Mendonsa made the promise to keep the trees trimmed back and then violated it, the award of a perpetual injunction from maintaining any tree in excess of the agreed-upon height and from permitting branches to overhang was not an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.

It is, after all, the duty of the court to encourage the keeping of agreements properly made and to give adequate remedy for breach thereof when it occurs, particularly where breach is deliberate and wrong is willful.

Case of the Day – Wednesday, July 23, 2014

LIKE A GOOD NEIGHBOR

 

Would you rather have your insurance agent appear?  Really?

Would you rather have your insurance agent appear? Really?

The Estes, like the rest of us, have probably seen those insipid commercials where the insurance-challenged protagonist signs a major insurance company’s jingle offkey, and his or her local agent magically appears. It never made much sense to us. Meaning no disrespect to insurance – which after all is just a transaction in which you bet something bad’s gonna happen to you, and the insurance company bets it won’t – but if we could warble a stanza and have someone appear, it sure wouldn’t be an insurance agent.

Back to our topic. The article in today’s And Now the News about Google having neighbor problems Kansas City made us think about truly rotten neighbors, you know, the ones without community relations teams and emergency satisfaction 800 numbers. The Estes probably have less of an idea of what a good neighbor is than most people, except to suspect it sure isn’t the people next door to them, the Gertzes. The Gertzes are a little bit weird, and we don’t mean that in a good way.

A dispute about a suburban boundary line ended up with the Gertzes training a battery of surveillance cameras on their former friends, the Estes. If that wasn’t enough, Mrs. Gertz began using a loudspeaker to hurl insults — rather graphic ones which left the court blushing — at the Estes daughters. And then there was the fence.

Robert Frost said that good fences make good neighbors, but he hardly had this fence in mind: an 8-foot tall monstrosity painted orange and black, studded with thousands of protruding nails and large warnings against climbing and trespassing painted on the Estes’ side like so much gang graffiti. In fact, the whole thing looked rather more like the Berlin Wall come to Hebron, Indiana.

LlamasThe Estes sued under the “spite fence” statute. The Gertzes protested that they hadn’t built a spite fence, but rather just a modest enclosure to protect some delicate saplings they had planted, as well as to permit the raising of alpacas and llamas. After all, they didn’t want any errantly roaming cattle to gnaw on the young trees or, for that matter, to let the llamas and alpacas flee to return to South America. The Court wasn’t convinced. After all, the Gertzes’ permit application called the fence “residential,” not “agricultural.” Second, the fence didn’t enclose the young trees, making it useless as a cattle barrier. Finally, the cameras, the loudspeaker and the studded fence — not to mention the testimony of deteriorating relations between the plaintiff and defendant — made it clear to the Court that the fence was erected maliciously.

Alpacas

The Gertzes could hardly let their alpaca herd hotfoot it back to Bolivia, now, could they?

The Gertzes also tried a creative technical argument that because a permit had been issued for the fence, the Indiana “spite fence” statute had been trumped by local approval. The Court noted that the permit was for a 7-foot fence, not the 8-foot plus fence the Gertzes had put up, and anyway, a local permit did not excuse compliance with the statute.

So the court settled matters, and everyone kissed and made up. There was lemonade toasts all around, right? Lest you think that, stay tuned tomorrow for … [drum roll] … Gertz v. Estes, the sequel.

Gertz v. Estes, 879 N.E.2d 617 (Ct.App. Ind., 2008). Oh, the neighbors from hell! David and Nichelle Gertz started out liking their neighbors, Douglas and Susan Estes, but that fell apart. David and Nichelle had multiple surveillance cameras trained on their neighbors — even when they purported to get along — but after the boundary line was disputed, things got so bad that the Estes notified the Gertzses that they intended to install a fence, but before they could do so, the Gertzses built one of their own. The Gertzses applied for and obtained a local permit to build a 7-foot high fence, but the final fence was 8 feet high, 720 feet long, and with thousands of nails protruding on the Estes’ side up to a half inch. The words “NO CLIMBING” and “NO TRESPASSING” were painted in orange and black on the middle horizontal slat, and two more cameras — for a total of seven surveillance cameras — were installed on top of the fence.

cameras

The Gertzes also used a public address system to aggravate the Estes, including making “lewd comments” to the Estes’ daughters, which the Court blushingly refused to repeat in the opinion. The Gertzes called the sheriff at least eighteen times to report various activities of Douglas and Susan Estes.

The Estes sued under Indiana’s “spite fence” statute for removal of the fence. The Gertzes testified that the fence was necessary to protect eighteen-inch tree seedlings they had planted. The fence did not enclose any area, but the Gertzes said they intended to enclose the fence at some point so that they could raise llamas, alpacas, or sheep. The trial court found that there was “no justifiable or necessary reason for the fence installed by [David and Nichelle] to exceed six (6) feet . . .” Furthermore, it found that “the fence was maliciously erected and now maintained for the purpose of annoying [Douglas and Susan].” The trial court ordered the fence removed, and the Gertzes appealed.

SurveillHeld:  The fence had to go. The Court found that the evidence and the reasonable inferences drawn from it fully supported the trial court’s findings. As to the Gertzes’ defense that it was for agricultural purposes, the Court observed that their permit application indicated that the “use” of the fence was “residential” and the fence did not form an enclosure, making it useless for livestock. The Court said that the Gertzes’ conduct and the extraordinary nature of the fence overcame David’s assertion that the 8-foot fence was intended to protect eighteen-inch tree seedlings.

Likewise, the fact that a local permit was granted to build a 7-foot wooden fence parallel to the property line did not trump the “spite fence” statute. That statute defines as a nuisance any fence unnecessarily exceeding a height of six feet and maliciously erected for purpose of annoying neighbors. This fence exceeded six feet unnecessarily, and clearly resulted from a deteriorating, antagonistic relationship between the Gertzes and their neighbors. The nails on fence protruding between quarter- and one-half inch from the fence and the surveillance cameras clearly supported the finding that the fence was built out of malice, and was therefore a nuisance.

The Gertzes wisely didn’t challenge the trial court’s order that the PA system had to go, too.

Case of the Day – Thursday, July 24, 2014

THEY’RE BA-A-A-ACK!

judge140724Yesterday, we reported on the 2008 Gertz v. Estes decision, in which the Gertzes were told to remove their 8-foot tall “spite fence.” Why anyone thought that people who built nail-studded fences, peered at their neighbors with an array of surveillance cameras that the NSA would covet, or heckled the Estes family with a PA system, would be impressed with a court order is a good question. You can just hear them through the loudspeaker:Court order? I don’t need no stinkin’ court order.”

A “spite fence,” after all, isn’t something that one constructs accidentally, or even negligently. Why the Gertzes should be expected to pay attention to some old fool in a black robe …

Hadrian's Wall - Did the Picts think it was a "spite fence?"

Hadrian’s Wall – Did the Picts think it was a “spite fence?”

Ever since the first recorded “spite fence” – not including Hadrian’s Wallwas first used by San Francisco millionaire Charles Crocker to try to force a neighbor to sell his property for the construction of the Crocker Mansion – “spite fences” have required intent.

You have to intend to harass a neighbor with the fence. And if you set out to harass and oppress, it’s not terribly likely that you’re going to be brought up short by some man or woman in a fancy black robe.

Charlie Crocker's fence (highlighted in orange) - definitely a "spite fence."

Charlie Crocker’s fence (highlighted in orange) – definitely a “spite fence.”

The Gertzes ignored the 2008 court order until the Estes family dragged them back into court. That was when the Gertzes suddenly announced that they had lopped off the top two feet of the fence. Now it was only six feet tall, studded with nails and festooned with more surveillance devices than the 38th parallel. “Gee,” the Gertzes told the trial court, “now it’s under seven feet – guess it’s not a ‘spite fence’ anymore.”

The Court did what courts do – used procedural rulings to achieve substantive ends. The Court ruled that the Gertzes were trying an “end run” on the prior decision, when they should have raised the reduced height on appeal. Thus, the Gertz motion was thrown out. The Court made clear that the Gertzes’ real problem was that they hadn’t read the 2008 order carefully: it wasn’t the height of the fence alone, it was the intent and the ugliness that made it a “spite fence.” It was still a “spite fence,” albeit it a shorter one. The fence still had to go.

Gertz v. Estes, 922 N.E.2d 135 (Ind.App. 2010). The unsavory neighbor Gertzes had been told to take down the “spite fence” which separated their home from the Estes property. The fence was a doozy, too – while the Gertzes had gotten permission from the town to build a 7-foot tall fence, they had put up an 8-foot fence just a few inches from the property line, studded it with thousands of nails protruding on the Estes side, painted “no trespassing” and “do not climb” notices all over the fence, and equipped the structure with surveillance cameras. There was a PA system, too, which the Gertzes used to make disparaging comments to and about the Estes family on various occasion.

The Berlin Wall - President Reagan could have said, "Mr. Gorbachev - tear down this 'spite fence'!"

The Berlin Wall – President Reagan could have said, “Mr. Gorbachev – tear down this ‘spite fence’!”

After a bench trial, the trial court found that the “fence was maliciously erected and now maintained for the purpose of annoying the Estes family” based upon the “course of conduct exhibited by Gertze [sic] toward Estes.” Holding that the fence was thus a nuisance, the court ordered the Gertzes to remove it. For good measure, the judge found that the “surveillance of the Estes property and the use of a loudspeaker to harass and annoy Estes constitute[d] an invasion of privacy” and said that all had to go, too.

The Gertzes appealed the trial court’s order, arguing that: (1) the trial court erred by applying the “spite fence” statute to them because they had obtained a local permit for the fence; and (2) the trial court erred by finding that the fence was unnecessary and that the public address system was used to make disparaging comments about the Estes family. The trial court was upheld in Gertz v. Estes, 879 N.E.2d 617 (Ind.Ct.App.2008), and the Indiana Supreme Court denied further review.

On September 12, 2008, the Esteses filed a petition for rule to show cause. The Esteses alleged that the Gertzes had failed to remove the fence, cameras, or public address system and had continued to harass and threaten them. The Gertzes answered by asking the trial court to let them remove the top one foot of the fence rather than the entire fence. The Gertzes said they had already removed the top two feet of the fence, so it was no longer a “spite fence.”

The trial court found that cutting a foot off of the top of the fence didn’t comply with the prior order, because the fence’s height was only one of the factors making it a spite fence. The trial court concluded that the “fence is, and remains, a nuisance.” The Gertses appealed.

Held: The Gertzes’ reduction of the fence’s height didn’t matter: the fence had to go. The Court noted that Indiana Code Section 32-26-10-1, which governs ”spite fences,” provides: “A structure in the nature of a fence unnecessarily exceeding six (6) feet in height, maliciously: (1) erected; or (2) maintained; for the purpose of annoying the owners or occupants of adjoining property, is considered a nuisance.”

Now this is a spite fence.

Now this is a spite fence.

The Court held that the Gertzes were just asking for a mulligan. Their petition was really just a motion for relief from the 2008 judgment under Indiana Trial Rule 60(B), and that rule won’t serve as a substitute for a direct appeal. The Gertzes filed a direct appeal of the trial court’s order requiring them to remove the fence. Although the trial court’s remedy of removal of the fence was an issue available to them, they did not raise any argument on appeal about keeping the fence if they only reduced the height.

What’s more, the trial judge’s order that they remove the fence was not based solely upon the height, but instead on a variety of factors. The appellate court held that the Gertzes showed nothing justifying the extraordinary remedy of modification of the trial court’s judgment.

Meanwhile, the Estes – who had had enough of the expensive litigation – argued that they were entitled to appellate attorney fees because the Gertzes’ appeal was meritless. The court was hesitant to award such fees where the appeal was not “utterly devoid of all plausibility.” The Court said that although “the Gertzes’ brief fails to fully comply with the Appellate Rules and that their argument on appeal fails, we cannot say that their arguments were ‘utterly devoid of all plausibility’.” It refused to order the Gertzes to pay the Esteses’ fees, but cautioned “the Gertzes that future court filings against the Estes family could be considered harassment and result in various sanctions, including but not limited to an award of attorney fees.” The Court “encourage[d] the Gertzes to fully comply with the trial court’s order and protective orders.”

Good luck with that.

Case of the Day – Friday, July 25, 2014

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL

Evil-Spawn-1Another day, another neighbor-from-hell story.  Mrs. Dahlquist and her evil spawn, Jeff Zube, lived in pretty close proximity to several neighbors, including the Careys. The constant obscenities, threats, spitting from balconies onto the neighbors, rotten eggs and lit cigarette butts got a little wearing on the Careys. They finally sought an anti-harrassment order under a California statute — Section 527.6 of the Code of Civil Procedure — to get Ma Dahlquist’s gang of two to stop.

Common law provides no remedy to restrain a neighbor who unfortunately has a sewer for a mouth and a tar pit for a soul, sad to say.  Statutes like the California’s CCP §527.6 are not all that common, but they are becoming more and more so, because – and here we can all bemoan the erosion of the Republic – neighbors like Joe and Dorothy (who’ll mow your lawn for you and deliver warm brownies from time to time – are getting to be scarcer, and next-door harridans like Ms. D and her whelp are becoming more common.

The lesson in today’s case is that if you’re going to be nasty to one neighbor, be sweet to the others. If you’re a jerk to everyone, expect some piling on. Not surprisingly, that happened here: complainants against Ms. Dahlquist and fil came out of the woodwork, with everyone on the block more than happy to cite the constant bird-flipping, the obscene insults and the general squalor that surrounded the harpie and her mordent boy.

CarrieDahlquist and Zube of course denied everything. Movie fans will remember the memorable Blues Brothers scene with Jake Blue (John Belishi) telling a gun-totin’ Mystery Woman (Carrie Fisher) that “it wasn’t my fault!”  In the face of rather detailed, graphic even, descriptions of the Dahlquist/Zube misconduct by the neighborhood, the trial court didn’t believe a word of it.

BelushiThe Dahlquist/Zube gang appealed. Appellate courts expect that, winner or loser, a party will give the court a reasonably complete and balanced assessment of the record below. Not Dahlquist and Zube. If the fact didn’t fit with their world-view,  they just left it out.  That didn’t leave much in their recitation of the “facts.”  The Court of Appeals wasn’t detained long by this creative pleading: it held that the record below amply made out a pattern of harassment that was such that would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress. It certainly did for the Careys, and the Court found that under the circumstances, a three-year order was fully justified.

Carey v. Dahlquist, Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2007 WL 4555793 (Cal.App. 1 Dist.) Dahlquist and Carey live next door to each other in Sausalito, California. Dahlquisht’s 19 year old son, Zube, lives with her. Carey filed a Section 527.6 petition alleging that, among other things, her neighbor Dahlquist screamed obscenities at her and used “constant foul language, verbal comments (‘this is war’) and written threats.” Dahlquist had also “ordered tree people onto my property and cut down (removed two 30 ft high trees).” Carey requested an order that Dahlquist stay away from her, and that “she not be able to come out on her deck and scream obsenities [sic] at me or my husband as I go up and down my stairs.” In addition, Carey asked the court to order that Dahlquist “not hire workmen to come onto my property and destroy my property” and that she “pay for the survey and replace the trees she removed.”

The same day, Carey filed an application for a temporary restraining order against young Zube, alleging that in a two-page list of “confrontations” with Zube, that he had thrown eggs from his balcony, shouted obscenities at her husband as he came up the stairs, threw poppers onto the stairs while Carey and her husband were walking up the stairs, made “exceptional noise” from Zube’s stereo, and that on multiple occasions when lighted cigarette butts were found on the wooden stairs at Carey’s house. Neighbors provided affidavits complaining of similar acts.

The record also contained a declaration from Jeff Zube’s father claiming that Carey was a chronic complainer, and anyway, young Zube would be leaving soon for Santa Barbara to attend college. Nevertheless, the trial court granted the petition as to both Zube and Dahlquist, holding Zube had “an out-of-control and extremely disrespectful side of you and I’ve seen it in court, and I’ve heard it from the testimony.” The court found that Carey and her witnesses were credible and that the testimony of Dahlquist and Zube was not. It issued a 3-year restraining order, and Dahlquist and Zube appealed.

restraining-order1Held: The order was upheld. Section 527.6 provides that a person who has suffered harassment as defined in the statute may seek an injunction prohibiting harassment as provided in this section. “Harassment” is unlawful violence, a credible threat of violence, or a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, or harasses the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose. The course of conduct must be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and must actually cause substantial emotional distress to the plaintiff. A “course of conduct’ is a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time, however short, evidencing a continuity of purpose, including following or stalking an individual, making harassing telephone calls to an individual, or sending harassing correspondence to an individual by any means, including, but not limited to, the use of public or private mails, interoffice mail, fax, or computer e-mail.

The Court decided that Carey had provided clear and convincing evidence of a knowing and willful course of conduct by Dahlquist. She described confrontations with Dahlquist in which Dahlquist threatened legal action against her and shouted obscenities at her husband as he came up the stairs. Carey found Dahlquist’s behavior threatening. Carey’s neighbor testified that he, too, had been on the receiving end of threatening and harassing behavior from Dahlquist, including her falsely accusing his wife of leaving an obscene message on her voice mail. The Court held that the trial judge had found substantial evidence on which the base the issuance of a permanent injunction.

badpennyAs for Zube, the evidence established that he had thrown lighted cigarettes on the wooden stairs leading to Carey’s home, that he had spit on the deck, and had thrown poppers on the stairs while Carey was walking up them and also shouted obscenities at Carey. Neighbors confirmed that this sort of behavior had been directed at them as well. Substantial evidence, therefore, supports the trial court’s issuance of the permanent injunction. The continuing course of harassing conduct by Zube and Dahlquist left both Carey and her husband fearful and distressed. This showing was sufficient to indicate a reasonable probability that the course of conduct would continue into the future. It didn’t matter that Zube was leaving for college. The trial court found his other testimony lacked credibility, and the Court of Appeals said it was entitled to disregard his representation that he was leaving.

Even if he did, like bad penny, he’d probably return.

Case of the Day – Monday, July 28, 2014

SHOWING UP

Denise Pevarnek’s agent chopped down her neighbors’ trees so she’d have a better view of the river. The neighbors complained, but Denise steadfastly ignored their remonstrances. The neighbors sued, but Denise ignored the summons. She finally decided to start paying attention after a default was entered against her and the trial court intended to assess treble damages against her in the amount of $77,000.

YouSnoozeYouLoseDenise tried futilely to undo the consequences of her earlier indolence. Alas, a stitch in time saves nine. The Court ruled that she had had plenty of notice, but her decision to ignore the lawsuit was her problem, and undoing the default she so richly deserved would have turned her problem into her neighbors’ problem. And they were already smarting from the loss of their trees.

Of interest in the case — one argument she included in Denise’s scattershot but untimely defense— was her contention that the cost to replace the trees wasn’t the right measure of damages, and that the trial court was wrong to rely on an affidavit of an arborist that didn’t explain in detail how he had arrived at the damage costs. The Court rejected this, saying that in the case of trespass, the measure of damages is either the reduction in value of the property, or — where the property can be repaired — the cost to fix things. The goal of the damage award, according to the Court, is to come as close as possible to compensating the owner for the damages, and trial courts have a lot of latitude to choose the method that seemed more reasonably calculated to do so.

The affidavit, the Court noted, laid out the expert’s education and experience, showed that he had inspected the damaged real estate. and proposed a reasonable strategy for repairing the harm. The arborist listed what had to be done and how much he’d charge to do it. It might not be perfect, but perfection is often the enemy of “good enough.” The affidavit, the Court ruled, was “good enough.”

Stitch2The Court reminded the defendant that if she really had found the damage showing to be flawed and superficial, she could have come to the hearing and contested it. Snooze and lose, indeed.

Bologna v. Pevarnek, Not Reported in N.W.2d, 2007 WL 4207801 (Mich.App., Nov. 29, 2007). Denise Pevarnek hired Chester Damiani to clean up her property. He was zealous to a fault, deciding that to improve the view of the Detroit River from her adjacent lot by cutting down trees belonging to her neighbors, the Bolognas. Believing that Denise and Chester’s conduct was baloney, the Bolognas sued for trespass, alleging that the destruction reduced the value of their property and exposed a view to Pevarnek’s unsightly neighboring property and asking for $28,000, trebled by Michigan’s wrongful cutting statute to $84,000.

Denise Pevarnek was served, but she didn’t answer, and the Bolognas got a default judgment. Thereafter, they presented an affidavit of a certified arborist that the cost of landscape restoration was $24,050. At this point, Pevarnek began taking action to defend, seeking to have the default undone. The trial court refused, and it entered judgment against her for $77,730. Pevarnek appealed.

Held: The judgment was upheld. Much of the case revolves around whether Denise Pevarnek should be relieved from her default judgment, and the Court of Appeals ruled, in essence, that she knew about the suit and did nothing. In other words, “you snooze, you lose.” But of interest in the area of tree law was Denise’s claim that the trial court was wrong in using the cost of replacing the trees as a measure of the damages the Bolognas suffered. The Court of Appeals said where the wrong consists of a trespass to property resulting in an injury to the land that is permanent and irreparable, the general measure of damages is the diminution in value of the property. If the injury is reparable or temporary, however, the measure of damages is the cost of restoration of the property to its original condition (if less than the value of the property before the injury).

perfectThe rule is, however, flexible in its application. The ultimate goal is compensation for the harm or damage done. Thus, a court may apply whatever method is most appropriate to compensate a plaintiff for his or her loss. Here, the Court said, given the fact that the Bolognas’ trees could be restored, it was proper for the trial court to use the cost-of-restoration method.

Pevarnek argued that the trial court erred by adopting without question the assertion of alleged damages without sufficient foundation. The plaintiff had filed an affidavit of arborist Steve McCollum, who swore that – in order to return the property to its pre-trespass condition, that is, with no view of Pevarnek’s property – 12 new trees had to be planted, some existing trees had to be replanted, the over-pruned trees had to be removed, and the lawn had to be repaired. He stated that the total cost of this work was $24,050. The trial court awarded plaintiffs damages of $77,730, equal to three times the sum of the cost of work proposed by McCollum and $1,860 for the cost of a privacy fence. Although McCollum’s affidavit didn’t explain how he calculated the damages, he stated his qualifications and education, he said he had personally inspected the Bologna property, assessed their needs, specifically listed the work to be done, and listed the cost for his business was to complete it. The Court said the expert affidavit put forth a reasonable basis for the damage computation, and that was enough.

Case of the Day – Tuesday, July 29, 2014

YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN, PAL

From the hatcheck to the parking lot to the dry cleaner to the amusement park, we grant pre-injury waivers of liability all the time. And we’re helpless to stop it.  Don’t believe us?  Try negotiating that fine print on the back of your parking lot ticket next time you leave the Mercedes in the hands of some teenager named “Kent Steerwell.” You’ll be handed your keys, probably with a suggestion of where to put them (and it won’t involve inserting them in the ignition, either)

When expert Alpine skiing enthusiast Bill Rothstein parted with his hard-earned cash for a couple of souped-up passes to the Snowbird resort (your basic pass and a special one that let him skip lines and not have to mingle with the great unwashed), he signed the waivers without a second thought.  You know, the ones that said the resort wasn’t liable for a ding-dong thing in case he got hurt.

031-downhill-skiingWhile skiing the “Fluffy Bunny” run (hardly sounds like a double-diamond course, does it?) Bill ran into a poorly-marked retaining wall and messed himself up but good. Fortunately, his favored hand wasn’t injured, so he quickly signed off on a lawsuit against the ski operator. But the trial court was impressed by the breadth of the release Rothstein had signed — as tall as the Wasatch and as wide as the Bonneville Salt Flats — and it threw the case out.

The Utah Supreme Court saved Rothstein’s bacon. It held that, no matter what the pre-injury waivers said, Utah public policy required that ski resorts take responsibility for the results of their negligence. A state statute, the Inherent Risks of Skiing Actexempted ski resorts from certain risks that are inherent in skiing — such as broken legs, frostbite, fashion faux pas — so that the operators could buy insurance against actual negligence.  The Court held that inasmuch as the legislature exempted ski resorts from certain types of risks so that they could afford insurance to cover the remaining ones, it was contrary to public policy for a ski resort to try to exempt itself from liability for any negligence whatsoever. The Romans had a word for it: expressio unius est exclusio alterius, which means “the expression of one excludes all others.”  This means that because the law expressly carved out certain acts from liability – such as the effects of the relentless pull of gravity – it specifically intended not to carve out other unlisted acts.  Acts like failing to adequately mark a retaining wall.

Now available - expressio unius coffee mugs!

Now available – expressio unius coffee mugs!

The waiver was void, and Rothstein was free to sue … if not to ski the “Fluffy Bunny.”

Rothstein v. Snowbird Corp., 175 P.3d 560 (S.Ct. Utah, 2007). “Fast Billy” Rothstein, an expert skier collided with a retaining wall while skiing at Snowbird Ski Resort. The retaining wall was unmarked and no measures had been taken to alert skiers to its presence. Although Snowbird had placed a rope line with orange flagging near the wall, there was a large gap between the end of the rope and a tree, which Mr. Rothstein incorrectly understood indicated an entrance to the Fluffy Bunny run.

No - not this kind of "law suit"

No – not this kind of “law suit”

Rothstein sued Snowbird for negligence. Snowbird defended itself by asserting that Mr. Rothstein had waived his ability to sue Snowbird for its ordinary negligence when he purchased two resort passes that released the resort from liability for its ordinary negligence.

Rothstein’s super passes — which let him have faster access to the slopes than mere mortal pass-holders — required him to sign an agreement that said

“I hereby waive all of my claims, including claims for personal injury, death and property damage, against Alta and Snowbird, their agents and employees. I agree to assume all risks of personal injury, death or property damage associated with skiing … or resulting from the fault of Alta or Snowbird, their agents or employees. I agree to hold harmless and indemnify Alta and Snowbird … from all of my claims, including those caused by the negligence or other fault of Alta or Snowbird, their agents and employees …”

If that wasn’t enough, a second agreement he signed said,

“In consideration of my use of the Snowbird Corporation (Snowbird) ski area and facilities, I agree to assume and accept all risks of injury to myself and my guests, including the inherent risk of skiing, the risks associated with the operation of the ski area and risks caused by the negligence of Snowbird, its employees, or agents. I release and agree to indemnify Snowbird, all landowners of the ski area, and their employees and agents from all claims for injury or damage arising out of the operation of the ski area or my activities at Snowbird, whether such injury or damage arises from the risks of skiing or from any other cause including the negligence of Snowbird, its employees and agents.”

Read the fine print

Read the fine print – if your eyes are up to the challenge

The trial court thought these agreements were pretty comprehensive, not to mention dispositive. It granted summary judgment in favor of Snowbird. Quicker than you could say, “Fluffy Bunny,” Rothstein appealed.

Held:  The trial court was reversed, and Rothstein was allowed to sue the ski resort. The Court held that releases that offend public policy are unenforceable. Under Utah’s Inherent Risks of Skiing Act, certain hazards inherent in skiing are defined. Resorts aren’t liable for those risks — like breaking a leg on a downhill run — thus clarifying the hazards sufficiently to enable the ski operators to by insurance against those risks that aren’t excluded.

The Court said that by expressly designating a ski area operator’s ability to acquire insurance at reasonable rates as the sole reason for bringing the Inherent Risks of Skiing Act into being, the Utah legislature “authoritatively put to rest the question of whether ski area operators are at liberty to use pre-injury releases to significantly pare back or even eliminate their need to purchase the very liability insurance the Act was designed to make affordable. They are not.”  The premise underlying the passage of a law to make insurance accessible to ski area operators is that once the Act made liability insurance affordable, ski areas would buy it to blunt the economic effects brought on by standing accountable for their negligent acts. The Court said “the bargain struck by the Act is both simple and obvious from its public policy provision: ski area operators would be freed from liability for inherent risks of skiing so that they could continue to shoulder responsibility for noninherent risks by purchasing insurance.”

Inasmuch as the legislature had determined that resorts should insure themselves against risks not inherent in the sport of skiing, the Court held that it was contrary to public policy to permit an operator to duck liability for negligence that could have been avoided by requiring its patrons to waive claims for negligence as a condition of use.

Case of the Day – Wednesday, July 30, 2014

IT JUST WASN’T HER DAY

 

Remember Alexander?  He didn't have anything on Heidi ...

Remember Alexander? He didn’t have anything on Heidi …

Ever have one of those days? Heidi Cordeiro knows how you feel.  Heidi had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day once. First, she heard a crash in her driveway, and looked out to see that a tree belonging to the hospital next door had fallen, crushing her car. Then, she hurried out to assess the damage, only fall over the branches of the downed tree, spraining her ankle. At least she didn’t have to hobble far to the emergency room.

She of course sued the hospital — who doesn’t like suing hospitals? — for the damage to her car and her ankle. Her case was essentially that the tree fell, so of course the hospital was negligent.  Unfortunately, that just set her up for another bad day.  

The Superior Court made short work of Heidi’s suggestion that landowners were strictly liable for falling trees.  It correctly pointed out that in Connecticut, a plaintiff must plead (and of course later prove) that the landowner knew or should have known that the tree was diseased, decayed or otherwise dangerous.

Heidi couldn’t do that, and her case was dismissed.  We’ll never know whether liability would have extended to paying for Heidi not being careful where she stepped.

She had a bad day.

Cordeiro v. Rockville General Hospital, Inc., Not Reported in A.2d, 44 Conn. L. Rptr. 58, 2007 WL 2570406 (Conn.Super., Aug. 21, 2007). A tree belonging to the Rockville General Hospital fell into the yard and driveway of the premises Heidi Cordeiro was renting, damaging her car. When she went out to look at the damage, Heidi tripped and fell on the branches of the tree. She sued her landlord and the Hospital, alleging negligence and asking for damages for her personal injury and for damage to her car. Rockville Hospital moved to strike the count against it arguing that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim.

Held: Rockville Hospital was dismissed as a plaintiff. The Hospital argued the facts alleged in Heidi’s complaint did not give rise to any duty owed by the Hospital to the plaintiff, the falling tree was caused by an “act of God” for which the Hospital was not liable, and the falling tree was an open and obvious defect that the plaintiff should have avoided.

Fallen_treeThe Court observed that the essential elements of a negligence action were duty, breach of duty, causation and actual injury.Here, Heidi Cordeiro alleged that “a tree … belonging to the defendant … fell upon the yard and driveway area of the premises where the [plaintiff] resided [as a tenant], and when the plaintiff went out to look at the damage to the vehicle parked in her driveway, she was caused to trip and fall over the branches of said tree, causing her to sustain … injuries.”

In early times, there was generally no liability for trees falling on neighboring lands, an obvious practical necessity when land holdings were very large and in a primitive state, but the rule made little sense in urban settings. In urban areas like the City of Rockville, there is generally found to be a “duty of reasonable care, including inspection to make sure that the tree is safe.” It is now generally recognized, particularly in urban areas, that a tree owner has a duty to an adjoining landowner to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm presented by an overhanging dead branch in a residential area. Thus, an invitee of commercial premises may recover for injuries sustained from the fall of a defective or unsound tree growing on adjoining premises, including trees of a purely natural origin.

Careful pleading makes a difference

Careful pleading matters …

However, the owner of a tree is liable for injuries from a falling tree only if he knew or reasonably should have known the tree was diseased, decayed or otherwise constituted a dangerous condition. A landowner who knows that a tree on his property is decayed and may fall and damage the property of an adjoining landowner is under a duty to eliminate the danger. But a landowner does not have a duty to consistently and constantly check all trees on his property for non-visible rot. Instead, the manifestation of decay must be visible and apparent. In Connecticut, if the tree condition is one of which the defendant would become aware through reasonable exercise of its faculties, the defendant is chargeable with notice.

In this case, Ms. Cordeiro had to plead and prove facts showing that the Hospital knew or reasonably should have known the tree was diseased, decayed or otherwise constituted a dangerous condition, or other such proof of actual or constructive notice, in order to state a claim. But she made no such allegation here. Instead, she only alleged that the Hospital “was responsible for the proper maintenance of its trees and was responsible to assure that its trees did not fall into adjoining properties, causing injury.” The law does not require landowners to continuously examine their trees for invisible decay to assure they do not fall. Instead, it requires them to take action when there is actual or constructive notice of a dangerous natural condition.

Case of the Day – Thursday, July 31, 2014

A TREE JUMPED OUT

Watch out for the tree, Mr. Miller ...

Watch out for the tree, Mr. Miller …


It was a dark and stormy night when Mr. and Mrs. Miller drove through a mall parking lot, well after the lights were turned out. Mr. Miller missed a sharp turn in the drive, and hit an 8″ wide tree. He and his wife were injured, and while it went unreported, the tree probably didn’t fare that well, either.

Trees seldom sue, but the same can’t be said for the Millers. They went after the mall for negligence. To be sure, the tree showed evidence of having been hit before. The mall, however, argued that Mr. Miller was an idiot for driving too fast on a strange, unlit roadway in bad weather. It said he was contributorily negligence for the accident.

Back when this case was decided, we were driving a pretty sharp four-on-the-floor ’67 Cougar’67 and filling its tank for 29 cents a gallon. Ah, those were the days … unless you were a litigant suing for negligence. At the time, contributory negligence was still the law of the land in most states. It was a Draconian doctrine: if the victim was negligent even a teeny bit, then he or she couldn’t recover a dime from the defendant, no matter how bad the defendant’s negligence by comparison. Since that time, contributor negligence has been replaced by “comparative negligence” most places. Comparative negligence is a percentage game: the jury finds that the defendant was, say, 70% negligent and the plaintiff was 30% negligent. The jury award of, say, $100,000 to the plaintiff would then be reduced by 30%, netting out 70 grand for our afflicted party.

Because contributory negligence was so harsh, courts often worked to find a way around its effect. In today’s case, the Court ruled that although Mr. Miller might have been contributorily negligent, that couldn’t keep the passenger, Mrs. Miller, from winning damages from the mall. The mall argued that Mr. Miller should share its liability to Mrs. Miller, but the state had an automobile guest statute that immunized a driver from liability to his or her passengers for simple negligence.

We miss that old Cougar ... and 25¢ a gallon gas ...

We miss that old Cougar … and 25¢ a gallon gas …

The mall should have marked the tree with reflectors or something, the Court said. Something to reflect on … like our old Cougar. Now that was a cherry ride.

Miller v. Baken Park, Inc., 84 S.D. 624, 175 N.W.2d 605 (Sup.Ct.S.D. 1970). Donald Miller’s pickup truck collided with a tree located in the Baken Park Shopping Center auxiliary parking lot. The Millers were injured.

Mr. Miller had entered the Shopping Center from West Main Street intending to drive across the lot to reach Canyon Lake Drive, the street on the south side of the Center. They had never travelled over this area before but had seen others do so. It was a misty, gloomy night with wind and gusty rain. Suddenly, a tree loomed in front of them. A collision ensued.

Miller and his wife sued Baken Park, and Baken Park counterclaimed against Miller for negligence. The evidence showed a driver would have had to swerve to miss the tree, and the conditions that night made it hard to see after the shopping center lights were turned off at 10 p.m. The tree, which had an 8” trunk, bore scars from prior vehicle collisions. The trial court considered the question of Baken Park’s negligence, contributory negligence by Miller and other issues it deemed appropriate. The jury found for defendant and plaintiffs appealed.

negligence-overviewHeld: The trial court was reversed. The Supreme Court held that the evidence was sufficient to authorize finding that Baken Park was negligent in allowing a tree without reflectors or other warning devices to remain in an area that not only served as a parking lot for customers of its lessees, but in the area used by them as a driveway. The Court said that a shopping center owner that maintained control of its parking lots and driveway for express purpose of serving customers of its lessees owed the business invitees of its lessees a duty to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition. What’s more, the fact that Miller may have been negligent in driving through the dark lot was not imputable to his wife in the absence of some control or authority over operation of the car by her. His negligence thus would not prevent her from recovering against the shopping center for injuries sustained because of the concurring negligence of her husband and a third person.

The shopping center’s counterclaim against Mr. Miller had been dismissed by the trial court. The Supreme Court agreed that dismissal was proper under South Dakota’s guest statute, which immunizes a driver from liability to a passenger unless he was acting with recklessness or willful conduct.  The Court held that the statute applied even to accidents on private property, and thus, Baken Park’s counterclaim against Miller had to be dismissed.

TNLBGray140407

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