Cases from March 2015

Case of the Day – Monday, March 2, 2015

IT WAS SMALL WHEN I PLANTED IT

It was such a safe vehicle ... so it must have been the tree's fault.

It was such a safe vehicle … so it must have been the tree’s fault.

Times change and trees grow. That’s the lesson in today’s case.

Mr. Paredes was driving along I-805 in the driving rain, transporting his daughters in a superannuated Volkswagen with bald tires. He lost control of the VW and it slid down a bank, colliding with a eucalyptus tree located about 25 feet from an on ramp. His 6- and 9-year old daughters died in the accident, and he was badly hurt.

Normally, one would shake his or her head and observe that Mr. Paredes maybe was going too fast, or driving a junker in weather that was too bad, or perhaps engaging in risky conduct by relying on bald tires. But this being America, it had to be someone else’s fault.

Mr. Paredes blamed Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation. It was the agency’s fault, because the trees were closer to the on ramp than permitted by Caltrans standards, and in fact shouldn’t have been there at all. Only problem was, when the trees were planted, they complied with all standards. Even today, they were more than 30 feet from the road and 25 feet from the on ramp. In other words, Caltrans may have set in motion the factors that caused the damage, but it didn’t create it negligently: the construction complied with all standards when built.

Under the law, the agency had to have actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition. Splitting hairs, the Court found that Caltrans knew that the trees were planted where they were planted: after all, Caltrans had planted them. But, the Court said, Caltrans didn’t have knowledge that the trees, located as they were, were dangerous.

It strikes us as maybe parsing things a little too finely. But as we’ve said before, hard cases make bad law. Here, the jury may have gone off on a frolic, and — notwithstanding all of the expert testimony — figured that Mr. Paredes was a little too much at fault to be entitled to much. The Court of Appeals, which is legally disposed to defend a jury verdict anyway, may have agreed.

Driving 60 mph in a beater of a car with bald tires through heavy rain? So exactly who was negligent here? Some workers who planted a tree 15 years ago or the idiot who jeopardized his most precious possession — two little girls — in his haste to get somewhere?

Mr. Paredes claimed the trees were too close to the road ...

Mr. Paredes claimed the trees were too close to the road …

Paredes v. State, 2008 WL 384636 (Cal.App. Feb. 14, 2008).  Marco Paredes was injured and his two daughters killed when Paredes lost control of his vehicle in heavy rain, after which the vehicle slid down an embankment and struck a eucalyptus tree. Paredes claimed that California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) employees created the dangerous condition by creating the slope and planting eucalyptus trees within 30 feet of the on ramp without protecting them with guardrails, demonstrating negligence per se as well as placing Caldrons on notice of the defect.

The jury disagreed. It found that the property was in dangerous condition at the time of the accident and was a substantial cause of Paredes’s injury and the death of his children, but it nonetheless concluded that the State did not have actual or constructive notice of the condition in sufficient time before the incident to protect against it. The jury also found the dangerous condition was not caused by a negligent or wrongful act or omission of a State employee acting within the scope of employment.

Paredes appealed.

Held: The verdict against Paredes was upheld. The Court of Appeals observed that California law held that except as provided by statute, a public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if the plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and either a negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.

The law, the Court said, plainly requires a finding that a public entity’s negligent or wrongful acts created a dangerous condition. It does not impose liability for mere creation of a dangerous condition. In this case, the jury was instructed that the plaintiffs had to establish that negligent or wrongful conduct by a State employee acting within the scope of employment created the dangerous condition. The Court concluded that substantial evidence from State’s expert, as well as Paredes’ own experts, supported the jury’s finding that State did not act negligently or wrongfully in planting the accident trees on the slope along the accident site.

The State’s expert explained that the standard applicable at the time of the planting was Caltrans’s “clear zone principle,” which required only that trees be planted 30 feet beyond the traveled way of the I-805 mainline and 20 feet from the on-ramp. For that matter, Paredes’ expert agreed the accident tree was over 31 feet from the edge of the traveled way of the I-805, and 25 feet from the edge of the traveled way of the nearby on-ramp. Another expert explained that a fixed immovable object under the Caltrans clear zone standard was a tree having a trunk with eight inch diameters or greater. The State’s expert testified that a guardrail would not have been required at the site of the accident tree applying standards prevalent at the time of trial.

The testimony of a single witness may be sufficient to establish substantial evidence, the Court said, and here, the jury as the exclusive judge of credibility was entitled to believe defendant’s witnesses.

Someone should have told Mr. Paredes this ...

Someone should have told Mr. Paredes this …

The Court also concluded that substantial evidence supported the jury’s finding that State did not have actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition. A public entity has actual notice of a dangerous condition if it had actual knowledge of the existence of the condition and knew or should have known of its dangerous character. A public entity has constructive notice of a dangerous condition only if the plaintiff establishes that the condition had existed for such a period of time and was of such an obvious nature that the public entity, in the exercise of due care, should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character.

Here, State employees planted the accident tree as well as other trees on the embankment. But the Court refused to fault the jury’s finding that the public property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the accident required it to also find the State had notice of that condition. On the evidence here, the jury could have concluded that the planting of the young eucalyptus tree on the embankment was not dangerous in 1979 or 1980 when that project was completed, but became dangerous only when its trunk grew to a larger diameter. Thus, while State may have had notice of the physical condition it had created — the presence of trees on the slope — the jury was entitled to conclude it did not have notice that the condition was dangerous. Substantial evidence supported such a conclusion, the Court held.

Case of the Day – Tuesday, March 3, 2015

RUNAWAY TRAIN NEVER GOING BACK …

crash150303Mr. Elder drove his dump truck onto the Union Pacific tracks in Nephi, Utah — a town, not a soft drink — where he was promptly hit by what the Utah Supreme Court described as a “ninety-one car train.” It’s unlikely 78 cars or 23 cars or even just a set of GE diesel-electric locomotives would had a less deadly result.

Mr. Elder was killed, and his widow set off trying to find someone to pay for it. She sued the Railroad and the City, suggesting that someone should have trimmed the trees near the tracks so her husband could have seen the train. The UP, which was quite adept in its own right in blaming others for grade-crossing mishaps, had a great excuse: the railroad didn’t own the trees to begin with.

It seems that no one ever remembered to give the Union Pacific title to its right-of-way, due to — what else? — a federal government screw-up back in the 19th century. However, the ever-resourceful Mrs. Elder argued that the Railroad had acquired all of the land under and around the tracks by prescriptive easement. She was thus in the unusual position of arguing in the lawsuit that the defendant Railroad was entitled to own a big piece of land on which it had been squatting for a hundred years — and was therefore liable for not keeping up the land it had never claimed it owned — all at the same time.

Pretty creative lawyering! But the Utah Supreme Court held Mrs. Elder had no standing to claim the UP’s prescriptive easement on its behalf, probably because the Court suspected she didn’t have the Railroad’s best interests at heart. Imagine! As for the City, the Court agreed it had no duty under statute to trim the trees, but it observed the City did have a common law duty to Mr. Elder. The case was sent back to figure out whether that duty required it to trim the trees obscuring the crossing.

Elder v. Nephi City ex rel. Brough, 164 P.3d 1238 (S.Ct. Utah, 2007). Shelley Elder was killed on a Union Pacific Railroad railway track in Nephi City, Utah, when the dump truck he was driving was struck by a freight train. His widow sued, contending that her husband’s death was caused by the negligence of Union Pacific Railroad and the City of Nephi.

The tracks may have been a little obscured by trees, but not quite like this.

The tracks may have been a little obscured by trees, but not quite like this.

According to Mrs. Elder, her husband would not have lost his life had a line of trees located parallel to the railroad tracks not obscured his vision of the train. The trees were situated on land owned by the City of Nephi, but Union Pacific owned the tracks and operated the train. The Railroad had no recorded property interest in the ground where the trees were located. The trial court summarily dismissed Mrs. Elder’s wrongful death claim, ruling as a matter of law that neither Nephi nor the Railroad owed a duty to Mr. Elder to assure that the trees did not impair motorists’ ability to observe approaching trains. She appealed.

Held: The Railroad had no property interest in the trees and was under no duty to remove them. While the City of Nephi owed no statutory duty to Mr. Elder, it did owe a common-law duty to him, and the case had to be reversed on that point.
As for the Railroad’s right-of-way through Nephi, the UP route was acquired by prescriptive easement rather than by statute, and thus did not extend to land bordering tracks, including the land on which the offending trees stood. Under the Federal Townsite Act of 1867, the United States conveyed by patent to a probate judge the land within the city limits, including the railroad crossing area. Because this conveyance occurred before Congress passed the Railroad Right of Ways Acts granting railways a right-of-way through public lands, the statute could not have conveyed the right-of-way through Nephi.

Mrs. Elder claimed that the Railroad’s prescriptive easement extended not only to the railbed, however, but also to the land on which the trees stood. The Court ruled that while it wouldn’t rule that out, Mrs. Elder lacked standing to make a prescriptive easement claim on behalf of the Railroad. Standing to bring a quiet title action to perfect title is limited to parties who could acquire an interest in the property created by the court’s judgment or decree. What Mrs. Elder sought to do was to stick Union Pacific with the prescriptive easement as a way-station on the road to making the Railroad liable for her husband’s death.

As for the City of Nephi, the Court said, municipalities owe a duty of reasonable care to ordinary people, and this duty extends to travelers upon their highways. The scope of a governmental entity’s common-law duty to persons using roadways under its control extends beyond the boundaries of the thoroughfare. A governmental entity does not undertake a duty to remove vegetation from private land that may obstruct the vision of motorists utilizing its roadways; nor does a private party bear a common-law duty to keep roadways free of visual obstructions caused by vegetation growing on his land.

Crossing 150303The Court ruled that the Utah statute requiring landowners to remove vegetation “which, by obstructing the view of any operator, constitutes a traffic hazard,” did not impose on city a duty on the City to monitor railroad crossings for visual obstructions. U.C.A. § 41-6-19. Rather, the City’s statutory obligation to remove the trees would have been triggered by receipt of notice from the department of transportation or a local authority that an investigation had deemed the trees to be a traffic hazard, and city did not undertake any such investigation itself.

Nevertheless, the Court said, a genuine issue of material fact remained as to the allocation of duties between the City — which owned land near railroad tracks that contained irrigation ditch and trees which sprouted from the ditch embankment — and the irrigation company, which maintained irrigation ditch along the land pursuant to an irrigation easement. The common-law duty of a governmental entity to safeguard those who travel its roads may extend to visual hazards located on its land outside the bounds of the roadway itself, and the mere fact that an easement existed did not automatically assign that common-law duty to the servient estate. The issue of whether the City or the irrigation company was responsible for tree trimming, and whether the City breached its duty to the late Mr. Elder, precluded summary judgment.

Case of the Day – Wednesday, March 4, 2015

IT’S EASIER TO ASK FOR FORGIVENESS THAN PERMISSION …

bulldoze150304The Johnsons were proud of their neat-as-a-pin home and just-so landscaping. They should have been – the house and lot had been a labor of love for 15 years or so. That was when the next-door lot was sold to Henry Tyler and the evil Genco Distributors, Inc., firm.

Well, we don’t know for a fact that Hank and Genco were evil, but we’re pretty sure that they weren’t very good neighbors. When Genco wanted to build a building on the land (from which to distribute whatever Genco Distributors must have been distributing), ol’ Hank asked the Johnsons whether it would be an imposition at all if he had all of the landscaping – trees and shrubs – along the common boundary ripped out. The Johnsons, nice as they were, declined. These were the Johnsons’ trees and shrubs, located on Johnson property. Having planted and nurtured the landscaping for 15 years, the Johnsons were not interested in having their new neighbor rip it out.

Not always, as we shall see ...

Not always, as we shall see …

Having been unsuccessful in getting the Johnsons’ OK to destroy their property, Henry the Distributor opted for Plan B. He told the bulldozer operator to rip out the Johnsons’ trees and shrubs anyway. We imagine he may have done this with an evil glint in his eye. Hey, he was Henry Tyler, president of Genco Distributors. He was an important guy, with some important distributing to do! No pusillanimous little neighbor was going to stop him! It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Well, no one did stop him that day. After Henry’s bulldozer cut a swath through the Johnsons’ place, litigation ensued. The Johnsons sued Tyler and Genco for trespass under § 658.4, Iowa Code. This statute permits treble damages for the deliberate and willful removal of trees and shrubs. We imagine the jury didn’t even have to leave the box to find Henry Tyler liable for willful trespass (and for being a first-class schmuck, which, sadly enough, is not a tort).

brownies140915Generally, damages are intended to make an injured party whole. You run into a busload of Brownies, and you pay to fix the bus and set the broken arms and legs. These are compensatory damages. Sometimes, the conduct leading to the injury is so outrageous – either reckless or intentional – that the jury awards punitive damages as well. If you rammed the Brownies’ bus in a fit of rage because a box of Thin Mints you bought from the troop was stale, the jury is likely to tell you to fix the damage, and then pay an additional amount as punishment, to deter you and others from doing such a thing.

You can see where this is going. The jury was offended by Henry’s having wantonly laid waste to his neighbor’s place. It awarded the Johnsons the cost of replacing their trees and shrubs. That amount was trebled under the statute. The jury then awarded punitive damages on top of that. Piling on? Yeah, we suppose, but can you think of anyone who needed it more than Henry Tyler?

The jury verdict for the Johnsons fixed the value of the destroyed trees and shrubs at $1,400.00, allowed other damages in the amount of $2,100.00, and assessed punitive damages at $5,250.00. In entering judgment, the trial court trebled the award for physical damage to the trees, turning $1,400.00 into $4,200.00, awarded $2,100.00 for other damages, but set aside the verdict for punitive damages.

nogoodnik150304The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with what the trial court did. It held that the treble damage statute itself is intended to be punitive, and it was wrong to treble damages and then add common-law punitive damages on top of that. The Johnsons chose to sue under the treble damage statute. They were entitled to one remedy – treble damages – or the other – punitive damages. Double dipping was not allowed, even when the defendant was a no-goodnik like Henry Tyler.

Johnson v. Tyler, 277 N.W.2d 617 (Sup.Ct. Iowa 1979). The Johnsons, who bought their home in 1952, planted trees and shrubs around the premises, particularly along the west line of their property. Genco Distributors, Inc., bought the property adjoining the Johnsons’ land to the west, intending to construct a building there. Genco’s president, Henry E. Tyler, asked the Johnsons for permission to remove the trees and shrubs along the west boundary in preparing for the construction work. They refused. Tyler nevertheless instructed the contractor to bulldoze the trees and shrubs from along the lot line.

The Johnsons sued under Iowa Code § 658.4 for damages resulting from Tyler’s deliberate and willful removal of a number of trees and shrubs from their property. The jury resulted in a verdict for plaintiffs in the amount of $8,750.00. The trial court reduced the judgment to $6,300.00, on condition Tyler should have a new trial if the remittitur was not accepted. When Johnsons refused the reduced judgment, the trial court ordered a new trial. Johnsons appealed, and Tyler filed a cross-appeal. The case ended up in the Iowa Supreme Court.

Double dipping ... good for ice cream cones, not so good for punitive damages.

Double dipping … good for ice cream cones, not so good for punitive damages.

Held:  The trial court’s decision was upheld. The Supreme Court said that the paramount issue in the case was the question of whether the Johnsons could have both treble damages under the statute and punitive damages at common law. The relevant statute provides that “[f]or willfully injuring any timber, tree, or shrub on the land of another … the perpetrator shall pay treble damages at the suit of any person entitled to protect or enjoy the property.”

The Court held that by bringing the action under the treble damage statute, Johnsons chose the remedy afforded by that statute, which is itself punitive. The Johnsons argued that the statute did not abrogate their right to punitive damages, but instead just provided an additional statutory remedy. The Court disagreed, holding that letting a plaintiff have both punitive damages under the statute and punitive damages under common law “would violate the basic prohibition against double recovery.”

The Court ordered that the case be retried, with the jury being instructed that it should only find compensatory damages. The Supreme Court clarified one question that it was sure would arise, whether “loss of enjoyment resulting from destruction of the trees and shrubs” was part of the compensatory damages that could be tripled under the statute. The trial court had said they were not.

The Supreme Court held that the treble damage statute “allows treble damages for loss resulting from willfully injuring any timber, trees, or shrubs. It does not limit recovery to damage to the timber, trees, or shrubs themselves. Loss of enjoyment resulting from such conduct is an element of damage. If properly proved, this item, too, comes within the treble damage provision of § 658.4.”

Case of the Day – Thursday, March 5, 2015

THE CONTRACT SAYS WHAT?

slip&fall150305Landscaper Superior Property Management Services, Inc., had been hired by the Waterbury Homeowners Association to landscape and maintain the grounds at beautiful Shanty Acres. The parties had a standard contract, one that – among other things – called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season.” Elsewhere, the contract directs the landscapers to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees.

The contract was just a formality. Superior has been in business since the sequoias were seedlings, and its crews knew what needed to be done. They often went beyond the literal terms of the contract, which – as was typical for landscaping contracts – were not especially detailed. Over the seasons, Superior maintained Shanty Acres very well, and the contract was repeatedly renewed. The Happy Homeowners Association is indeed happy.

Then one cold, spring day, condominium resident Colleen Hill ventured outside to walk her dog. When she followed the cavorting canine onto the lawn, she tripped over a basal shoot growing from a tree root, fell, and hurt herself. She sued both Superior and the Association, claiming that Superior owed her a duty of care because of what it agreed to do in the contract. Superior, she alleged, was negligent in not trimming the basal shoots.

But how could Superior owe Colleen Hill a duty? Its contract was with the Association, and the Association thought Superior had done a fine job. True, Superior prided itself on doing more than the contract called for, but that was what a good landscaper did. Thus, Superior’s crews normally trimmed basal roots … but if Colleen’s complaint was to be believed, it appears Superior’s workers may have overlooked the shoots that proved a snare to her feet.

Superior should have trimmed the exposed roots, Colleen said, whether the contract said it should or not ...

Superior should have trimmed the exposed roots, Colleen said, whether the contract said it should or not …

The courts finally concluded that Superior owed Colleen no duty. Its obligations were to the Association, and those obligations were those spelled out in the contract, not what additional services Superior might gratuitously provide. The landscaper won in the end, but only after four years of expensive litigation.

So what does the professional arborist or landscaper learn from Superior’s legal travails? The first lesson is to read the contract form he or she is using. Does it adequately define the services being provided? If the arborist will be performing more services than those described in the contract, those probably should be described in the contract.

At minimum, the contract should clearly provide that any services provided beyond those required by the contract are being provided as a courtesy only, and that the contract does not establish a duty between the arborist and anyone other than the client.

Will this be enough to save the arborist from frivolous lawsuits? Probably not in this society. But an ounce of careful contract drafting now may be worth a pound of lawyers later.

Hill v. Superior Property Management, Inc., Case No. 20120428 (Utah Supreme Ct., 2013).  Superior Property Management had held the contract to maintain premises for the Waterbury Homeowners Association for years. The form contract called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season” and to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees. After resident Colleen Hill, while walking her dog one early spring day, tripped on a growth from a tree root, she sued Superior for negligence because it had not trimmed the root.

Held: The landscaper didn’t owe Colleen a duty of care. As the Supreme Court of Utah observed, the “law draws a critical distinction between affirmative acts and omissions. As a general rule, we all have a duty to act reasonably in our affirmative acts; but no such duty attaches with regard to omissions except in cases of a special relationship.”

The Court agreed that sometimes, such a special relationship might be rooted in a contract. But it held that neither specific obligation in the contract – the obligation to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season,” or the obligation to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees – created a duty flowing from the landscaping company and the injured property owner.

Lesson: No contract is the ultimate contract, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try for comprehensiveness in drafting ...

Lesson:  No contract can plan for every contingency, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try for comprehensiveness in drafting whenever possible …

The Court noted that “in the first place, it is not at all clear that mere failure to perform would sustain liability in tort. A breach of contract, after all, typically gives rise to liability in contract … Even assuming that Superior’s maintenance contract could sustain a tort duty, moreover, there is still no basis for liability here, as neither of the provisions required Superior to perform the acts it is now charged with omitting.” The Justices analyzed the contract provisions, pointing out that the accident happened in early spring, outside of the “normal growing season.” What’s more, the dictionary definition of “branch” is “a stem growing from the trunk or from a limb of a tree” or a “shoot or secondary stem growing from the main stem.” Therefore, the Court reasoned, “the ‘branches’ to be trimmed under Superior’s maintenance contract are protrusions from the main trunk only, not separate shoots stemming from the tree’s roots. Superior could not be in breach for failing to trim back those shoots.”

Maybe so, argued the homeowner, but regardless of what the contract may have said, the landscaper’s obligations “were not comprehensively detailed in its maintenance contract, but encompassed acts that it habitually engaged in over time.” The Court rejected this dangerous notion, declaring that there “is no room in our law for a tort duty arising from course-of-performance acts that are nowhere provided by contract.” The Justices reasoned that “where a duty is rooted in the express language of a written contract, the parties are on notice of their obligations, and are in a good position to plan their activities around them. That is not at all true for … extracontractual, course-of-performance acts relied on” by Ms. Hill. “If we were to impose a duty in connection with those acts,” the Court said, “we would establish a troubling perverse incentive. A party facing a tort duty in connection with any undertaking not required by contract would be discouraged from such undertaking. And a disincentive for gratuitous service benefiting another is not the sort of conduct that our tort law ought to countenance. In any event, to the extent injuries ensue from negligence in the performance of such activities, liability would properly be governed by a different branch of our tort law – by the standards governing liability for a voluntary undertaking, a theory we … find unavailing.”

Case of the Day – Friday, March 6, 2015

RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES

AnimalHouse150306So you heard about the sweethearts of Sigma Chi?  The story just broke yesterday about how the Sigma Chi frat brothers at Southern Methodist University – who lived off campus in an upscale place called Maison des Animauxharassed the O’Connells, their next-door neighbors, for sport.  Oh, the highjinx of these fun-loving rascals!  Among other pranks, they liked to urinate on the O’Connells’ fence, write obscenities in the snow in their yard, spit on the O’Connell house and throw raw meat onto the patio  (filet mignon, we hope).

It all started with a noise complaint, something to do with the brothers’ 24/7 partying. As the Grinch might have said, “The noise, noise, noise, noise, noise!” Mr. O’Connell “brought it to their attention and said ‘you can’t do that.’ They told me they pay rent and they can do whatever they want. It’s their right.”

noise150306The O’Connells now, after a year of abuse, have the media worked into a righteous froth. So that should take care of that. But were the brothers right? Can they do whatever they want until you’re finally able to get a crew from Action News to show up with cameras and a scowling investigative reporter?

Consider the Rileys. They didn’t have an Eyewitness News crew. But they did have a lawyer. The house next door to the Rileys was owned by a landlord who rented it to some dopers. But not just any dopers. This wasn’t just boom boxes blasting the Grateful Dead and the wafting smell of freshly decriminalized marijuana. Nope, the neighbors here were good capitalists, appearing to run a brisk retail operation, with traffic at all hours of the night and unsavory customers. Imagine a McDonald’s drive-thru window, but handing out nickel bags instead of Big Macs.

The traffic was accompanied by the screeching of tires, the occasional and casual vandalism toward the Rileys’ property, cursing and shouting, and the discharge of firearms. Someone even shot the Rileys’ dog.

Now we’ll put up with a lot, but we won’t put up with that. You shouldn’t shoot a dog. The Rileys felt the same. They complained in winter 1999, but nothing changed. The police raided the place, but all they found was some personal-use marijuana. The Rileys complained to landlord Richard Whybrew again. The Attorney General complained to Mr. Whybrew. Nothing happened. Mr. Whybrew said the tenants were paying their rent, so he wasn’t going to do anything. Apparently, he believed that money talks, and neighbors walk.

Neighbor problems?  Maybe you can get the media to ambush your troublemaking neighbors.  If not, try what the Rileys did – get a lawyer.

Neighbor problems? Maybe you can get the media to ambush your troublemaking neighbors. If not, try what the Rileys did – get a lawyer.

Finally, the Rileys sued. The trial court threw out their claims that the landlord had maintained a nuisance and that the Rileys had suffered emotional distress. But the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that negligent infliction of emotional distress was part and parcel of a nuisance claim — getting around a Tennessee rule that the claim had to be supported by expert medical testimony — and that the Rileys had clearly made out a claim that Whybrew was maintaining a nuisance, with enough evidence in conflict with his denials to get to trial. As for the dope-peddling neighbors? They moved out when they were served with the Rileys’ lawsuit. After all, protecting your stash is what’s it all about.

Riley v. Whybrew, 185 S.W.3d 393 (Ct.App.Tenn. 2005). The Rileys lived in a house in a subdivision next to a house Richard Whybrew leased to the Parkers. Problems ensued.

Shortly after the Parkers moved in, the Rileys began experiencing problems with their tenant neighbors. A high number of unknown persons would come to the Parkers’ house at all hours of the day and night, with horns honking, tires squealing and loud voices. They would drive up, engage in a brief conversation or transaction with a resident at the Parkers’ home, and leave after a few minutes. The Rileys overheard many conversations about the sale of drugs, as well as frequent profane and abusive language. On several occasions, firearms were discharged at the Parkers’ residence at various times during day and night. Some activities were directed toward the Rileys: chemicals were put in their gas tanks, a laser pointer was aimed at Timothy Riley, personal property was stolen from the Rileys’ home, and when the Rileys were seen by the Parkers or their visitors, they were taunted, cursed at or stared at menacingly. The Rileys’ dog was even shot by a visitor to the Parkers’ home.

A month later, the police conducted a raid on the Parkers’ residence, and Marina Parker was arrested for possession of marijuana. Despite the arrest, the disturbing activities at the Parkers’ home continued. As a result, the Rileys employed an attorney to notify Whybrew of the problems. In February 2000, the attorney sent Whybrew a letter informing him that his rental property was “being used for illegal activities, in violation of the housing and zoning codes, and probably in violation of the terms of [the] lease.” Later that month, Whybrew received a letter from the director of the Narcotics Prosecution Unit of the Office of the Shelby County Attorney General about the drug trafficking. The letter noted that the amount of controlled substance found at the Parkers’ home was not enough to compel Whybrew to evict the Parkers, but stated that Carter wanted Whybrew to be aware of the situation. A year later, the Rileys again complained to Whybrew, who said the Parkers had a lease and paid their rent on time, and he did not plan to take action against them.

Of course, sometimes your neighbor's harassment is a little more subtle ...

Of course, sometimes your neighbor’s harassment is a little more subtle …

The Rileys sued Whybrew, the Parkers, and ten “John or Jane Doe” defendants, seeking damages for infliction of emotional distress and asking for abatement of the nuisance. Whybrew asserted that the other defendants were the sole cause of any injuries suffered by the Rileys. Whybrew maintained that the Rileys failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and asked the trial court to dismiss the complaint. The trial court granted summary judgment to Whybrew.

Held:  The case was reinstated, and the Rileys were entitled to a trial. The Court of Appeals found that a material question of fact existed as to whether Whybrew negligently allowed the tenants’ illegal behavior to continue, and that issue precluded summary judgment against the Rileys on their nuisance claim. The Court agreed that even if Whybrew had had knowledge of his tenants’ illegal activities – including drug use, discharging firearms and harassment – his failure to stop the Parkers’ activities could only be characterized as negligence. Thus, as a matter of law, it could not constitute the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

However, the claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress was related to the claim of negligence for landlord’s failure to abate the nuisance caused by the Parkers’ illegal activities, and as such, the Rileys’ claim for damages for emotional distress was not a stand-alone claim, and could be heard even absent expert medical testimony as to their damages. Most importantly, the Court ruled, while Whybrew argued that there was no breach of any duty to the Rileys because there was no proof that he was aware of the Parkers’ illegal activities until February 2000 (and the Parkers moved from the residence after being served with this lawsuit two months later), it disagreed and held that the Rileys had established a genuine issue of material fact on the claims of maintaining a nuisance and negligent infliction of emotional distress, sufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment.

The case went back to trial.

Case of the Day – Monday, March 9, 2015

COUNT YOUR SILVERWARE

condiments150309You know people like this. They leave restaurants with their pockets bulging from stolen packets of sugar, jelly or ketchup. They return from a vacation with a valise full of shampoo, conditioner, soap and teabags, boosted from every hotel on their itinerary. When they move from a house, they be sure to pick it clean of light bulbs, curtains, and even the unused toilet paper rolls left on the dispensers. In rare cases, they even uproot garden plants as they leave.

When you have folks like this over for dinner, you should audit your silverware before they leave.

The late Mr. Thomas was that kind of guy, probably a man with a closet full of mini-shampoo bottles, Bob Evans jelly tubs, and McDonald’s sugar packets. He was quite a thrifty guy. Maybe there’s a better word to use than “thrifty.” A word like “light-fingered.”

However you would describe him, after he signed the deal to sell his Iowa farm to Mr. Laube, but before he surrendered possession, Mr. Thomas thought he just might thin the timber a bit by cutting down and selling about a hundred walnut trees. True, the walnuts weren’t really ready for harvest – the 20-year old trees were only about halfway to an age where they should be harvested – but Mr. Thomas could hardly see the sense of leaving all of that nice hardwood for Mr. Laube to cash in on a couple decades after closing.

Mr. Laube sued. Sadly, while he won the case, he was butchered on damages. There was no question that Mr. Thomas was liable. After all, the contract of sale didn’t reserve any timber rights to the seller. But the issue was the value of the trees that had been removed.

Generally, there are several ways to figure damages for loss of trees. Where the trees are for a special purpose, such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use, the measure is usually the difference in value of the real estate before and after the destruction of the trees. Where the trees have no special use beyond being marketable timber, the measure of damages is the commercial market value of the trees at the time of taking. Where the trees can feasibly be replaced, the measure of damages is the reasonable cost of replacement.

The Court ruled that the value of the 100 immature walnut trees was their present-day value at the mill, despite Mr. Laube’s lament that they would have been worth so much more had they been 20 years older. The Iowa Supreme Court admitted that Mr. Laube had a point – he had been deprived of trees that had great potential value, something that giving him present commercial value didn’t recognize. But the Court said that the law had never allowed such damages, and it didn’t intend to do so here. The Court speculated – and that’s exactly what it was – that it “was perhaps to address this criticism that the legislature provided for treble damages in Iowa Code section 658.4.”

When taking all of the lightbulbs from your just-sold house, be sure to wear gloves so as to avoid being burned.  The only one who should be burned by this process is the unwitting buyer.

When taking all of the lightbulbs from your just-sold house, be sure to wear gloves so as to avoid being burned. The only one who should be burned by this process is the unwitting buyer.

Poppycock. Punitive damages are intended to punish, not make up for deficiencies in the law of compensatory damages. Farmer Thomas did not profit from his selling of the walnut trees on his way out the door, but Mr. Laube was hardly made whole.

Laube v. Estate of Thomas, 376 N.W.2d 108 (Sup.Ct. Iowa, 1985). In 1983, the Thomases contracted to sell a farm to Mr. Laube. Possession was to pass on March 1, 1984. Although no timber rights were reserved to the Thomases, they removed about 100 walnut trees from the tract between contract and closing. There was no question of liability; in fact, at trial Thomases offered to confess judgment for $1,000. The offer was refused.

The trial court awarded Laube the commercial value of the trees at the tie they were cut. Laube appealed.

Held: The measure of damages used by the trial court was correct.

The walnut trees were timber or forest, not used for a windbreak or ornamental purposes. The trees had stood at two sites on the farm, one a low-level area near a stream and the other in a permanent pasture. The 100 in question were smaller, presumably inferior for marketing purposes. The evidence showed that it was not a practical marketing time for the trees in question. At an age of 20 years, they would not mature so as to reach their reasonable marketing potential for another 20 years. Mr. Laube argued he should be awarded damages that took the current market price, considering the size and quality of trees 20 years hence, then discounting the figure appropriately to reach the present value.

It's he present-day value of the commercial timber that matters.

It’s the present-day value of the commercial timber that matters.

The Supreme Court admitted that “especially [in] the showing of the inappropriateness of cutting the trees at their stage of semi-maturity, there is at first blush an attractiveness in plaintiffs’ contention that a routine allowance of only log value is inadequate. On the other hand their suggested recovery does not conform with any recognized measure of damages for loss of trees.” Where the trees were put to a special purpose, such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use, the measure is usually the difference in value of the realty before and after the destruction of the trees. Where the trees had no such special use, the measure is the commercial market value of the trees at the time of taking. Where the trees can be replaced, damages are the reasonable cost of replacement.

Here, the Court said, the commercial value of the trees was the appropriate measure of damages. It suggested that the law provided for treble damages in Iowa Code § 658.4 to help adjust for the unfairness of situations such as the one in this case. However, it would not take into account future value in setting compensatory damages.

Case of the Day – Tuesday, March 10, 2015

WHAT IS THIS CASE DOING IN MY COURTROOM?

socks150311

We recall once enjoying the spectacle of a young lawyer squirming during a pretrial hearing (because he represented the opposing party and generally was insufferable). The judge picked through the sharp young attorney’s pleadings liked he was sorting a pile of smelly socks, and demanded to know “just what is this case doing in my courtroom?”

schadenfreude150311Ah, schadenfreude! Such a guilty pleasure, chiefly because we have no doubt that we ourselves have on many occasions given other lawyers opportunities to enjoy schadenfreude at our expense.

Still, there are a lot of cases that ought to never see the inside of a courtroom. Today’s case is a good example. A man named Klemme burned some brush one day. He carefully tended the burn pile, kept water and a phone handy lest the fire get out of control, and checked for burning embers before he went home that night. He was on the scene the next day, too, and saw no smoldering debris. The next day, however, the wind came up and somehow fire burned about 400 young seedlings planted in the neighboring unimproved property, owned by the widow Zech.

The seedlings were fewer than one percent of the 62,000 seedlings planted by the Zechs pursuant to a deal they had made with a federal conservation program. They had bought seedlings for about 30¢ apiece and planted them over a period of years. Then Mr. Zech died, and after that, Mrs. Zech never visited the property. She admitted she couldn’t say for sure that it had been Klemme’s burn pile that had started the fire. She admitted that a lot of other seedlings had died of natural causes, and that she hadn’t replaced the seedlings allegedly killed by the fire or the ones that had simply died. Finally, she was unable to show that the fair market value of the real estate had fallen because of the damage to about 0.66% of the seedlings on the premises.

This case was not, to use as Latin phrase, a “slam dunker” for Mrs. Zech. If she felt she had been damaged, why didn’t she spend $120.00 for 400 new seedlings? If she permitted many of the 62,000 seedlings to die without replacement, how seriously had her enjoyment of the property ¬– which she didn’t visit because of the amount of snowfall and because it apparently evoked memories of her late husband – been compromised?

Mr. Klemme’s lawyer filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to grant judgment for the defendant without a trial. Summary judgment is a useful device for economically ridding the court of a dog of a case, where there is no genuine issue of fact, and where one side is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The trial court obliged him, holding that the proper measure of damages was decrease in value of the property, and because Mrs. Zech could not show any evidence that the value of the premises had fallen.

Mrs. Zech appealed, arguing that the measure of damages should have been the replacement value of the seedlings. What, we’re talking $120.00 here? As little sense as that made, the trial court held that the seedlings were “special purpose” trees, because the Zechs were required to plant them as a condition of having the land enrolled in the CRP. Because they were special purpose, the proper measure was decrease in fair market value, the Court of Appeals held, thus agreeing with the defendant.

A priceless Ming vase (note the clear label)

A priceless Ming vase (note the clear label)

This is a peculiarity of the law of negligence. Not only must there be a departure from the standard of care (someone has to be a klutz), but there must be harm flowing from the klutziness. If I drop your priceless Ming vase, but it bounces without breaking, you have no claim against me for negligence. If it breaks … that’s another story.

Was Mr. Klemme negligent? Did his burn pile spontaneously combust? We’ll never know, because – whatever caused the fire – Mrs. Zech didn’t suffer any loss.

Zech v. Klemme, 803 N.W.2d 128 (Iowa App. 2011). One spring day, strong winds rekindled an ember in a burn pile located on Klemme’s property, and started a grass fire that damaged trees on Zech’s property. Several days before, Klemme had burned brush and tree limbs in a burn pile located about 300 feet from the Zech property.

Klemme kept a water hose nearby and used the hose to wet down the adjacent area to prevent the fire from spreading. He also had a cellular telephone available to contact the local fire department if necessary. Klemme said he stopped burning at about 11 a.m. on April 2, and when he left his property at the end of the day, the burn pile had subsided to ashes. He worked on his property on April 3, and observed the pile throughout the day, noting no sign of any smoldering embers. Klemme also said he had no knowledge there would be any strong or sudden gusts of wind on April 4th.

fire150311Zech had enrolled the land where the fire occurred in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP required Zech to prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat on the acreage, and prohibited her from harvesting the trees or using the land for livestock or crop fanning. In exchange for her enrollment in CRP, Zech received an annual payment starting in 2002 and continuing through 2006. For conservation purposes, Zech and her late husband planted between 2,000 and 3,000 bare root seedling trees each year. At the time of the fire, about 62,500 trees of various species had been planted on the CRP land.

The Zechs purchased the bare root seedlings from the Iowa State Forest Nursery at about $0.30 each. Zech asserted that over 400 trees were damaged in the fire. In the ordinary course of nature, wildlife, insects, disease and climatic conditions have also damaged or destroyed some of the trees on the CRP land. Zech has not removed, replaced, treated, repaired, pruned, trimmed, or cut down any of the trees that have been damaged or destroyed by the fire or by natural causes. She does not live on the CRP property and the fire did not change her use of the land.

Zech contended in her complaint the appearance of the burned branches on the trees she planted with her late husband has diminished her emotional enjoyment of the land. However, she did not argue the fire has diminished the fair market value of the land. The fire did not cause Zech to incur a loss of income, nor did it cause her to incur any additional expense. She also did not argue that the damaged trees had any historic value.

Zech had no personal knowledge as to the cause or origin of the fire, and she did not contend Klemme acted intentionally to harm the trees.

The trial court held that the trees on the land were special purpose trees, and that the measure of damages was the decrease in the fair market value of Zech’s property. Because there was no proof of any loss of market value, there were no damages, and Klemme was granted summary judgment.

Zech appealed.

Held:  The trial court properly determined what damages should be considered, and correctly concluded that Zech had not been damaged.

The Court of Appeals observed that Laube had noted 25 years before that “[i]t is impossible to state a simple, all-purpose measure of recovery for loss of trees.” Therefore, trial courts are granted a degree of discretion to select how to assess damages based on the facts of each case.

seedlings150311Zech argued the appropriate calculation for damages should be the replacement cost of the seedling trees damaged or destroyed by the fire. Where trees can be replaced, a reasonable cost of replacement is the appropriate measurement of damages. Laube, the Court noted, involved removal of about 100 walnut trees. The Laube court decided that the replacement cost measure “would obviously be inappropriate,” and the trial court in this case – which was dealing with about 400 trees, was likewise right that a replacement calculation would be not work. Compounding the problem, Zech admitted she has not replaced or treated any of the damaged trees since the fire in 2005, nor has she expressed an intent to do so in the future.

Instead, the trial court concluded that the appropriate measure of damages for Zech’s loss should be the “special purpose” or “special use” calculation used in Laube. Where trees are put to a “special purpose” or have a “special use” – such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use – damages are based upon the difference between the market value of the land before and after the destruction of the trees.  The trial court viewed the conservation use of the trees as required by CRP to be a special purpose, and thus concluded that any enjoyment Zech derived from the trees was incidental to the primary purpose of the CRP land. Besides, the Court of Appeals noted, while Zech herself had testified that the burned trees reduced her enjoyment of the land, she admitted she no longer regularly walks on the CRP land, citing the fact that “there has been too much snow for one thing.” She also admitted that she had ceased her custom of walking the land after her late husband passed away.

Zech also admitted that the fire did not cause her to change her use of the land. The trial court concluded that Zech’s deposition testimony did not establish a special use relating to her enjoyment of the land, nor a diminution in her enjoyment due to the fire. Using the ” special purpose” market value calculation, the trial court concluded that the issue of damages entitled Klemme to summary judgment because the record did not demonstrate a loss in market value of the land.

The Court of Appeals approved of these findings, and left them undisturbed. Because Zech has not sustained any compensable economic loss as a result of the fire, the Court affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment ruling on the ground of damages.

Case of the Day – Wednesday, March 11, 2015

WHAT IS THIS CASE DOING IN MY COURTROOM?

socks150311

We recall once enjoying the spectacle of a young lawyer squirming during a pretrial hearing (because he represented the opposing party and generally was insufferable). The judge picked through the sharp young attorney’s pleadings liked he was sorting a pile of smelly socks, and demanded to know “just what is this case doing in my courtroom?”

schadenfreude150311Ah, schadenfreude! Such a guilty pleasure, chiefly because we have no doubt that we ourselves have on many occasions given other lawyers opportunities to enjoy schadenfreude at our expense.

Still, there are a lot of cases that ought to never see the inside of a courtroom. Today’s case is a good example. A man named Klemme burned some brush one day. He carefully tended the burn pile, kept water and a phone handy lest the fire get out of control, and checked for burning embers before he went home that night. He was on the scene the next day, too, and saw no smoldering debris. The next day, however, the wind came up and somehow fire burned about 400 young seedlings planted in the neighboring unimproved property, owned by the widow Zech.

The seedlings were fewer than one percent of the 62,000 seedlings planted by the Zechs pursuant to a deal they had made with a federal conservation program. They had bought seedlings for about 30¢ apiece and planted them over a period of years. Then Mr. Zech died, and after that, Mrs. Zech never visited the property. She admitted she couldn’t say for sure that it had been Klemme’s burn pile that had started the fire. She admitted that a lot of other seedlings had died of natural causes, and that she hadn’t replaced the seedlings allegedly killed by the fire or the ones that had simply died. Finally, she was unable to show that the fair market value of the real estate had fallen because of the damage to about 0.66% of the seedlings on the premises.

This case was not, to use as Latin phrase, a “slam dunker” for Mrs. Zech. If she felt she had been damaged, why didn’t she spend $120.00 for 400 new seedlings? If she permitted many of the 62,000 seedlings to die without replacement, how seriously had her enjoyment of the property ¬– which she didn’t visit because of the amount of snowfall and because it apparently evoked memories of her late husband – been compromised?

Mr. Klemme’s lawyer filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to grant judgment for the defendant without a trial. Summary judgment is a useful device for economically ridding the court of a dog of a case, where there is no genuine issue of fact, and where one side is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The trial court obliged him, holding that the proper measure of damages was decrease in value of the property, and because Mrs. Zech could not show any evidence that the value of the premises had fallen.

Mrs. Zech appealed, arguing that the measure of damages should have been the replacement value of the seedlings. What, we’re talking $120.00 here? As little sense as that made, the trial court held that the seedlings were “special purpose” trees, because the Zechs were required to plant them as a condition of having the land enrolled in the CRP. Because they were special purpose, the proper measure was decrease in fair market value, the Court of Appeals held, thus agreeing with the defendant.

A priceless Ming vase (note the clear label)

A priceless Ming vase (note the clear label)

This is a peculiarity of the law of negligence. Not only must there be a departure from the standard of care (someone has to be a klutz), but there must be harm flowing from the klutziness. If I drop your priceless Ming vase, but it bounces without breaking, you have no claim against me for negligence. If it breaks … that’s another story.

Was Mr. Klemme negligent? Did his burn pile spontaneously combust? We’ll never know, because – whatever caused the fire – Mrs. Zech didn’t suffer any loss.

Zech v. Klemme, 803 N.W.2d 128 (Iowa App. 2011). One spring day, strong winds rekindled an ember in a burn pile located on Klemme’s property, and started a grass fire that damaged trees on Zech’s property. Several days before, Klemme had burned brush and tree limbs in a burn pile located about 300 feet from the Zech property.

Klemme kept a water hose nearby and used the hose to wet down the adjacent area to prevent the fire from spreading. He also had a cellular telephone available to contact the local fire department if necessary. Klemme said he stopped burning at about 11 a.m. on April 2, and when he left his property at the end of the day, the burn pile had subsided to ashes. He worked on his property on April 3, and observed the pile throughout the day, noting no sign of any smoldering embers. Klemme also said he had no knowledge there would be any strong or sudden gusts of wind on April 4th.

fire150311Zech had enrolled the land where the fire occurred in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP required Zech to prevent erosion and provide wildlife habitat on the acreage, and prohibited her from harvesting the trees or using the land for livestock or crop fanning. In exchange for her enrollment in CRP, Zech received an annual payment starting in 2002 and continuing through 2006. For conservation purposes, Zech and her late husband planted between 2,000 and 3,000 bare root seedling trees each year. At the time of the fire, about 62,500 trees of various species had been planted on the CRP land.

The Zechs purchased the bare root seedlings from the Iowa State Forest Nursery at about $0.30 each. Zech asserted that over 400 trees were damaged in the fire. In the ordinary course of nature, wildlife, insects, disease and climatic conditions have also damaged or destroyed some of the trees on the CRP land. Zech has not removed, replaced, treated, repaired, pruned, trimmed, or cut down any of the trees that have been damaged or destroyed by the fire or by natural causes. She does not live on the CRP property and the fire did not change her use of the land.

Zech contended in her complaint the appearance of the burned branches on the trees she planted with her late husband has diminished her emotional enjoyment of the land. However, she did not argue the fire has diminished the fair market value of the land. The fire did not cause Zech to incur a loss of income, nor did it cause her to incur any additional expense. She also did not argue that the damaged trees had any historic value.

Zech had no personal knowledge as to the cause or origin of the fire, and she did not contend Klemme acted intentionally to harm the trees.

The trial court held that the trees on the land were special purpose trees, and that the measure of damages was the decrease in the fair market value of Zech’s property. Because there was no proof of any loss of market value, there were no damages, and Klemme was granted summary judgment.

Zech appealed.

Held:  The trial court properly determined what damages should be considered, and correctly concluded that Zech had not been damaged.

The Court of Appeals observed that Laube had noted 25 years before that “[i]t is impossible to state a simple, all-purpose measure of recovery for loss of trees.” Therefore, trial courts are granted a degree of discretion to select how to assess damages based on the facts of each case.

seedlings150311Zech argued the appropriate calculation for damages should be the replacement cost of the seedling trees damaged or destroyed by the fire. Where trees can be replaced, a reasonable cost of replacement is the appropriate measurement of damages. Laube, the Court noted, involved removal of about 100 walnut trees. The Laube court decided that the replacement cost measure “would obviously be inappropriate,” and the trial court in this case – which was dealing with about 400 trees, was likewise right that a replacement calculation would be not work. Compounding the problem, Zech admitted she has not replaced or treated any of the damaged trees since the fire in 2005, nor has she expressed an intent to do so in the future.

Instead, the trial court concluded that the appropriate measure of damages for Zech’s loss should be the “special purpose” or “special use” calculation used in Laube. Where trees are put to a “special purpose” or have a “special use” – such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use – damages are based upon the difference between the market value of the land before and after the destruction of the trees.  The trial court viewed the conservation use of the trees as required by CRP to be a special purpose, and thus concluded that any enjoyment Zech derived from the trees was incidental to the primary purpose of the CRP land. Besides, the Court of Appeals noted, while Zech herself had testified that the burned trees reduced her enjoyment of the land, she admitted she no longer regularly walks on the CRP land, citing the fact that “there has been too much snow for one thing.” She also admitted that she had ceased her custom of walking the land after her late husband passed away.

Zech also admitted that the fire did not cause her to change her use of the land. The trial court concluded that Zech’s deposition testimony did not establish a special use relating to her enjoyment of the land, nor a diminution in her enjoyment due to the fire. Using the ” special purpose” market value calculation, the trial court concluded that the issue of damages entitled Klemme to summary judgment because the record did not demonstrate a loss in market value of the land.

The Court of Appeals approved of these findings, and left them undisturbed. Because Zech has not sustained any compensable economic loss as a result of the fire, the Court affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment ruling on the ground of damages.

Case of the Day – Thursday, March 12, 2015

FOOL FOR A CLIENT

Abe Lincoln could have been talking about Mr. Victor, who has a real dummy for a client.

Abe Lincoln could have been talking about Mr. Victor, who has a real dummy for a client.

Honest Abe Lincoln was right: Mr. Victor had a first-class knucklehead for a clientThe old lawyer’s proverb warns that “The man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” Today’s case from Iowa puts meat on those bones.

Mr. Victor’s car was hit by a truck at an intersection. That kind of thing happens on a daily basis. After the crash, he took matters into his own hands. That does not.

Usually, people use lawyers for that kind of thing. In fact, lawyers usually take cases like this one on a contingency basis, meaning that they don’t get paid unless you win. Of course, lawyers tend to be picky about the kinds of personal injury actions they will bring, , for the same reason that more people bet on the horse “California Chrome” than lay money down on “Old Glue Factory.” Who wants to waste time and money.

Maybe Mr. Victor didn’t like lawyers. Maybe (as is more likely), no attorney would touch the case from a remote control bunker in the Amazon rain forest. For whatever reason, Mr. Victor represented himself. Apparently subscribing to the old Vladimir Ilyich Lenin maxim, “Quality has a quantity all its own,” Mr. Victor sued the other driver, the company that owned the truck the other driver was operating, the property owner whose trees allegedly obscured the stop sign, the county for poor maintenance of the intersection, and the state for poor design of the road.

Mr. Victor did it all in federal court, no doubt because suing in federal court sounds a whole lot cooler than suing in state court. And it is, too, except for those pesky rules about jurisdiction and sovereign immunity. Guess he only skimmed those chapters in Personal Injury Law for Dummies.

You thought we were kidding?  There's really such a book ...

You thought we were kidding? There really is such a book …

By the time the Court was done, the State of Iowa was dismissed as a defendant, as was the property owner. In fact, the only defendant left was the County, which was unable to prove that its tree-trimming practices were a discretionary function. Still, Mr. Victor got pretty badly decimated, proving once again that there’s a reason trained professionals cost money – it’s because they know what they’re doing.

Victor v. Iowa, Slip Copy, 1999 WL 34805679 (N.D. Iowa, 1999). A car driven by Martin L. Victor collided with a truck driven by Ronald Swoboda and owned by the Vulcraft Carrier Corp. The accident happened at the intersection of County Road C-38 and U.S. Highway 75. Then the fireworks started.

Victor, acting as his own lawyer, sued the State of Iowa, Plymouth County, Vulcraft and Elwayne Maser in U.S. District Court, apparently alleging (1) that “Iowa law regarding the right to sue private property owners for negligence is unconstitutional;” (2) that Victor should be allowed to sue Maser for acting negligently in failing to trim vegetation that obstructed his view of southbound traffic on U.S. Highway 75; (3) that the State of Iowa and Plymouth County acted negligently by failing to properly maintain a roadway, investigate the accident thoroughly, and place warning signs and markings appropriately; (4) that the highway patrol failed “to perform duties of safety officers, in assessment of dangerous conditions existing;” and (5) that Vulcraft is responsible for its driver’s failure to follow safety standards for commercial trucking. All the defendants moved to dismiss or for summary judgment.

Held: The State of Iowa was dismissed, because the Iowa Tort Claims Act, which gives permission to residents to sue the State, limits those actions to state court. The Court held that the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution barred actions in federal courts against States except under narrow exceptions. One of those is that the State have given a waiver and consent that is clear and express that it has waived sovereign immunity and consented to suit against it in federal court. Although a State’s general waiver of sovereign immunity may subject it to suit in state court, it is not enough to waive the immunity guaranteed by the Eleventh Amendment. In order for a state statute or constitutional provision to constitute a waiver of Eleventh Amendment immunity, it must specify the State’s intention to subject itself to suit in federal court, and the ITCA does not do so. Therefore, Victor’s claims against the State of Iowa was dismissed.

It was just your basic accident ... until Mr. Victor made a federal case of it.

It was just your basic accident … until Mr. Victor made a federal case of it.

As for the property owner Maser, the Court ruled that Iowa law put no duty on a private property owner to remove trees which obstructed the view of a highway. Although Victor claimed the Iowa law on the matter unconstitutionally deprived him of the right to sue, he never explained why. The Court observed that “while mindful of its duty to construe pro se complaints liberally, it is not the job of the court to ‘construct arguments or theories for the plaintiff in the absence of any discussion of those issues’… Besides the bare assertion that the Iowa law is unconstitutional, Victor has provided no other discussion of the issue.” Thus, the property owner Maser was dismissed as a defendant.

Victor’s claims that Plymouth County was negligent in failing to install proper warning signs and cut tree branches that obstructed his were not dismissed at this point. Section 670.4 of the Iowa Code exempts a municipality such as Plymouth County from liability for discretionary functions, if the action is a matter of choice for the acting employee, and — when the challenged conduct does involve an element of judgment — the judgment is of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield. Here, Plymouth County’s policy directed that employees “may trim branches of trees because the trees may constitute an obstruction to vision of oncoming traffic at an intersection,” thus giving employees discretion in implementation of this policy. Thus, the Court said, “the action (or inaction) of which Victor complains was a matter of choice for the county’s employee.”

However, the Court said, Plymouth County’s policy did not encompass “social, economic, and political considerations” and therefore the discretionary function exception does not apply. Victor could proceed with rebutting the County’s claim that the view was not obstructed.

Case of the Day – Friday, March 13, 2015

SOME THINGS EVEN A COURT CAN’T DO

The majestic courage shown by the Selma marchers 50 years ago, as well as by countless others who, by acts large and small, defended the equality we now identify as a bedrock principle of our society and legal system, fortunately cannot be undone by knuckleheads like today's  plaintiff.

The courage shown by the Selma marchers 50 years ago, as well as by countless others who, by acts large and small, defended the equality we now identify as a bedrock principle of our society and legal system, fortunately cannot be undone by knuckleheads like today’s plaintiff.

This has not been a good week for racial relations. First, there was the Department of Justice report excoriating the Ferguson, Missouri, police, city government and courts. Then, the SAE brothers at University of Oklahoma began instant recording stars with a little ditty suggesting their fraternity would not especially welcome pledges who were less white than they were.

In race relations, 21st century, there is the deadly serious (such as Ferguson, Missouri) – the merely reprehensible (a busload of drunk, rich white kids being stupid, callow and mean, all at the same time) – and the absurd. The absurd is something we’ll look at today.

Sigmund Freud was famously but questionably credited with having said “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”   In today’s case, a matter of trespass to trees was somehow recast into a federal civil rights action by the plaintiff, who was a man with a litany of offenses committed against his ancestors which he wanted to redress.

Mr. Brewer apparently trespassed on Mr. Lance’s property and removed three trees. Rather than an appropriate trespass to trees action (with a request for treble damages) in South Carolina courts, Mr. Lance went for broke, suing Mr. Brewer for violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

A § 1983 action is a powerful one, authorizing a federal court action to be brought against persons who, under color of state law, deprive another of his civil rights. It has been used against those who discriminate in housing, police officers who wrongly beat suspects, employment discrimination, and even in zoning decisions. 

But § 1983 doesn’t do everything. Here, Mr. Lance argued that not only had Mr. Brewer falsely claimed to have the County’s permission to cut down the trees, but Mr. Brewer’s grandfather had defrauded Mr. Lance’s cousin in a land deal about 40 years before. When the Federal magistrate judge recommended dismissal of the § 1983 action, Mr. Lance objected, arguing rather ineloquently that ““GOD ALMIGHTY does not like what you Racist people are doing, and GOD will show it very soon by punishment, and Destruction.”

cartoon150313Destruction was something the federal court was willing to risk, holding that no matter how it tried to construe Mr. Lance’s complaint, there just wasn’t a civil rights violation alleged. Of course, he was free to pursue his complaint in state court, and we assume he did so.

Lance v. Brewer, Slip Copy, 2007 WL 1219636 (D.S.C., Apr. 24, 2007). In late 2005 Defendant Brewer cut down three large trees and other tree limbs on Plaintiff Lance’s property without permission. Lance asserted that Brewer, who ran a business named Don’s Scrap Metal and Iron, sold these trees for profit but that he and his relatives did not receive any profit. Lance alleged that Brewer told him the county gave him permission to cut down the trees, but according to Lance, a county employee told him that the Brewer did not have permission to cut down the trees. In addition to these claims, Lance argued that Brewer’s grandfather purchased the property adjoining his property forty to fifty years ago by “fooling” Lance’s cousin into selling 20 acres of river-front property for $200.00.

Lance alleges Brewer’s actions constitute racism and discrimination under 42 U.S.C § 1983, and he seeks $85,000.00 on behalf of the heirs of his cousin, Willie Lance. A U.S. Magistrate Judge recommended that Lance’s claim be dismissed. Lance disagreed, and sought rejection of the Report & Recommendation.

gavel150313Held: Lance’s tree-cutting-as-civil-rights case was dismissed. The Court observed that the Plaintiff had objected to Report and Recommendation, because “GOD ALMIGHTY does not like what you Racist people are doing, and GOD will show it very soon by punishment, and Destruction. The United States Court has Federal Jurisdiction, because this is a Civil Rights Violation.” The Court said, “[t]he Plaintiff’s unsubstantiated statement that the Court has federal jurisdiction because this is a civil rights violation does not change the fact that even liberally construing the Plaintiff’s complaint, it fails to state a claim for a federal civil rights violation.” Here, Brewer is a private individual.

What’s more, Lance tried to state a claim pursuant to § 1981. The Court held that Lance has failed to allege an essential element of a § 1981 claim, that there is a contract or property law right enjoyed by white citizens but not by the Plaintiff, who is black. The Court concluded that, tree or no tree, no federal question was raised by Lance’s claim, and thus jurisdiction did not exist.

Case of the Day – Monday, March 16, 2015

ENCROACHMENT WEEK

The tree crew we hired seemed sort of smallish, but 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 …

We had some tree work done last week.   Our sugar maple at the corner of the property needed shaping and some deadwood removed, and we had a hawthorne badly in need of care pruned of some winter damage.

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 (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, would be the 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, March 17, 2015

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  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 administered by Baskin Robbins, the Massachusetts Rule would be chocolate ice cream, and the Hawaii Rule would be vanilla.

In Whitesell v. Houlton,  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 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, that neighbor may trim it at his or her 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 may 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 or her 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 Rule 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. Hawaii, 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 the Massachusetts Rule limits you to helping yourself, the Hawaii Rule lets you enlist the courts to do the heavy lifting.

Case of the Day – Wednesday, March 18, 2015

ENCROACHMENT, NUISANCE … AND THE MARCH OF TIME

camelhorse140429Encroachment – not 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.  Yesterday, we looked at the other end of these 50 United States, and 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 better 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, March 19, 2015

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.  Cottonwoods can be majestic, and they were welcome enough to the tired and thirsty pioneers that the cottonwood became 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, March 20, 2015

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, March 23, 2015

FORCE MAJEURE

Does anyone remember Hurricane Katrina? Who could forget the immensity of the storm, the devastation, the lives lost, the agony?

Ms. Title spent a lot of money in court  defending herself against the Hoerners ... but she won this chic tote bag.  She should read its message ... every day.

Ms. Title spent a lot of money in court defending herself against the Hoerners … but she won this chic tote bag. She should read its message … every day.

Doctor and Mrs. Hoerner, that’s who. These folks, Big Easy residents for 25 years, sued their neighbor, Beulah Title, under the Louisiana Civil Code article that governed negligence. It seems Ms. Title’s trees were kind of bushy, and the neighbors were always cutting them back. Ms. Title, a better neighbor to the Hoerners than they were to her, always let them trim the trees and even cut down an oak once when the Hoerners asked her to.  She was a very a nice neighbor … a kindly lady who learned the hard way that Oscar Wilde was right: no good deed goes unpunished.

When the big blow came, it took down a couple of Ms. Title’s pine trees, damaging the Hoerners’ brick wall, patio and pool. And probably spilled their pitcher of martinis.  Imagine the horror!  We bet those poor folks in the Lower Ninth Ward didn’t have it any worse than the Hoerners. But the Hoerners had something those victims in the Crescent City’s worst neighborhood didn’t have: a lawyer. He sued Ms. Title, arguing that because she knew the trees were overgrowing the Hoerners and needed trimming, that she was liable for the damage caused when they toppled.

The courts made pretty short work of this. Rather patiently, we think, the Court of Appeals explained to the clueless (or avaricious, take your pick) Hoerners that the trees didn’t fall because of the overhanging branches. They fell because of this Cat 5 hurricane that hit the city, the one the Hoerners must have overlooked.

The Court held that even the branches had been the cause, Ms. Title could avail herself of the force majeure defense, specifically that even if she had exercised reasonable care, the injury couldn’t have been avoided because of the intervention of a greater force unforeseen by the parties.

Hoerner v. Beulah Title, 968 So.2d 217 (La.App. 4 Cir., Sept. 26, 2007). Be warned: Beulah Title is a person, not a title insurance company. Beulah Title the person had property right behind the home of Linda and Harry Hoerner. The Hoerners complained that that they had had problems with Ms. Title’s pine trees and other foliage along their brick wall since 1991. Yet, every time Dr. Hoerner sought permission to trim the trees and shrubs back to the property line, Ms. Title allowed him to do so. On many occasions, the Hoerners removed branches from Ms. Title’s trees that were hanging over the brick wall. On one occasion, Ms. Title removed an oak tree from her backyard at the Hoerners’ request. The Hoerners did not allege that the trees in question were defective, just that they were bushy.

Katrina During Hurricane Katrina, the trunks of Ms. Title’s trees were blown, damaging the Hoerner’s brick wall, patio, pool and landscaping. The damage was not caused by branches hanging over the wall, and the trees did not fall due to lack of maintenance or improper trimming. Nevertheless, the Hoerners sued Ms. Title for repairs to their property, alleging that she was strictly liable under Article 2317.1 of the Louisiana Civil Code. That provision directed that the owner of a thing (like a tree) was liable for damage occasioned by its defect upon a showing that she knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that she failed to exercise such reasonable care. Ms. Title argued that the trees were not defective and she is entitled to the defense of force majeure. The trial court agreed with Ms. Title, and the Hoerners appealed.

Force majuere - not a French superhero group - rather, a rational legal concept.

Force majeure – not a French superhero group – rather, a rational legal concept.

Held: Ms. Title was not liable. Under Article 2317.1, in order to establish liability a plaintiff must demonstrate that the owner of the thing knew, or should have known, in the exercise of reasonable care of the defect which caused the damage, that the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care, and that the owner failed to exercise such reasonable care. Here, the Hoerners admitted that the trees were healthy, but they complained they were defective because they were neglected and overgrown and placed too close to the brick wall. The Hoerners cited a case where lack of tree maintenance was considered in finding that the owner had knowledge, but the Court observed that case involved a diseased tree. Ms. Title’s trees, on the other hand, were healthy.

Based on the evidence, the Court said, it did not find that Ms. Title’s trees were defective for lack of maintenance or location. While the Hoerners had shown Ms. Title’s trees had plenty of overgrowth into their yard, the evidence showed that the trees themselves were blown over and into the brick wall, causing all of the damage to the Hoerners’ property. It was not the overgrowth that did the damage. Additionally, Ms. Title was entitled to the defense of force majeure. The Court observed that the winds of Hurricane Katrina caused trees to fall and damage property regardless of maintenance or location all over the Greater New Orleans area. Thus, she could not be liable for the fallen trees under any circumstances.

 

Case of the Day – Tuesday, March 24, 2015

YEAH, WELL, THEY WERE UGLY TREES …

bulldoze150324

When a contractor building an interstate highway interchange needed some space to park bulldozers, the state highway department asked Mr. Baillon – who owned a piece of land next to the overpass – for an easement. Being perhaps unjustifiably proud of his scrubby little trees and stunted bushes, Baillon refused.

A couple of volunteer oak trees and some forsythia bushes are no match for a Caterpillar D10, so the contractor went ahead and used Mr. Baillon’s land anyway. But it turns out a Caterpillar D10 is no match for a Minnesota trial court. Mr. Baillon sued and won.

But he won what? The trial court judged his damages by the diminution in value of his land. That is, how much less is the scrawny strip of real estate worth with the scrub trees gone? Not much, the Court said, giving Mr. Baillon just $500.00.

Mr. Baillon appealed. He argued he had wanted the trees and bushes as a sound barrier between himself and the road. Also, he should have gotten treble damages because of the intentional trespass.

The appeals court agreed – sort of. It held that the measure of damages for the loss of trees — because they weren’t particularly desirable as shade trees or ornamental trees — was the reduction in value of the real estate. Clearly, however, treble damages should be assessed under Minnesota’s wrongful cutting statute, because the trespass was anything but casual.

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This type of damage calculation, well known to contract law students who read Peevyhouse v. Garland Coal and Mining Co., back in first-year contracts class, is intended to avoid economic waste. The thinking is that the courts won’t order restoration of the property if the cost exceeds the reduction in value by the conduct. But at what price to freedom? Mr. Baillon didn’t want to sell his property, he wanted his trees, pathetic though they might be. The fact that the marketplace might not share his desires shouldn’t matter all that much: it was his land, and he should be able — within legal parameters — to keep it as he likes. Letting the bulldozer operator off the hook for the intentional trespass by not requiring that the land be restored to what it looked like before the trespass, even if that cost ten times the difference in real property value, seems to us to accord Mr. Baillon’s rights much less than the respect they deserve.

Baillon v. Carl Bolander & Sons Co., 306 Minn. 155, 235 N.W.2d 613 (Sup.Ct. Minn. 1975). The Highway Department tried to secure from Baillon a temporary construction permit giving the state an easement to go on his property adjacent to the south line of the construction the Bolander company was undertaking on I-35. After Baillon wouldn’t grant the easement, Bollander’s workers trespassed on the land anyway, destroying a number of trees and shrubs.

Baillon had desired to have the particular trees remain alive in order to preserve a natural and wild appearance, to help in avoiding noise from the highway, and to preserve the beauty of the premises. The trial court found that Baillon was damaged by the intentional acts of the Bolander company in the sum of $500.00.

bulldozeb150324

Baillon thought that the trial court should have used the replacement cost of the trees as a measure of damages, and not – as the trial court held – the diminution in value of the real estate. Also believing that he was entitled to treble damages, Baillon appealed.

Held: The award of damages was upheld in part and reversed in part. The measure of damages for the destruction of trees ¬– which for the most part were quite small, ill-formed and not particularly desirable as shade trees or ornamental trees, but which served to prevent erosion and acted as sound barrier – was the diminution in value of the real estate rather than the replacement cost of trees. This was so even though the trespass was willful.

However, the Court of Appeals believed that treble damages should be set. The Court held that where the highway contractor — in the course of building the freeway — intentionally cut the trees, which did not protrude over highway and the trespass was not necessary for contractor’s purposes, the trespass was not “casual.” It was clearly the duty of the trial court to assess treble damages unless defendant’s activities came within one of the exceptions specified in the statute, and the defendant clearly did not.

Case of the Day – Wednesday, March 25, 2015

THE JURY IS INSTRUCTED TO DISREGARD THE SMELL

Once the skunk lands in the jury box, the smell tends to follow ... no matter what the judge may say.

Once the skunk lands in the jury box, the smell tends to follow … no matter what the judge may say.

Trial courts often must give juries instructions to disregard certain evidence they have heard in reaching their verdicts. As a court once described it, “if you throw a skunk into the jury box, you can’t instruct the jury not to smell it.

Today’s case starts out to be pure California … a landslide, a muddy pool, emotional distress because of a dirty carpet. Oh, the humanity! The injured Ms. Rahmanian claimed that her neighbor Nelson had suffered a water leak, and the leak damaged her property. The extent of the damage was grievous, Ms. Rahmanian pled, well over $200,000. Her house was a mess, carpets ruined, pool filled with mud … she demanded justice!

But it turns out that Ms. Rahmanian had already gotten twenty grand from her insurance company, and she hadn’t used a penny of it to dry out carpets, clean walls, empty the pool — the usual cleanup performed to keep a bad mess from becoming worse. The defendant managed to sneak that piece of evidence into the record, and as a result, the plaintiff only collected about $110,000, just about half of what she wanted. How could she ever clean the drapes on that?

People damaged by the negligence of others have a duty to mitigate. That means that they are expected to take reasonable steps to minimize the damage. It only stands to reason. The courts will try to put the innocent injured back in the position they occupied before the damage. But the innocent aren’t expected to sit on their hands, either … or spend money intended to clean up the damage on mimosas at the Beverly Wilshire.

Ms. Rahmanian complained on appeal that the jury shouldn’t have heard about the insurance money. She was literally correct. Who got what from their insurers is irrelevant to whether a party was negligent, and whether that negligence caused damage. But the Court of Appeals clearly lacked sympathy for her. It held that — while the evidence about the insurance money shouldn’t have come in — Ms. Rahmanian didn’t suffer for it, because the trial court told the jury to disregard it.

Never mind that it might be hard for the jurors to ignore the fact that a poor pool-deprived supplicant like Ms. Rahmanian already had collected some dough from her insurance company and spent it on … well, pedicures, poodles in purses, whatever Californians fritter money away on when they don’t mitigate. The Court did some rough justice here, something that happens more often than you might think.

To hear Ms. Rahmanian tell it, her bungalow was fouled beyond salvation.

To hear Ms. Rahmanian tell it, her bungalow was fouled beyond salvation.

Rahmanian v. Nelson, Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2007 WL 1123983 (Cal.App. 2 Dist., Apr. 17, 2007).   Nelson’s house is located above the house owned by Sharon Rahmanian. A water leak on Nelson’s property caused the slope located at the back of her land to collapse, leading to a mudslide that covered her pool and patio area. She sued Nelson for negligence and trespass.

Nelson did not dispute liability. The primary issue at trial was the amount of damages. Rahmanian’s witnesses testified that the mudslide caused damage to the pool and patio, and to the French doors at the back of the house. In addition, mud or muddy water entered the house, causing damage to everything located near the doors, including carpets and drapes. Rahmanian’s expert testified that to repair the slope would cost about $75,000, plus $24,440 to re-landscape the slope. The cost to repair the pool and house would added another $134,000, and she lost use of the pool to the tune of $1,153 a month. For good measure, she complained of damages from physical symptoms and mental suffering she had experienced since the mudslide.

Nelson’s witnesses said the mudslide could not have caused much damage to the patio or pool. They also questioned whether water or mud caused any damage to the interior of the house. Nelson’s experts estimated it would cost $89,371 for repairs and re-landscaping. During the trial, there were three references to $20,000 Rahmanian had already received from her insurance carrier, but had not used to repair any damage.

The jury awarded Rahmanian $80,000 for slope repair; $21,000 for other property damage; $5,000 for loss of use; and $4,000 for emotional distress. Not satisfied with this amount, Rahmanian moved for a new trial, which the court refused. She appealed.

Held:   The trial court shouldn’t have let testimony about the $20,000 in insurance money in, but that wasn’t enough to give Ms. Rahmanian a new trial. Under California’s collateral source rule, if an injured party receives some compensation for his injuries from a source wholly independent of the tortfeasor, such payment should not be deducted from the damages which the plaintiff would otherwise collect from the tortfeasor.

Too many mimosas, too little cleanup.

Too many mimosas, too little cleanup.

In order to permit such evidence to be introduced, the trial court must first weigh the relevance and probative value of evidence of plaintiff’s receipt of collateral benefits against the inevitable prejudicial impact such evidence is likely to have on the jury’s deliberations. Here, that advance weighing was not done. But, the Court said, Rahmanian was not prejudiced. The jury asked the court for guidance on the impact of the $20,000 during deliberations, and the court instructed the jury to ignore what it had heard repeatedly. Ms. Rahmanian did not object to the language of the court’s instruction: in fact, her counsel supplied the key wording used by the court, so she was not allowed later to raise an objection concerning its clarity.

Because the court, with the assistance of counsel, was able to intervene during deliberations to prevent the jury from acting on the misleading information it received concerning the $20,000, the jury’s verdict could not have represented an improperly discounted award. Thus, the appellate court said, no miscarriage of justice occurred.

The trial court also gave an instruction to the jury that Ms. Rahmanian had a duty to mitigate the damage, that is, to take immediate steps after the landslide to minimize the long-term effects. Ms. Rahmanian maintained that the only evidence to support the instruction was the improperly admitted evidence of the $20,000 insurance money. The Court said that because the trial court had given a curative instruction about the insurance money, the appellate court presumed the jury followed the court’s final directive to “not consider” the $20,000 in calculating damages.

Case of the Day – Thursday, March 26, 2015

SOMEBODY HERE OWES ME MONEY

Mailbag140924Back to the mailbag!

Today we consider an interesting problem, this one submitted by alert reader Tracy of Pinebark, New York. Tracy reports that “our neighbor’s old dead tree came down across our parking area, totaling both our cars. Their insurance company denied the claim saying no one notified them and that it was a live tree. My landlady’s insurance company denied the claim saying it wasn’t her tree, so she wasn’t responsible. She knew about the problem trees on their property and didn’t notify them. I need to get some sound legal advice and the NY state statutes to show first that the neighbor should have done something and that my landlady should have notified them that they should do something. Help!! Thanks so much.”

Now this guy played a New York lawyer on TV - but Tracy needs to get one who, while not so photogenic, has a real New York license hanging on the wall.

Now this guy played a New York lawyer on TV – but Tracy needs to get one who, while not so photogenic, has a real New York license hanging on the wall.

First, our obligatory disclaimer, Tracy. We’re not New York lawyers, and for that matter, we don’t even play them on TV. For sound New York legal advice, you should consult a local attorney. Not Sam Waterston, either.  But right now, get out your yellow pad and take down a few concepts to pass on to your solicitor.

There are two problems to contemplate here. First, what responsibility do the neighbors have? And second, what liability does your landlady have?

First, the neighbors: You reported that in the past year, a branch from the tree crushed your gazebo tent and another took out part of your landlady’s shed. You also said your landlady’s insurance company adjuster said it wasn’t her responsibility because the neighbors’ tree was dead. You told us that you agree with the dead tree analysis, because you had an arborist inspect the tree and come to the same conclusion. In fact, you reported, the neighbors have had work done on the tree before, so they had certainly had constructive notice of its precarious condition, you report. But, you report, the neighbors’ insurance company asserts the tree was alive, so the neighbors aren’t liable. But you think the insurers may be dissembling.

An insurance adjuster lie?  Horrors!

An insurance adjuster  would tell a lie? Horrors!

We are shocked, shocked we say, by the suggestion that insurance companies would prevaricate! Let’s consider New York law with respect to the neighbors. In Ivancic v. Olmstead, the Ivancic boy was hurt when a branch fell from the Olmsteads’ tree. The Court held that a property owner has no duty to consistently and constantly check all trees for nonvisible decay. Rather, the decay must be readily observable in order to require a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent harm. If visible evidence of decay is present, the failure to inspect won’t be a defense.

We don’t think you’re quite correct on your mention of “constructive notice.” “Constructive notice” means the neighbors reasonably should have known. It’s much like if your sitting in your windowless cube at the office, and you see 10 co-workers get off the elevator, shaking water off umbrellas and removing water-spotted raincoats. You don’t have actual notice that it’s raining, but any reasonable person should be aware its probably raining just based on what you’ve observed. That’s constructive notice.

She's walking down the hall carrying a wet umbrella.  Might it be raining outside?

She’s walking down the hall carrying a wet umbrella. Might it be raining outside?

Your neighbors, on the other hand, probably had actual notice, which you would have if you wandered into the corner office and saw the rain falling outside the window. Because the neighbors’ tree experts had removed one side of a “y” prior to the tree falling, they undoubtedly saw the decay and heard the arborists’ report. They didn’t have to know that the tree has to be dead — just decaying in a manner so as to create a foreseeable risk.

If we were cynical, we’d suggest the neighbors’ insurance company is “gaming” you. Perhaps the adjusters figure that if it denies every claim presented, a few of the claimants – say four or so – will give up. Six will press on. By denying everything initially, the insurance company has cut its exposure from 10 claims to, say, six claims. No claims examiner gets promoted for paying claims, we might suggest. If we were cynics. Which we’re not.

Your local lawyer might want to collect a good, written report with photos from your certified arborist, add to it observations that the neighbors were on notice of the tree’s condition, and write to the neighbors’ insurance company. It would be good not to feed your lawyer before he or she contacts the carrier, so he or she is especially grumpy. If that doesn’t work, your avenue for relief is going to court. We would strongly urge you to use legal counsel rather than trying to represent yourself in small claims court. It’s not that we get a commission from referring you to counsel. If we did, we’d send you to our Uncle Fred (who’s a pretty good mouthpiece). But you already know the value of hiring people who know what they’re doing. You shouldn’t stop now.

You also asked about going after your landlady for not telling the neighbors they had a problem. That’s a fascinating question, one we’ll take up tomorrow.

Ivancic v. Olmstead, 66 N.Y.2d 349, 488 N.E.2d 72 (1985). Ivancic was working on his truck in the driveway of his parents’ home in Fultonville. Since 1970, Olmstead had owned and lived next door. A large maple tree stood near the border of the two properties, and its branches extended over the Ivancic land. During a heavy windstorm, an overhanging limb from the tree fell and struck Ivancic, causing him serious injuries. He sued, maintaining that the branches hanging over his parents’ property constituted trespass, and that the Olmsteads were negligent. The trial court refused to instruct on the trespass claim, but the jury found against the Olmsteads on negligence. The Olmsteads appealed.

Held: The verdict against the Olmsteads was reversed. The Court held that no liability attaches to a landowner whose tree falls outside of his premises and injures another unless there exists actual or constructive knowledge of the defective condition of the tree. Ivancic made no claim that the Olmsteads had actual knowledge of the defective nature of the tree, and presented no evidence that the Olmsteads had constructive notice of the alleged defective condition of the tree. None of the witnesses who had observed the tree prior to the fall of the limb saw so much as a withering or dead leaf, barren branch, discoloration, or any of the other indicia of disease which would alert an observer to the possibility that the tree or one of its branches was decayed or defective.

Tracy - watch the insurance adjuster's nose carefully while he or she explains that the tree was healthy.

Tracy – watch the insurance adjuster’s nose carefully while he or she explains that the tree was healthy.

The Court held that as to adjoining landowners, a property owner has no duty to consistently and constantly check all trees for nonvisible decay. Rather, the decay must be readily observable in order to require a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent harm. Ivancic’s expert surmised that water invaded the tree through a “limb hole” in the tree, thus causing decay and a crack occurring below. But he admitted that the limb hole was about 8 feet high and located in the crotch of the tree which would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to see upon reasonable inspection. Although, the Court said, there may have been evidence that would have alerted an expert that the tree was diseased, there was no evidence that would put a reasonable landowner on notice of any defective condition of the tree.

Thus, the fact that Mrs. Olmstead testified that she did not inspect the tree for over 10 years was irrelevant. On the evidence presented, even if she were to have inspected the tree, there was no indication of decay or disease to put her on notice of a defective condition so as to trigger her duty as a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent the potential harm.

As for the trespass, the Court held that the Olmsteads didn’t plant the tree, and the mere fact that they allowed what appeared to be a healthy tree to grow naturally and cross over into the Ivancic parents’ property airspace, could not be viewed as an intentional act so as to constitute trespass.

Case of the Day – Friday, March 27, 2015

A DUTY TO HECTOR?

nag150327Today, we continue our consideration of the problem posed by Tracy from Pinebark, New York. You recall Tracy’s problem from yesterday: the neighbor’s arguably dead tree fell on her car, crushing it. She and her husband are tenants, and her landlady’s insurance carrier won’t cover the damage because it says the tree was dead. The neighbors’ insurance company won’t cover because it says the tree was alive. Tracy’s arborist agrees with her landlady that the tree was quite dead, and the neighbors appear to have had actual knowledge from work done by a previous arborist they had hired that the tree was a hazard.

Yesterday, we discussed why Tracy’s local lawyer should argue that the neighbors are liable, no matter what their skinflint insurance carrier may say. But Tracy, who understandably is looking for as many deep pockets as she can find, has asked whether her landlady is liable as well, because she knew the neighbor’s tree was a hazard but she never informed the neighbor of that fact. And that raises a very interesting (and rather creative) question.

Once again, we warn Tracy that we are not New York lawyers, and we are not rendering legal advice. She should see her local attorney for that. That being said, there’s not much guidance in New York law for her problem. A landlord who holds her land open to the public is under a legal duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition. This duty is usually discussed in the context of landlords who don’t keep their premises secure against reasonably foreseeable criminal acts by third parties (locked doors, security cameras and the like). The duty “imposes a minimum level of care on landlords who ‘know or have reason to know that there is a likelihood that third parties may endanger the safety of those lawfully on the premises’.”

sign150327A landlord must anticipate the risk of harmful acts of third persons, adopting the duty of care set out in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 344: a landlord must exercise reasonable care to discover that such harmful acts are being done or are likely to be done, give an adequate warning, or otherwise protect the visitors against it.

Most of these principles address the landlord’s duty to warn tenants and invitees of harmful conditions. Even if this created a duty on the part of the landlord to warn Tracy and her husband that the neighbor’s tree might fall, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the landlady had a duty to Tracy that required her to tell the neighbors that they had a dangerous tree on their hands. We just can’t find any holdings that create such a duty.

One part of the reason might be the futility of it. Telling the neighbor that he has a danger tree on his land that might someday injure the landlord’s tenant doesn’t really get anyone anywhere, because the landlord is without any power to remove or trim the tree herself (it was well within the neighbor’s premises). The landlord might have sued the neighbor for maintaining a private nuisance, and may have won a judgment against the neighbor — especially after limbs fell from other trees last summer, causing damage to the landlord and the tenant — but the likelihood that the suit would have been successful is problematic.

Another part of the reason might be Palsgrafian causation. Just like Mrs. Palsgraf in the famous Long Island Railroad case, the causation link — the landlady’s failure to warn the neighbors led to the tree falling and the injury — is pretty tenuous.

A third problem lies in Tracy’s analysis of her status as a tenant. As a tenant, she has the exclusive right to possession of the property. If the landlady had a duty to tell the neighbor about a danger tree on the neighbor’s property, we would be very surprised if Tracy didn’t have as much of a right and duty as did the landlady to tell the neighbor about the tree. Likewise, we would be surprised if Tracy couldn’t have maintained the private nuisance action against the neighbor themselves to force removal of the tree. Generally speaking, having the right of possession of a piece of real estate is a powerful club, one which lets the possessor wield nearly as much power as does the titleholder. In this case, we suspect that Tracy herself had the power to do what she complains her landlady didn’t. And clearly, she had as much knowledge of the tree’s condition as her landlady did.

And that brings us to the final point. Tracy makes a compelling case that the neighbor knew all about the condition of the dead tree. Their agent, the tree surgeon, certainly knew as well, because he had removed a diseased bough, and that knowledge is imputed to the neighbor. If the neighbor had gotten a report from the arborist on which he refused to act, it’s pretty hard to argue convincingly that things would have changed if the landlady or Tracy had told him what he already knew: the tree was dangerous and should be removed.

Causation and foreseeability are often wrapped in the same package. In a New York case we’ll consider today, Mr. Fleury knew that his big ol’ apple tree was pretty close to the power line running to his house. Well, nature’s bounty — a really good apple crop — caused the tree to fall over partially, and the tree touched the wires. Mr. Fleury called the power company and said, “You need to fix this!” The power company said, “Nope, it’s your wiring from the transformer to the house. You fix it.” Mr. Fleury didn’t, and within about 10 days, the tree on the wires caused a short circuit.

appletree150327But, electricity being the capricious thing it is, it didn’t hurt Mr. Fleury. Instead, a “backfeed”  went through the transformer and down his neighbor’s lines, setting fire to the neighbor’s place 165 yards away. Should Mr. Fleury be liable? He would have been if it had burned his own house. The Court said it all depended on whether Mr. Fleury could reasonably foresee that his procrastination at getting the tree trimmed might have the effect it had.

How likely is it that a court find that the landlady’s failure to hector her neighbor about a tree the neighbor already knew was a hazard would foreseeably lead to Tracy’s car being crushed? Probably not very. Such a holding would open the floodgates, making homeowners everywhere liable to their invitees if they were deemed not to have nagged their neighbors sufficiently over conditions which the homeowner had no power to correct. For example, we live on a side street where a neighbor has a testosterone-driven teenage son. He speeds his old junker of a car dangerously up and down the street. If we get run down by the lad, would we be liable to a claim that we had been negligent because we never complained to the boy’s mother about the kid’s speed? It seems an awful lot like “blame the victim.”

Certainly, Tracy should ask her local lawyer about her claim against the landlady. But we think it’s a stretch the courts won’t buy.

Allstate Ins. Co. v. Fleury, Slip Copy, 2007 WL 1200137 (N.D.N.Y. Apr. 20, 2007). A fire took caused substantial damage to the Thaddeus Jastrzab residence. Allstate Insurance paid the Jastrzab claim, and then sued Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation and Jim Fleury, the next-door neighbor. It seems the fire started at the Jastrzab home, but it was caused by a “backfeed” from the NIMO transformer that fed both the Jastrzab and Fleury homes. Fleury had an apple tree that had grown near the lines for years without trimming. About 10 days before the fire, a large apple crop on the tree partially uprooted it, and caused a limb contact the electric wires feeding Fleury’s house. Fleury asked NIMO to fix it, but NIMO said Fleury owned the electric wires and was responsible for their upkeep. Fleury said he was concerned that the tree limb’s touching the wires might cause a fire, but he did nothing more after NIMO passed the buck.

fire150327After the Jastrzab fire, an investigation found that the backfeed was caused by a tree limb that touched the old-style two-wire system, forcing the wires into mutual contact. The contact energized the neutral line owned by NIMO, which dumped excess current through NIMO’s transformer and down the electric lines supplying the Jastrzab home. The electricity caused the grounding wire to overheat and arc onto Jastrzab’s roof. The fire was intensified by the fact that Jim Fleury’s home was not adequately grounded at the time, sending the electricity to look for a ground at the Jastrzab’s place. The trial court found that neither Fleury nor NIMO liable for the damages caused by the Jastrzab fire. Allstate moved for reconsideration.

Held:   Allstate loses. Allstate complained that the Court inaccurately applied the law of negligence and foreseeability to the facts in this case. It argued that the Court was wrong when it found that the fire at the Jastrzab residence was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of Fleury’s failure to remove the apple tree limb from his power lines. Allstate argued that the “precise occurrence” did not have to be foreseeable in order for liability to be imposed on Fleury. Fleury would have been liable if the fire started at his house, Allstate said, and therefore, liability should be imposed for the fire that started 165 yards away.
The Court disagreed. The proper focus of the inquiry is on the foreseeability of the risk. This is an essential element of a fault-based negligence cause of action because the community deems a person at fault only when the injury-producing occurrence is one that could have been anticipated. Further, the Court said, although virtually every untoward consequence can theoretically be foreseen “with the wisdom born of the event.” the law draws a line between remote possibilities, and those that are reasonably foreseeable because no person can be expected to guard against harm from events that are so unlikely to occur that the risk would commonly be disregarded. The precise manner in which the harm occurred need not be foreseeable, but, still, the Court held, liability does not attach unless the harm is within the class of reasonably foreseeable hazards that the duty exists to prevent. Here, no fire took place on the Fleury property. Instead, it started 165 yards away. No one reasonably foresaw that happening.

The law draws a line between remote possibilities and those that are reasonably foreseeable. Here, the probability that Defendant Fleury could have foreseen that the tree limb touching his power lines might create an electric backfeed fire that damaged the Jastrzab residence, was too tenuous and remote to permit recovery under a negligence cause of action.

Case of the Day – Monday, March 30, 2015

UNDER THE COTTONWOODS

We don't know him ... but he's reputed to be good at what he does.

We don’t know him … but he’s reputed to be good at what he does.

Anyone who has suffered through more than an hour of daytime television is familiar with personal injury lawyers’ ads. One of Ohio’s PI stars is Tim Misny, whose bald pate is immediately recognizable to any Buckeye State dweller with a TV set, along with his trademarked slogan, “I’ll make them pay.”

Tim cautions would-be clients that the slogan isn’t a guarantee. It’s too bad that Sara Burnett’s Colorado attorney – who was not Tim Misny, and for that matter, may not even have been bald – didn’t tell her as much. Sadly for her, after five years of litigation, she got nothing.

Sad for her, but not for the public, whose pain in the pocketbook is all too often forgotten. It seems that Sara and her friend Mackenzie went camping at a suburban Denver state park, just a pleasant July evening under the cottonwoods. Unfortunately for Sara, one of the cottonwoods she camped under picked that same night to shed a branch. A big branch. The falling limb demolished Sara’s tent and badly hurt her head and back. Fortunately, Mackenzie was able to drive both of the young women to the hospital.

For Sara, under the cottonwoods – unlike the book – did not have a happy ending.

For Sara, under the cottonwoods – unlike the book – did not have a happy ending.

Sara then embarked on a campaign to make the State of Colorado pay for her injuries. The State defended on the grounds that it was immune from suit.

The notion of governmental immunity, fully known as “sovereign immunity,” traces its origins from early English law. Back then, the sovereign – that is, the king – was deemed incapable of committing a legal wrong. Thus, his majesty (and by extension his entire government of officials, ministers, clerks and knaves) was immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution.

The doctrine survives today in the United States. The Federal government, all state governments and most political subdivisions thereof are immune from liability for the conduct of their officers, agents and employees acting within the scope of their employment. Unsurprisingly, there are exceptions, cases in which the government has permitted itself to be sued. A good example is the Federal Tort Claims Act, which permits certain types of actions (such as negligence) to be brought against Uncle Sam, subject to some limitations.

Colorado has a statute similar to the FTCA, known as the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act. Generally, courts require that statutes like the FTCA and CGIA be strictly construed in favor of the sovereign and may not be enlarged beyond the waiver its language expressly requires.

In Sara’s case, the Colorado Supreme Court observed at the outset that “governmental immunity is sometimes inequitable, but … governmental entities provide many essential services that unlimited liability could disrupt or make prohibitively expensive … The balance between these two competing interests ‘is for the legislature alone to reach’.”

The CGIA held that the State retains immunity for “an injury caused by the natural condition of any unimproved property.” This seems to pretty much slam the door of Sara claiming that a branch falling out of a tree should open the Colorado treasury to her. But her lawyer was crafty. He learned that the Park employees sometimes trimmed trees that required it. Thus, he argued, the trees ceased being in “natural condition” because the State altered that condition through incidental maintenance. Plus, because the State built the campsite next to and under the trees, those trees became “incorporated” into improved property.

Works in real estate ... for tort claims against the State – not so well.

Works in real estate … for tort claims against the State – not so well.

In a decision handed down last Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected Sara’s claims. Parsing the voluminous history of the CGIA, the Court concluded that the Act did not permit the “spatial analysis” she proposed. In other words, it doesn’t matter how close to the improved facilities an unimproved natural object – like a cottonwood – might be. What matters is what caused the injury. Here, it was a branch from an unimproved tree in its natural condition. Its location next to a campground did not alter its natural state.

For that matter, neither did the State’s occasional cleanup of that tree and others like it when dangling limbs caused Park employees to trim and haul away detritus. The State had no duty to do so, the Court said, and the fact that it may trim on a volunteer basis did not convert what was not a duty into a legal obligation.

The Court’s decision is a interesting tutorial on governmental immunity, and on the balancing of competing interests in making unimproved land available for recreation and protecting the public from hazards created by governmental action. As well, it’s a reminder that sometimes, no lawyer is good enough to “make them pay.”

Burnett v. Dept. of Natural Resources, Supreme Court Case No. 13SC306, 2015 CO 19 (March 23, 2015), slip opinion. One summer night, Denver area residents Sara Burnett and Mackenzie Brady were camping at suburban Cherry Creek Park. The pair chose a campsite which included a utility hookup, a parking area, a picnic table, and a level dirt pad, pitching their tent under a canopy of four mature cottonwood trees that flanked the campground. Early the next morning, while Burnett and Brady were sleeping inside their tent, a tree limb from one of the cottonwoods fell on their tent. The blow seriously injured Sara. Mackenzie suffered minor injuries, but was able to drive Burnett to the hospital.

Due to the density of the canopy, Park employees who subsequently investigated the accident could not determine the source of the fallen tree limb.

Sara sued the State of Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation for negligence. She relied on section 24-10-106(1)(e) of the Colorado Government Immunity Act to argue that the Park was a “public facility” and the branches overhanging the campsite constituted a “dangerous condition” of it. The State moved to dismiss, asserting sovereign immunity under a separate provision of the CGIA, by which a public entity retains immunity for “an injury caused by the natural condition of any unimproved property.” The parties agreed that the improved campsite was a “public facility” under the CGIA, and that the trees adjacent to it originated on unimproved property.

The trial court applied Rosales v. City & County of Denver, 89 P.3d 507, 510 (Colo. App. 2004), determining that the sole issue was whether the trees adjacent to Sara’s campsite constituted a “public facility.” The trial court conducted a two-part Rosales analysis, concluding that the trees were not integral or essential to the campsite and thus could not constitute part of a “public facility” under § 24-10-106(1)(e). The court of appeals agreed, holding as well that because the trees were a “natural condition of … unimproved property,” § 24-10-106(1)(e) precluded Sara’s suit.

The suburban Denver state park where the mishap occurred.

The suburban Denver state park where the mishap occurred.

Sara appealed to the Supreme Court of Colorado.

Held:  The State is immune from liability under the CGIA.

In the CGIA, a public entity waives its immunity to suit for an injury arising from a “dangerous condition of any .. public facility located in any park” it maintains. But the public entity retains immunity for injuries “caused by the natural condition of any unimproved property, whether or not such property is located in a park …” Therefore, the Supreme Court said, “irrespective of what constitutes a public facility, the government retains immunity here if the tree at issue falls within the ambit of the natural condition of unimproved property limitation.”

The CGIA does not define “natural condition of any unimproved property.” Sara argued that, the trees were in their “natural condition” until the State altered their condition through incidental maintenance. Plus, because the State built the campsite next to and under the trees, the State “incorporated” the trees into improved property. Therefore, she argued, the trees ceased to be a natural condition of unimproved property. The State, on the other hand, reasoned that where trees are native flora to property, their character as a “natural condition of unimproved property” remains regardless of incidental maintenance or their proximity to improvements on the land.  Because the statute lacked a definition, the Court looked at the substantial amount of CGIA legislative history.

Prior to 1971, Colorado had no governmental immunity statute. Rather, immunity existed only as a court-made doctrine. That year, the Colorado Supreme Court “held that judicially imposed sovereign immunity was inappropriate and abolished such immunity at every level of government.” The legislature responded the next year with the CGIA.Fourteen years later, municipal insurance rates had skyrocketed. In response, the General Assembly rewrote the statute to afford the government greater protection against liability. A report supporting the amended law illustrated the legislative intent: first, it distinguished between dangerous conditions arising from man-made objects and natural objects; second, it explained that immunity should turn on the precise mechanism of the injury; third, it expressed the intent to exempt public entities from a duty to maintain any natural conditions; and fourth, it stated the policy goal of encouraging public entities to make unimproved, government-owned property open to the public without exposing those entities to the expense of defending claims brought by people injured while using the property.

Cottonwoods in the park ... If you know cottonwoods, you know how they like to shed.

Cottonwoods in the Park … If you know cottonwoods, you know how they like to shed.

Based on the CGIA’s legislative history, the Court concluded that “the legislature intended to retain immunity for injuries caused by native trees originating on unimproved property regardless of their proximity to a public facility …”  Applying its interpretation to this case, the Court concluded that because a branch from trees originating on unimproved property caused Sara’s injuries, the natural condition provision of the CGIA precludes her suit. As for Sara’s argument that the statute can be interpreted that the State waives immunity for injuries caused by natural objects that are contiguous to improved property, the Court concluded that nothing in the legislative history indicated that the General Assembly intended the “spatial analysis” for which she was advocating. A rule that a public entity waives immunity for injuries that are caused by natural conditions and occur on improved property would create “a literal line drawing problem,” requiring courts to adopt an arbitrary rule to determine when natural objects – such as trees – sit on improved property and when they do not. The Court tersely noted, “We are not at liberty to create this third category.”

Because the CGIA retains immunity for injuries caused by a “natural condition of … unimproved property,” immunity turns on the mechanism of Sara’s injuries, not her location when the injuries occurred. The Court found that the cottonwoods bordering Sara’s campsite were “native vegetation of the unimproved property,” and the branch at issue fell from one of those cottonwoods. “Thus,” the Court held, Sara’s “injuries were caused by a natural condition of unimproved property, such that the natural condition provision precludes her suit.”

In reaching that holding, the Court rejected Sara’s argument that the State altered the natural condition of the trees by having previously pruned them. “Under the CGIA,” the Court ruled, “the State did not have any duty to prune the limbs, nor did it assume a duty to continue to prune them once it chose to do so … An assumed duty would be contrary to the public health and safety, as it would discourage the State from undertaking any pruning whatsoever.” The Court refused to create a rule “that would transform natural conditions of unimproved property into improved property where, for the public health and safety, a public entity performs such incidental maintenance.”

In what was little more than a footnote at the end of the decision, the Colorado Supreme Court observed that “the trial court and court of appeals relied upon the two-part analysis delineated in Rosales … first, was the tree an “integral” part of the public facility …” and “second, was the tree “essential” for the public facility’s intended use?” Noting that “these questions do not originate in the CGIA,” the Court overruled its 11-year old Rosales rule.

The Court admitted that Sara’s “injuries are tragic,” but it concluded that “eliminating governmental immunity in this case would only compound the tragedy by sidestepping legislative intent and providing a disincentive for the government to facilitate access to public lands.”

Case of the Day – Tuesday, March 31, 2015

SHOOTING THE MESSENGER

celltree150330Today’s case has nothing to do with trees, unless you count those awful faux-tree cellphone towers many cities are requiring cellphone carriers to erect. While not arboriculture related, today’s decision illustrates the danger of stretching causation, a risk that has reared its ugly head in tree liability cases before (as well shall see tomorrow).

Captain Robert Johnson was a jailer at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. As a correctional officer, Mr. Johnson was responsible for seizing cell phones and other contraband from inmates.

In March 2010, an assailant entered Mr. Johnson’s home and shot him six times in the chest and stomach. His wife, Mary Johnson, witnessed the attack. Mr. Johnson survived but underwent many surgeries and months of rehabilitation.

The U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina concluded after a thorough investigation that a group of inmates ordered the attack in retaliation for Mr. Johnson’s confiscation of their contraband cellphones and other goods. The U.S. Attorney found that an unnamed inmate had used a cellphone to communicate with the shooter, Sean Echols. That inmate also paid Echols. Echols eventually pled guilty to conspiracy to use interstate facilities in murder-for-hire under federal law.

This is where the case begins to provide a lesson for those of us interested in negligence. One would think that the wrongdoers would be sued – the conspirators, the shooter – but the Johnsons knew full well that the inmates didn’t have anything, and the shooter, who’s now serving 20 years, was unlikely to have much of a pocketbook, either. The challenge for the Johnsons’ attorney was to find someone with a deep pocket.

palsgraf150330He found someone (or several someones). Let’s shoot the messenger, or – in this case – the people who owned the medium used to delivered the conspirators’ messages. Using a “but for” analysis that would have impressed Mrs. Palsgraf, the Johnsons’ lawyer figured that but for the fact that cellphone towers were located near the prison, there wouldn’t have been any cellphone calls from the prison, and thus, no one could have called the shooter to importune him to shoot Capt. Johnson. For that matter, without cellphones, the prisoners wouldn’t have been stirred up to begin with.  So who should we sue?  The cellphone companies, of course, as well as the guy who owns the land the cell towers are sitting on, just for good measure.

Of course, this kind of attenuated reasoning is what makes fat people sue McDonalds for selling Big Macs (no Big Macs, no temptation, no overeating, no fat people), or why a man sued Walmart because a plastic bag of groceries split in the parking lot, a can of LaChoy fell on his wife’s foot, the foot became infected and she died. Really.

It’s too bad Capt. Johnson got shot, and we’re glad he recovered. But to conclude that cell carriers should pay is to stretch causation to the absurd. We blame the Johnson’s lawyer, who should have known better.

Johnson v. American Towers, LLC, Case No 13-1872 (4th Cir., Mar. 25, 2015).  Robert Johnson, a prison guard in Bishopville, South Carolina, was shot multiple times in his home. The ensuing investigation revealed that the attack was ordered by an inmate at the prison where Mr. Johnson worked, using a contraband cell phone. Mr. Johnson survived the attack and, with his wife, later brought suit. The Johnsons did not, however, sue the typical defendants – the shooter, a prison inmate or an employee. Rather, the Johnsons sued several cellular phone service providers and owners of cell phone towers, seeking to recover under state-law negligence and loss of consortium theories. The Johnsons alleged that the cell providers “were aware of the illegal use of cellphones by inmates using signals emitted and received at the defendants’ towers” and that “this use created an unreasonable risk of harm.” According to the Johnsons, the defendants failed to take steps to curb illegal cellphone use.

In the district court’s view, “the Johnsons’ argument suggests only a desire to conduct a fishing expedition to determine if there is any factual basis for asserting claims against any Defendants … This is not enough.”  Thus, the trial court dismissed the case on several technical issues, the most significant of which was that the complaint, even if true, could not make the cellphone companies liable.

The Johnsons appealed.

messenger150330Held:  The Johnsons’ claims fail due to the “speculative nature of their allegations.”

The Court of Appeals reviews rulings on motions to dismiss de novo, accepting all the factual allegations in the complaint as true, and drawing all reasonable inferences in the Johnsons’ favor.

Even reviewing the lower court’s decision according to this relaxed standard, the Court concluded that “the Johnsons have failed to allege sufficient facts to set forth a plausible claim for relief.” A complaint must be dismissed if it does not allege enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. A properly pleaded complaint must offer more than “’naked assertions’ devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.’” A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. In other words, a complaint must include “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.”

The Johnsons’ complaint contained the bare assertion that “an inmate at the prison using a cellphone ordered a coconspirator outside of the prison to kill Captain Johnson.” The Fourth Circuit held that the Johnsons had failed to offer “any further factual enhancement to support their claims against the Defendants. For example, the Johnsons’ complaint does not identify the wireless service provider who carried the alleged call or when the alleged call occurred. Without more factual allegations, it is impossible for a district court to assess the Johnsons’ claims.”

The Court said that the complaint would leave the cellphone carriers unable to determine whether it carried the alleged call without more identifying information.

The appellate court said that the Johnsons were free to file a new lawsuit if they could come up with additional information, because the district court dismissed the complaint without prejudice. However, “as currently drafted … the complaint resembles a prohibited fishing expedition rather than a properly pleaded complaint.”

TNLBGray140407

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