Cases from October 2014

Case of the Day, Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN – AND THAT’S DIFFERENT

Poster140306Time was, trees were just trees, and what they did, how they lived, grew and died, was out of the control of the property owner.  No one blamed little Francine Nolan if the tree growing in Brooklyn fell on a Sabrett’s cart.

About the time little Francine was living in her Williamsburg tenement, an influential group of judges, scholars and lawyers in Philadelphia formed an organization known as the American Law Institute. They believed, among other things, that they could write comprehensive treatises about all areas of the law – which they called “Restatements” – that would serve as authoritative statements of the principles of common law. No more confusion, no more divergence of holdings, no more contentious arguments! You can just about hear the group, lemonades hoisted (this was during Prohibition, after all), singing “We Are the World.”

I hear the ALI singing ...

I hear the ALI singing …

Alas, Prohibition failed, and so did the ALI’s goal of replacing all of those tedious casebooks and treatises with the Restatement of the Law. Everyone loved the Restatements, but far from replacing state common law, case reporters and codes of statutes, the volumes became just another secondary source. To be sure, some of the ALI members never really thought an entire law library could be replaced with one shelf of Restatements, notably Benjamin Cardozo. He believed that the Restatement “will be something less than a code and something more than a treatise. It will be invested with unique authority, not to command, but to persuade.”

The Restatement of the Law continues today, with some volumes in their third printing. And courts love them, even if they don’t always follow them.

Today’s case is a good example. When the Browns’ tree fell on Ms. Barker’s property, it made a mess. She sued her neighbors, arguing that they should have recognized that the tree is at risk of falling, and done something about it. The Browns pointed out that no less persuasive source than the Restatement (Second) of Torts said that they weren’t responsible for the natural condition of trees on their property. The trial court agreed, and threw the case out.

The appellate court disagreed. It rejected the Restatement approach as being outdated and not sufficiently attuned to the differences between urban and rural life. In other words, the Court said, if a tree grows in Brooklyn, little Francine had better keep her eye on it.

Francine - be careful that tree doesn't fall on the hot dog vendor's cart.

Francine – be careful that tree doesn’t fall on the hot dog vendor’s cart.

Barker v. Brown, 236 Pa.Super. 75, 340 A.2d 566 (Pa.Super. 1975). Virginia Barker’s property adjoins that of the Browns. Both are located in a residential district of State College. A large tree stood on the Browns’ property, a tree which Barker said the Browns knew or should have known was in a decayed, rotting and dangerous condition. Barker alleged that the Browns negligently failed to take steps to avert the danger and, as a result, the tree fell onto her property.

The tree’s fall destroyed two of Barker’s trees, valued at about $600 each. Barker had to have the fallen tree removed from her property at a cost of $147.50, and the process required her to miss two days of work, causing lost wages of $34.00.  Finally, the incident caused a loss of value of Barker’s property in the amount of $600.00.

The trial court threw out the case on the grounds that section 363 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965) precluded holding the Browns to blame. That section provided:

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

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

Held: The appellate court reinstated the lawsuit.

The court held that the Restatement’s distinction between natural and artificial conditions – which had never been the focus of prior Pennsylvania court decisions – was outdated. “It may very well be true,” the Court said, “that the distinction between artificial and natural conditions was valid in a time when landowners were possessed of, and hence would have been charged with the care of large quantities of land. It would still be valid today in rural areas where large landholdings are common. [However], we do not believe that the distinction should be applied to land in or near a developed or residential area. Urban living, by altering the purpose for which the land is used, must also bring with it certain responsibilities. A tree growing in an urban or residential area does not have the same natural relation to surrounding land as a tree located in a rural setting.”

Basswood140306While acknowledging that its approach imposed more cost on landowners, the Court nevertheless believed that “the relatively minor expenditures in time and money that it will take to inspect and secure trees in a developed or residential area is not large when compared with the increased danger and potential for damages represented by the fall of such a tree.”

The Court thus held that a possessor of land in or adjacent to a developed or residential area was subject to liability for harm caused to others outside of the land by a defect in the condition of a tree thereon, if the exercise of reasonable care by the possessor would have disclosed the defect and the risk involved, and repair would have made the tree reasonably safe.

In this case, the Court held, Barker alleged in her complaint that the Browns “knew, or should have known, that the said tree was in a decayed, rotting, and dangerous condition.” This is denied by the Browns, but for purposes of this appeal, the Court had to accept the facts alleged in Barker’s complaint as true. On remand, it noted, the question would be one for the fact finder.

TNLBGray140407

 

Case of the Day, Thursday, October 2, 2014

TAKE A LITTLE OFF THE SIDES

The Massachusetts Rule is the original dose of self-reliance, holding that a landowner has an absolute right to trim back overhanging branches and encroaching roots of his or her neighbor’s tree. But even in Massachusetts, sometimes people may get carried away.

There's a lot of bad trimming going on out there ...

There’s a lot of bad trimming going on out there ...

The O’Malleys had planted and nurtured nine rather rare (for Massachusetts) false cypress trees on their land, using them to form a natural screen between their home and Ruhan’s place next door. The trees were about 15 to 20 feet tall. Along came Ruhan’s landscaper, who apparently knew about the Massachusetts Rule in a crude sort of way. He trimmed the false cypress trees back to the property line and then some, sawing them right down to the trunks on Ruhan’s side of the trees. The court said that the trees continued to survive and even to serve as a screen, but that their “aesthetic integrity” had been compromised by the negligence of Ruhan’s agent. That’s legalese for “the trees looked like hell.”

In the battle of the experts, the O’Malleys leapt to an early lead. Their arborist expert witness testified that replacement of the trees would cost about $14,000. Ruhan’s expert didn’t testify as to the cost of cleaning up the damage, but instead suggested that the trees were still growing and still screening the O’Malleys, so the shaving of one side of the trees didn’t really harm anything. The Court disagreed with Ruhan, finding that loss of aesthetic integrity was indeed damage, regardless of whether the trees still grew or not. And because Ruhan’s expert hadn’t put in any evidence challenging the O’Malleys’ estimate of $14,000 to replace the trees, that number was the best evidence the Court had to go on.

expert The lesson is that the expert should have covered all the bases: he or she should testify that there was no loss, but if there was, it would only cost an amount certain to repair. If you don’t give the court your own evidence, you can hardly blame the judge for using the other side’s. And a curious note: the Court of Appeals suggested that the whole notion of whether Ruhan was entitled under the Massachusetts Rule to trim all the way to the trunk wasn’t necessarily settled, but because he didn’t raise the question on appeal, the Court couldn’t consider it.

O’Malley v. Ruhan, Not Reported in N.E.2d, 2006 Mass.App.Div. 174, 2006 WL 3501553 (Mass.App.Div. 2006). The O’Malleys sued Ruhan after his landscaper pruned the branches of their nine false cypress trees — 15 to 20 feet tall each — back to the trunks of the trees, rendering the trees permanently lopsided. The trial court held that the value of the trees, although they survived, was equal to their replacement cost, and awarded the O’Malleys $14,007. Ruhan appealed.

When trimmed too vigorously, trees can become less aesthetically pleasing.

When trimmed too vigorously, trees can become less aesthetically pleasing … or just look like hell.

Held: The O’Malleys were entitled to recover the replacements costs for the false cypress trees. O’Malley’s arborist expert opined that replacement costs totaled $14,007.00. Ruhan did not object to that expert’s testimony, including to his opinion as to replacement cost. In absence of objection, the Court said, the expert’s testimony was to be accorded appropriate evidentiary weight. Ruhan’s expert, on the other hand, apparently testified in essence that the mutilation of the trees did not diminish the value of O’Malley’s property at all, that is, that Ruhan’s negligence caused no harm of any kind to O’Malley.

Because the trial court found that harm had been caused, the Court said, that issue was decided. The only issue was the amount of damages. The Court held that it would be appropriate to award damages based on the value of the timber, on diminution in the value of the property, or for the reasonable costs for restoring the property to its original condition. Observing that courts throughout the country have placed a greater emphasis on the rights of a property owner to enjoy the aesthetic value of trees and shrubbery, notwithstanding the fact they may have little commercial value, the Court held that when trees are destroyed by a trespasser, “sound principle and persuasive authority support the allowance to an aggrieved landowner of the fair costs of restoring his land to a reasonable approximation of its former condition, without necessary limitation to the diminution in the market value of the land.” Because the amount awarded by the trial court was based on the only damages figure in evidence, it was reasonable.

Interestingly enough, the appeals court made reference to the Massachusetts Rule first enunciated in Michalson v. Nutting. The Court observed that while it is the law in Massachusetts that a neighbor has the right to remove so much of a neighbor’s tree as overhangs his property, “[e]xplication of the parameters of this right, though, is as scarce as palmetto palms on Cape Cod. Presumably, the right is one that must be exercised in a reasonable manner.” But, the Court noted, whether Ruhan was within his rights or not under the Massachusetts Rule was not raised on appeal, so the Court didn’t decide it.
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Case of the Day, Friday, October 3, 2014

WRONGFUL TREES


camelnose141003For all of the Latin phrases, hidebound traditions and libraries full of precedent, the law at its essence is nothing more than a codification of policies generally accepted by society. The law doesn’t always get it right – some laws aren’t carefully drafted, others do exactly what the legislature intended but pursue foolish or even repugnant policies – but by and large, the law tries to lay out rules for conduct based on policies generally accepted to be important.

Keeping an eye on the prize – the societal goals to be achieved – often helps courts from going overboard. It’s how the camel’s nose can be allowed into the tent without getting the whole camel in the process.

A good example of this is the “wrongful life” lawsuit. States all allow a “wrongful death” action, in which the survivors of someone killed, say, in a car accident or from medical malpractice sue for damages. This makes good sense. But in the last decade or so, some “wrongful life” suits have been brought, where – for example – a physician misdiagnoses, and tells prospective parent that their fetus is healthy, but the doctor is wrong. The child is born with severe birth defects. The “wrongful life” suit claims that but for the physician’s negligence, the child would have been aborted.

Very few courts have permitted such a lawsuit, for several very good public policy reasons. The first is that society does not recognizes, as a matter of policy, that anyone is better off not having been born, no matter how severe the burdens of congenital disability. Second, the whole idea of tort law is to place the injured party in the same position as he or she would have been in had the negligence not occurred. But for the negligence, the injured party wouldn’t have been born. What can be done to put a living plaintiff in that position, or ­for that matter, to compensate for having been born instead of never being?

And what would have made Ms. Lewis happy?  Perhaps if the Krussels had only clearcut their property ...

And what would have made Ms. Lewis happy? Perhaps if the Krussels had only clearcut their property …

All right, that’s pretty heady stuff, but what does that have to do with tree law? Simply this: in today’s case, the plaintiff, Ms. Lewis, suffered having neighbors Gary and Nancy Krussel’s tree fall on her house. Her suit simply claim this: the tree fell on her house, the neighbors knew that they had a tree, therefore, the tree was a nuisance, and the neighbors were negligent in not keeping the tree from falling on the house. There was no evidence the Krussels had any inkling this particular hemlock was going to fall. There was no evidence any reasonable person would have had such an inkling. In fact, there was no evidence the tree was diseased or damaged. Reduced to its essence, Lewis’s claim was that the tree existed and the tree later fell, and those facts made it a nuisance. The tree was alive, the argument seems to say, and that fact wronged Ms. Lewis.

Fortunately, the Washington state courts made short work of this claim. Ms. Lewis was trying to advance a negligence claim as a nuisance claim, probably because she had no evidence of negligence. But, the courts ruled, public policy was not ready to declare a tree a nuisance merely because it was growing, nor was it prepared to hold that property owners were liable for what became of any naturally-growing, healthy trees on their land.

Without keeping one eye on public policy, the courts’ development of the law might go like this: First, landowners are responsible for damage caused by trees on their property that are diseased or damaged, and about which condition they are actually aware or reasonably ought to be aware. The next step would be courts ruling that owners must inspect their trees to avoid liability. Finally, landowners would be strictly liable for any damage caused by their trees, whether they were aware of a problem or not.

camelnose140310Largely, the law has stopped short of such a draconian rule, because the courts recognize that public policy favors the natural growth of trees, and eschews requiring property owners to devote substantial time and money to inspect trees, where there is no concomitant benefit to the public. By and large, courts have enough policy sense to let the camel’s nose into the tent while keeping the rest of the dromedary outside.

It is this kind of analysis that is illustrated in today’s case.

Lewis v. Krussel, 101 Wash.App. 178, 2 P.3d 486 (Ct.App. Wash. 2000). During a windstorm, two large healthy hemlock trees fell on Dawn Lewis’s house. She sued Gary and Nancy Krussel, who owned the property on which the trees had been growing.

Krussel acknowledged that windstorms had knocked down other trees on his property and other property nearby in previous years. About a week after the windstorm at issue here, another windstorm knocked a tree onto his mother’s mobile home. But the trees that damaged the Lewis house were natural growth, and Krussel had no reason to believe that they were any more dangerous than any other trees on his property under normal conditions. After the damage to the Lewis house, Krussel cut down other hemlock trees located near his house upon the recommendation of the local utility district.

After Lewis sued for nuisance and negligence, Krussel moved for summary judgment. He supported the motion with evidence from a professional forester who inspected the stump of one of the fallen trees and found no evidence of rot. The forester concluded the tree that fell on the Lewis house was no more dangerous than any other tree standing on the Krussels’ property, and there was no way for the Krussels to determine beforehand whether any one of their trees would fall over. The trial court dismissed the Lewis claim, and Lewis appealed.

Held: The appeals court upheld the dismissal of Lewis’s claim.

Sure Ms. Lewis's house was crushed ... but gravity did not turn  the healthy tree that toppled onto her roof into a nuisance.

Sure Ms. Lewis’s house was crushed … but gravity did not turn the healthy tree that toppled onto her roof into a nuisance.

A homeowner is not obligated to remove healthy trees because they might topple in a storm. The Court of Appeals said just because a negligence claim was disguised as a nuisance suit didn’t mean that the trial court had to consider it as such. Instead, in situations where the alleged nuisance is a result of what is claimed to be negligent conduct, the rules of negligence are applied.

The elements of a negligence cause of action, of course, are (1) the existence of a duty to the plaintiff, (2) a breach of the duty, and (3) injury to plaintiff flowing from the breach of duty. An owner of property located in an urban or residential area who has actual or constructive knowledge of defects affecting his or her trees has a duty to take corrective action. However, the same is not the case when the tree is healthy. In that case, the owner does not have a duty to remove healthy trees merely because the wind might knock them down.

In this case, the Court agreed, there was no evidence that Krussel had any reason to believe that the hemlock trees posed a hazard, and a professional forester who had inspected the stump of the fallen tree had found that the tree was free of defects. The mere possibility of harm does not mean probability of harm.

TNLBGray

 

Case of the Day, Monday, October 6, 2014

A “READILY APPARENT” THUMP

journeyends140312Those punsters at Despair, Inc., perhaps put it best: a very long journey can sometimes end suddenly, and rather badly.

Howie Conine should have had the Despair, Inc., “Ambition” poster on his wall, where he could have contemplated its message. He surely could empathize with the hapless salmon. He and his wife had their journey end one rainy day on Washington State Route 524 – suddenly and very, very badly. A redwood tree on County of Snohomish land, the hazardousness of which was “readily apparent,” fell on their car with a readily apparent thump.

The law of the jungle gives the poor king salmon no right of appeal, no habeas corpus, no forum for damages suffered when her trip upstream ends so precipitously in the jaws of an ursus arctus horribilis . Fortunately for the Conines, the law of Washington State was more hospitable after the tree fell onto their passing car (with them in it). If anything, it was a perfect storm for them: they possessed evidence that the dangerous condition of the tree was “readily apparent,” they were in a notoriously friendly plaintiff-friendly, and they had two defendants to choose from, both of which were governments and thus “deep pockets.”

But who to collect from? The State of Washington, that the Conines argued had a duty to keep the highways safe from falling trees, or the County of Snohomish, that the Conines averred had a duty to protect passers-by from dangers arising from trees on its land?

Well, this is America!  Land of the free and home of the litigious!  Why not sue both?  The Conines did just that.

angryjudge140312Unfortunately, they ran into an uncooperative trial court, one which held that neither Washington State nor Snohomish County had any obligation to inspect the trees along the road, even one with “this readily apparent hazard.” The trial judge threw the Conines out of court. They had a little more luck with the Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court decision and sent the matter back for trial on the merits.

Conine v. County of Snohomish, Not Reported in P.3d, 2007 WL 1398846 (Ct.App. Wash., May 14, 2007). Howard and Karen Conine were driving on State Route 524 when a red alder tree standing on an embankment on the west side of the road fell on their car. The tree had been located about 10 feet outside the State’s right of way on land owned by Snohomish County. The Conines sued the State of Washington for failure to maintain the state highways in a safe condition and the County for failure to remove an obvious hazard from its property.

The Conines’ arborist testified that during the 6-12 months immediately preceding the tree’s failure, the appearance of the tree should have given anyone looking at it notice that it was dead and decaying. The arborist said the tree was probably leaning 10 to 15 degrees downhill toward the road, and would have been in the highest risk category because of its condition and proximity to the road. The DOT’s maintenance technician who removed the tree after the accident said the tree “had been a live tree and that its root ball had come loose from the soil owing to the very wet conditions we had in January 2003.”

The trial court held that neither the State nor the County had a “duty to look for this readily apparent hazard.” The Conines appealed.

Held: The summary judgment was reversed. The State’s liability to users of a road is predicated upon its having notice, either actual or constructive, of the dangerous condition which caused injury, unless the danger was one it should have foreseen and guarded against. The Conines conceded that the State did not have actual notice, but they argued that the tree’s visibly dangerous condition created constructive notice. The Court found that the question to be answered was whether, for constructive notice, the State had a duty to look for a readily apparent hazard. Although the Washington Supreme Court had held in another case that where the tree was on a remote, mountainous, sporadically traveled road, a high threshold for constructive notice of danger was needed to trigger a duty to inspect and remove a dangerous tree. But here, the road was a state highway in a populated area, and the risk to the traveling public shifted the risk analysis. What’s more, in the other case, the Supreme Court found that the tree that fell was no more dangerous than any one of the thousands of trees that lined mountain roads. By contrast, the Conines’ expert testified that the tree that fell was obviously a hazard. The differences, the Court said, precluded a finding that the State lacked constructive notice as a matter of law. Constructive notice that a tree was dangerous gives rise to a duty to inspect. Thus, summary judgment was improperly granted on the basis of no duty to inspect.

treefalloncar140212The Conines also contended that Snohomish County faced liability as the landowner of the property upon which the tree stood, because the owner of land located in or adjacent to an urban or residential area has a duty of reasonable care to prevent defective trees from posing a hazard to others on the adjacent land. The County argued that it had no such duty, because the tree was a “natural condition of the land.”

The Court held that when the land is located in or adjacent to an urban or residential area and when the landowner has actual or constructive knowledge of defects affecting his trees, he has a duty to take corrective action. The area in question was next to the City of Lynnwood and zoned urban residential. Thus, it was urban in character. The Conines produced expert evidence that the subject tree was obviously dead or dying and leaning for two years, that it looked like a forked snag and that it lacked fine or scaffold branches. This evidence, the Court said, created an issue of material fact as to whether the tree was in a defective condition and the condition was of sufficient visibility and duration to give the County constructive notice of a potential hazard.

TNLBGray

Case of the Day, Tuesday, October 7, 2014

ROCK SOLID

The solid rock on which the many decisions on landowner liability for trees that fall on neighbors’ land, houses, cars and sundry possessions is the unremarkable notion that a landowner is not responsible for damage caused by the natural condition of the land. In other words, if it’s just a tree growing naturally on the property – and not some exotic species you saw on your last safari, and just had to plant in your backyard in scenic Bugscuffle, Tennessee – any damage it might cause by shedding its limbs or invading with its roots is pretty much an Act of God.

A monkey on Gibraltar ... but no monkeyshines at Gibralter Fire & Marine Insurance - the company wanted Mr. Griefield to pay.

A monkey on Gibraltar … but no monkeyshines at Gibralter Fire & Marine Insurance.  The company wanted Mr. Griefield to pay for the damage that his fallen limb had caused.

Or such was the case in 1946, when the Gibraltar Fire & Marine Insurance Co., tried to collect money from Mr. Griefield for damage his tree had done to its insured. Mr. Griefield told Gibraltar that it had rocks in its head if it thought he was liable for damage caused by a falling limb. But Gibraltar wasn’t monkeying around. It sued, claiming in essence that a landowner was liable whenever one of his or her trees caused harm to a neighbor.

The case didn’t involve questions of whether the tree was diseased, whether Mr. Griefield had a duty to inspect his trees, or whether any defects in the tree were readily apparent. Decisions refining a landowner’s duty – even where the tree is a natural condition of the land – were years in the future. Rather, today’s case established as rock solid the principle that a landowner has no obligation to trim or take other steps to limit the damages that a tree growing as a natural condition of the land might otherwise cause to a neighbor.

The Mississippi Supreme Court pondered the issue in 1946.  Because the decision – although written with some of the ruffles and flourishes typical of decisions of that era – is fairly short, we set it out in full:

Mr. Griefield's tree was a sturdy, natural, plain vanilla oak.

Mr. Griefield’s tree was  a sturdy, natural, plain vanilla oak.

Griefield v. Gibraltar Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 199 Miss. 175, 24 So.2d 356 (Sup.Ct. Miss. 1946). This action was begun by the appellee in a County Court and was there tried by agreement by the Judge without a jury, resulting in a judgment for the appellant, but which was reversed by the Circuit Court and a judgment was there rendered for the appellee. The case was tried in the County Court on an agreed statement of facts, which the Reporter will set out in full.

The test of the appellant’s liability vel non is whether the tree from which this limb overhung the land of the appellee’s assignors was of natural growth or had been planted by the appellant or a former possessor of her land. If the latter is the case, liability appears, 4 Restatement, Torts, § 839; Buckingham v. Elliott, 62 Miss. 296, 52 Am.Rep. 188; but if the former is the case the appellant is not liable, 4 Restatement, Torts, § 840, Comment (a). The former is the case here, for there is nothing in the agreed statement of facts to indicate that the oak tree was not of natural growth.

Perhaps an exotic balloon tree in your backyard?  Sure ... just remember, it's probably not a "natural growth" on the land.

Perhaps an exotic balloon tree in your backyard? Sure … just remember, it’s probably not a “natural growth” on the land.

The broad language of the opinion in Buckingham v. Elliott, supra, if given effect, would sustain the judgment of the Circuit Court, but when the authority of that opinion is limited, as it should be, to the issue then before the court, it will be seen that the judgment there rendered is not in conflict with the rule announced in 4 Restatement (Torts), § 840, for the trees there, the roots of which caused the plaintiff’s damage, were not of natural growth but had been planted of the defendant’s land. The appellant was under no obligation to the appellee’s assignors to remove the limb of the tree which overhung their land, and her gratuitous promise so to do was not binding on her, but the appellee’s assignors had the right at all times to themselves remove so much of the limb as overhung their land. 1 American Jurisprudence., Adjoining Landowners, § 56.

The judgment of the Circuit Court will be reversed and the judgment of the County Court will be affirmed.

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Case of the Day, Wednesday, October 8, 2014

THE GRASSHOPPER AND THE ANT

grasshopper140314Today, we consider the Vermont case of Stanley v. Stanley, a modern take on the grasshopper and the ant. It seems that 50 years ago, two brothers partnered up to buy some woodland. But only industrious brother George, a busy little worker ant, ponied up the cash for the place, paid the taxes, paid the rent, and managed the affairs of the woodland. Grasshopper John was too busy doing whatever grasshoppers do.

After about 45 years of this, ant George started getting tired of grasshopper John never paying his fair share. Ant George was out a lot of investment, and he decided it was time to pay it back. So he sold the timber on the land for about $46,000.

Suddenly, grasshopper John was very interested in the goings-on, and he sued ant George. But he didn’t just want half of the proceeds. Surely that would be unfair. Instead grasshopper John hires three wise old owls as expert witnesses, and they opine that the timber was really worth anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000. Plus, he retained the services of a crafty old lawyer, who told him he could get treble damages for ant George’s wrongful cutting of the timber (plus a legal fee for the fox).

foxylawyer140314The trial court suspected that John was more snake than grasshopper, but it nevertheless didn’t have much choice but award him half the value of the timber. The court selected the lowest of the various estimates given by the several owls who testified as experts, still awarding the grasshopper one half of the $61,785 value of the timber. The court refused treble damages.

The grasshopper was furious! He had been denied what was fair, namely all of it! He wanted the timber valued at $80,000, with his one-half share trebled to $120,000. Fortunately, the wise Supreme Court upheld the trial court, finding that treble damages for wrongful cutting don’t apply where one owner of the land — even if he’s an industrious ant — gives permission. Still, the ant lost $31,000 of his $46,000 to his brother, the grasshopper, whose investment had never amounted to a farthing.

grasshopperb140314The moral, boys and girls, is that a slothful existence and a good lawyer beats hard work and careful investment any day.

Stanley v. Stanley, 928 A.2d 1194 (Sup.Ct. Vt., 2007). Some 50 years ago, brothers John and George Stanley bought a perpetual lease of a 100 acre wooded lot in Victory, Vermont. Defendant George paid the entire purchase price, but the brothers owned the lot as tenants-in-common. From the beginning of their ownership, George paid the annual rent as well as property taxes when they were assessed.

In 1965, he received money from Portland Pipe Company for the right to lay pipe across the property. In the spring of 2002, he hired a logging contractor to harvest and sell the trees from the lot. The logging operations were completed that summer. George didn’t discuss the logging operation with plaintiff John until after it was completed. George figured that “since he had been paying all the expenses relating to the property, he should be able to make the decisions relating to the land.” George got $45,803.32 for the timber removed from the lot. When John learned that timber was being cut, he took pictures of the operation and tried to reach George — who had neither an iPhone nor broadband — without success.

John didn’t try to stop the logging, but after it was over, he sued his brother, seeking an accounting, partition, treble damages under 13 V.S.A. §3606, costs of the action and attorney’s fees. While he couldn’t afford to share the expense of the land with his brother, at trial, John apparently found his checkbook, presenting testimony from three experts on the value of the timber cut. Thomas Hahn, a private consulting forester, presented two different methods of determining the value of the timber cut from the property, the prevailing market price of a unit of wood in the summer of 2002 based on trade publications (using which he concluded that the value of the timber was $61,785.79), and the “timber cruising” or “sampling” method that would support a finding that the fair market value of the timber was $82,000. Stanley Robinson reviewed the logging contractor’s summary of mill slips and trip tickets, and Alan Bouthelier on his observations from visiting the property prior to the logging. The testimony of these two experts supported a finding that the fair market value of the timber cut was approximately $80,000.

woodpile140314The trial court refused to rely on Hahn’s “sampling” method, dismissing it as too speculative. Instead, it found that the fair market value of the timber cut was $61,785.79, and that plaintiff was entitled to half of this amount. It also ruled that the treble damage statute does not apply to actions between tenants-in-common for the sale of common property, and granted a request for partition. Following the hearing, George gave John $22,901.66, half of what he had been paid for the timber.

None of this being good enough for the rapacious John, he appealed.

Held: The trial court was affirmed. The Supreme Court held that Vermont’s timber trespass statute — which reads in part that if a person cuts down trees belonging to another person “without leave from the owner,” the injured party can recover treble damages — is plain and unambiguous. The Court said that the statute’s language presupposed that the injured party had ownership rights to the exclusion of the party from whom treble damages are being sought.

The statute is a punitive one, intending to deter intentional trespass and wrongful taking of another’s timber. Because George had an undivided ownership interest in the trees at the time of the logging, the treble damages statute simply does not apply. He simply was not among the intended targets of the statute, those “‘tree pirates’ and ‘arboreal rustlers’ who trespass on another’s property and remove timber to which they have no right.”

John also argued that the trial court erred when it held that the “timber cruising” or “sampling” method of determining the quality and quantity was too speculative. The Supreme Court held that because the trial court, after evaluating several different methods, relied on testimony of the expert as to one of the methods to determine the fair market value of the timber cut and sold, the Supreme Court would not second-guess it on whether it could have used an alternative method.

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Case of the Day, Thursday, October 9, 2014

THINGS ARE SELDOM WHAT THEY SEEM

Buttercup: Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers.

Captain: Very true,
So they do.

Things are Seldom What They Seem
(duet with Buttercup and Capt. Corcoran)
Gilbert & Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore

Pinafore140317So property rights are as dry as toast? Well, maybe, depending on whether it’s your ox that’s getting gored or not. Consider Marvin Brandt. This hard-working son of a hard-working lumberman is a Wyoming rancher. His father, who started in the 1930s as a lowly sawmill worker, ended up owning the place. Marvin worked at his Dad’s mill as a youth, and he ended up running the mill himself.

The year of our Lord 1976 was an important year. It was the America’s Bicentennial. Marvin bought the sawmill from his father. Congress repealed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. And Marvin bought a nice chunk of land for his sawmill – not to mention plenty of standing timber – from the U.S. Forest Service. He obtained it through a procedure known as a land patent, in which the Government deeds its rights in land to private property holders.

It was a pretty good deal, sold to Marvin without many restrictions. There was an easement for the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad, but that wasn’t much of a problem for him. Easements weren’t such an impediment, he thought. But then, things are seldom what they seem …

Buttercup: Black sheep dwell in every fold;
All that glitters is not gold;
Storks turn out to be but logs;
Bulls are but inflated frogs.

Captain: So they be,
Frequentlee.

The Union Pacific had tracks running through the property that Marvin bought. He wasn’t alone in this: some 30 other people bought Government land subject to the UP’s railroad right-of-way. The right of way originally was obtained by LHP&P in 1908, pursuant to the 1875 Act. The 200-foot wide right of way meanders south from Laramie, Wyoming, through the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, to the Wyoming-Colorado border.

An abandoned rail line, much favored for conversion to bike and hiking trials.  Justice Sotomayor darkly predicted in her dissent that the Brandt decision would wreak havoc on the rails-to-trails movement and cost millions in litigation.

An abandoned rail line, much favored for conversion to bike and hiking trials. Justice Sotomayor darkly predicted in her dissent that the Brandt decision would wreak havoc on the rails-to-trails movement and cost millions in litigation.

After the railroad line was abandoned, the Government claimed that the land underlying the old track bed had reverted to Uncle Sam.   The Washington bureaucrats had plans to turn the route into a hiking trail. When the Government sued to quiet title on the right-of-way, it named all 31 landowners as defendants. None of them owned more than 3 acres affected by the right-of-way, and none of them mounted a defense. They all threw up their hands, folded quietly, and let the U.S. of A> have its way.

Except Marvin.

Marvin may be one of your rugged Wyoming individualists. He may be ornery. But one thing was for sure – unlike the others, Marvin had over 85 acres affected by the old roadbed. Nearly a half-mile stretch of the right of way crossed Marvin’s land, covering ten acres of his parcel and affected 75 more. In other words, this wasn’t chump change.

The Government, as administrations of either political party are wont to do, tried to steamroll Marvin. The Feds claimed that the LHP&P had owned the land under its rails, subject only to a reversionary interest in the Government if it ever abandoned the line. Therefore, Uncle Sam claimed, when the tracks came out, ownership of the property reverted to the U.S. Forest Service.

The District Court agreed that the 1875 Act and the land patent were not models of clarity, but the Government won anyway. The Court of Appeals reversed. The Government, seeing its Golden Goose about to be slaughtered, appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supremes, by a resounding 8-1 decision, held that “things are seldom what they seem.” The right-of-way granted to the railroad might seem like a transfer of the land in fee simple, subject only to being returned to the Government if the rail line was abandoned. But it really was only an easement, meaning that the land patent to Marvin had transferred all of the ownership to him, subject only to the easement. When the easement vanished, the land was all his.

Marvin stood to lose a big chunk of land to the Government.

Marvin stood to lose a big chunk of land – a 200′ wide strip along the north-south road on the west side of his property – to the Government.

The Government’s insurmountable hurdle was its own cuteness. Back in the 1920s, the railroad had planned to drill for oil along the right-of-way (remember Teapot Dome?). The Government had opposed it, claiming that it owned the oil. The railroad, Uncle Sam claimed, only owned an easement. The land (and the wealth under it) belonged to the Feds. The case ended up in the Supreme Court, where the Government won.

But now, the Government argued that things aren’t what they seem to be, and – for that matter – what they seemed to be back in 1942. The Forest Service never owned the land under the railroad when it gave Marvin the land patent. Instead, the railroad did, and the Government didn’t get it back until well after it had sold the rest to Marvin. The 1942 decision must be wrong, to the extent it applied to anything other than oil rights. Thus, the railroad right-of-way reverted to the U.S. Forest Service in 1988, 12 years after the rest of the land was sold to Marvin.

The Supreme Court was not amused. Applying the ancient legal principle that “you dance with the one that brung ya,” the Justices ruled that the Government persuaded the Court in 1942 that the railroad right-of-way was just an easement, and it wasn’t going let the Government change its position now just because it suited it to do so. Alas, the Justice Department (and this is a fault that has belonged to predecessor administrations, Republican or Democrat) all too often has no compunction about changing its arguments for convenience when it should adhere to them for principle. This time, it didn’t work.

Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in an opinion that seemed peculiarly strained. Anxious to serve the back-to-nature folks who enjoyed Federally-funded hiking and biking trails, she argued that the 1942 case was only about subsurface rights – which seems to us to be a distinction without a difference – and, anyway, the Brandt decision would hurt the rails-to-trails movement and result in a lot of litigation as private landholders sought to get what was rightfully theirs. This may be so, but cost and inconvenience shouldn’t drive Supreme Court opinions. The law should.

So the right-of-way that the Government once said was an easement but now seemed be something else, really was just an easement … as it had been all along.

Buttercup: Drops the wind and stops the mill;
Turbot is ambitious brill;
Gild the farthing if you will,
Yet it is a farthing still.

Captain: Yes, I know.
That is so.


Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States
, Case No. 12–1173. (March 10, 2014): The General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 provides railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States,” 43 U.S.C. § 934. One such right of way, created in 1908, crosses land that the Government conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent stated that the land was granted subject to the right of way, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad relinquished those rights.

Little Buttercup was right - things are seldom what they seem ...

Little Buttercup was right – things are seldom what they seem …

A successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. The Government sought a declaration of abandonment and an order quieting its title to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch across the Brandt patent. Brandt argued that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished upon abandonment.

The district court quieted title in the government. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed.

It held that right of way was an easement that was terminated by abandonment, leaving Brandt’s land unburdened. The Court noted that that in Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 315 U. S. 262 (1942), the Government had argued a position – that the right-of-way was an easement, not a grant of ownership in fee simple subject to a reversionary interest – that was exactly opposite to its position in this case. In that decision, the Court found the 1875 Act’s text “wholly inconsistent” with the grant of a fee interest.

Thingsareseldom140317Now, the Government was asking the Court to limit Great Northern’s characterization of 1875 Act rights-of-way as easements to the question of who owns the oil and minerals beneath a right of way. But nothing in the 1875 Act’s text supports that reading, and the Government’s argument directly contravenes the very premise of Great Northern: that the 1875 Act granted a fundamentally different interest than did its predecessor statutes. Nor do the Court’s decisions in other cases support the Government’s position, and – to the extent that they could be read that way – the Court said clearly that any such implication did not survive its unequivocal statement to the contrary in Great Northern. Later enacted statutes, such 43 U. S. C. §§ 912 and 940, and 16 U. S. C. § 1248(c), do not define or shed light on the nature of the interest Congress granted to railroads in their rights-of-way in 1875. Instead, those statutes purport only to dispose of interests the United States already possesses.

The land patent Marvin Brandt obtained in 1976 included ownership of the land under the railroad company easement. When that easement was abandoned, Mr. Brandt obtained the exclusive right of possession to the land he already owned.

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Case of the Day, Friday, October 10, 2014

TOLD YOU SO

Perhaps we should use Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine ...

Perhaps we should use Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine …

Travel back into time with us … back, back, back to September 25th, when we solved the poor Mazda owner’s problem by determining that maybe, just maybe, his landlord was liable for injuries to the unhappy sport car enthusiast’s set of wheels. As in all cases, liability depends on the specific facts. That’s why there’s no substitute for a good local attorney.

While considering the RX-8 owner’s dilemma, we came across today’s case. A hospital was built back in the early 1970s. A landscape architect suggested sweetgum trees on the grounds. When the trees were planted, they seemed like a nice touch, an architectural exclamation point to the building. The sweetgum is a good-looking tree, but rather prolific in its production of sweetgum balls.

Times changed, more people were getting sick, and the hospital grew. So did the trees. When a parking garage was added in the 1980s, the designer told the hospital the trees should be removed because they dropped sweet gum balls that got everywhere and were a nuisance. The hospital refused. Someone in the administration apparently liked the trees.

Ten years later, a hospital visitor slipped on a sweet gum ball in the parking lot and fell, breaking her wrist. Lucky for her there was a hospital nearby. She didn’t feel lucky, however … rather, she felt aggrieved.  She therefore sued the hospital for negligence.  What else does an aggrieved person do?

The Court applied the reasonable care standard to the case, and found the hospital was negligent. Crucial to the decision was the fact that the parking lot designer had told the hospital years before that the trees were a nuisance, for the precise reason that led to Ms. Henderson’s injury. The hospital didn’t necessarily have to cut down the trees, the Court said, but it could have at least instituted a regular clean-up program to stay on top of the sweet-gum ball problem

Sweetgum's aborted seeds are rich in shikimic acid.Henderson v. St. Francis Community Hospital, 303 S.C. 177, 399 S.E.2d 767 (Sup.Ct. S.C. 1990). Ms. Henderson visited a friend who was a patient at St. Francis Hospital. As she was walking in the hospital parking lot to her car, she stepped on an accumulation of sweet gum balls, turned her foot and fell, breaking her wrist. The balls had fallen from a sweet gum tree planted in the parking lot. She fractured her wrist and sustained various bruises and abrasions.

The original parking lot of St. Francis was designed by CRS Sirrine, Inc. in 1969. The sweet gum trees were planted soon after that. In about 1982, Snoddy & McCulloch Associates, Inc. designed an addition to the parking lot, which had several levels or tiers. Snoddy & McCulloch recommended that the sweet gum trees be removed because they produced debris that would accumulate and become a nuisance. St. Francis refused to remove the trees, instead building a stairway next to one of them.

Sweetgum tree ... star of Fancher v. Fagella, making an encore appearance here.

Sweetgum tree … the star of Fancher v. Fagella makes an encore appearance in the St. Francis parking lot.

Henderson sued St. Francis, Sirrine and Snoddy & McCulloch, alleging negligent maintenance and negligent design of the parking lot. The jury returned a verdict against St. Francis and Sirrine, but the trial court reversed the jury, entering judgment n.o.v. in favor of the the defendants. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and Ms. Henderson took the matter to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Held: The Court reversed the judgment. It held that the Hospital was negligent, but not the parking lot designer or the landscape architects. The Court held that the evidence supported finding that the Hospital had been advised to remove sweet gum trees because the trees produced debris which created nuisance and maintenance problem. It didn’t, and thus was negligent in failing to provide reasonably safe conditions for its visitors and patients by not removing the trees or employing an adequate maintenance program. The Court said that although the operator of a parking lot is not an insurer of the safety of those who use it, it must nevertheless use reasonable care to keep the premises used by invitees in reasonably safe condition.

The idea is hardly novel – the New York court said it over a century ago in Gibson v. Denton – if you’re aware of the risk, you had better do something about it. Here, the Hospital had been warned that the trees required removal or regular care. Neither happened.

The degree of care to be exercised by a property owner must be commensurate with particular circumstances involved, including considerations like the age and capacity of the invitees who will be using the premises. For purposes of the measuring whether the Hospital discharged its duty, the “invitees” are the people who visit patients in the hospital and use the parking lot.

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Case of the Day, Monday, October 13, 2014

OUT IN THE FOREST WHERE I MIGHT BE EATEN BY A BEAR … 

 

bearontom141013We spent yesterday afternoon in the brisk October air. By the time dinner came around, we were hungry enough to eat a bear. If we could find a bear.

Of course, finding a bear’s only half the task. It is a profound truth of life that sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.   You might ask poor Tim Hilston (although your question will have to wait until the next life) …

Mr. Hilston understood the bipolar nature of life, or maybe just the literal truth of the expression. Back about the turn of the century (this century), Mr. Hilston was field-dressing an elk carcass when he became a carcass himself at the hands — the paws, maybe — of a couple of grizzly bears.

Kind of gory … but the story doesn’t end there. After all, this is America. Nothing happens anymore, even in the wild, without someone being to blame for it, and the late Mr. Hilston’s estate promptly sued the State of Montana for letting the bears kill Mr. Hilston. The State defended under the Montana Recreational Use Act, saying that wild and hungry bears were a “condition of the land” for which it was not responsible. Mr. Hilston’s descendants argued that the State’s allegedly lousy bear management had nothing to do with the land.

Popular media attribute the  "sometimes you eat the bear ..." line to the 1998 movie, "The Big Lebowski ..."

Popular media attribute the “sometimes you eat the bear …” line to the 1998 movie, “The Big Lebowski …”

The Court said ferae naturae — judges love to use Latin words, these meaning “wild animals” — were as much a condition of the land as a tree or a rock or a stump. Mr. Hilston’s tragic demise was not the State’s fault.

Estate of Hilston ex rel. Hilston v. State, 337 Mont. 302, 160 P.3d 507 (S.Ct. Mont., 2007).   Mr. Hilston was hunting elk in the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area “BCW”). Mr. Hilston shot an elk, and while he was field dressing the carcass, he was attacked and killed by grizzly bears. State and federal wildlife investigators captured the two grizzly bears responsible for the attack, a 12-year-old female and one cub, and killed them.

The BCW is located in the Blackfoot Valley about 45 miles east of Missoula on state and private land, and is open to public access free of charge. Mr. Hilston’s estate sued the State of Montana for negligent grizzly management. The State filed a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court held it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law under the Recreational Use Immunity Act. Hilston appealed.

... but "Preacher Roe," who pitched for 16 years in the major leagues until 1954, said it first.

… but “Preacher Roe,” who pitched for 16 years in the major leagues in the 40s and 50s, said it first.

Held: Grizzly bears are a “condition of the property” under the Recreational Use Immunity Act (§70-16-302, MCA). Hilston contended that the Act applied only to defects in property, and that that grizzly bear management in the BCW is not a “condition of the property” for which the Act grants immunity. The Court disagreed.

The Act provides that a landowner otherwise qualified under the terms of the Recreational Use Immunity Act owes no duty of care to a user “with respect to the condition of the property, except that the landowner is liable to the person for any injury to person or property for an act or omission that constitutes willful or wanton misconduct …” In this case, there was no dispute that the late Mr. Hilston was using state-owned land for recreational purposes, that his use of the property was gratuitous, and the alleged mismanagement by the State was not willful or wanton. The only question was whether the statute provides immunity for an attack by an indigenous wild animal on the property, and, derivatively, whether wild animals are a “condition of the property” for which a landowner owes no duty of care.

The rule of law is a landowner cannot be held liable for the acts of indigenous wild animals occurring on his or her property unless the landowner has actually reduced the wild animals to possession or control, or introduced a non-indigenous animal into the area. Grizzly bears are wild animals existing upon the property, and, as such, are a “condition of the property” for purposes of Montana’s Recreational Use Immunity Act.

Thus, the State of Montana owed no duty to protect Mr. Hilston from the grizzly bear attack that led to his unfortunate death, and the District Court correctly granted summary judgment for the State.

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Case of the Day, Tuesday, October 14, 2014

BEATING AROUND THE BUSHES

bush141014 When the phone company built a substation on Mr. Doelle’s land, he didn’t beat around the bush. He sued for trespass.

The phone company replied that it intended to take a corner of his place under the doctrine of eminent domain. The trial court agreed the phone company could do so, upheld Mr. Doelle’s claim of trespass and awarded $300 for the value of the land taken under eminent domain. In addition, the trial court granted Mr. Doelle an extra $400 for “shrubbery support.”

Sounds more like a divorce, doesn’t it? The idea was that Doelle could screen the substation from his view with a few strategically-placed bushes, and the money was to enable him to plant whatever he wanted.

Despite the trial court’s crafty decision, no one was happy. Doelle appealed the eminent domain, and the phone company appealed the “shrubbery support” award.

support141014The Court of Appeals cleaned things up. It upheld the trespass and the phone company’s right to take the property for the public good. It approved the $300 value for the land, but it reversed the “shrubbery support.” You see, Doelle had never asked for trees or shrubs to screen his view of the substation. The trial court has certain inherent powers to fashion an appropriate set of damages for the wrongs brought before it, but the “shrubbery support” award appeared to be based more on the trial court’s sympathy for Mr. Doelle’s visual plight than on any evidence.

Doelle v. Mountain States Tel. & Tel., 872 F.2d 942 (10th Cir. 1989). In this case (which primarily involved questions of easement and eminent domain), Doelle sued Mountain Bell for trespass, alleging it had put a substation on his property without his permission. Mountain Bell laid claim to a small portion of Doelle’s property in order to build and maintain a substation. Mountain Bell sued to have Doelle evicted from his property.

The trial court upheld the trespass but found that Doelle hadn’t been damaged. It also awarded Mountain Bell the claim the property for the common good, awarding Doelle $300 for the value of the land that was taken. The Court then awarded Doelle an additional $400 to install shrubbery to screen his view of the substation, thereby making the intrusion less onerous. Doelle appealed the eminent domain ruling, and Mountain Bell appealed the $400 in “shrubbery support.”

These are not the Bushes we are talking about.

These are not the Bushes we are talking about.

Held: The Court of Appeals upheld the trespass and Mountain Bell’s right to claim the property by eminent domain. However, it reversed the $400 shrubbery award to Doelle.

The Court noted that the Utah law of eminent domain does not provide for equitable damages. Rather, the trial court found authority to make the award entirely from its inherent power. Even assuming that the trial court had the equitable power to fashion an appropriate remedy, the Court of Appeals said, Doelle never sought equitable relief in the form of trees to screen his view of the substation nor presented evidence concerning the cost of planting trees. While a trial court’s award of damages will not be set aside unless it is clearly erroneous, an award must be based on reasonable inferences rather than on sympathy.  When damages cannot be fixed with desired certainty, the proof must be reasonable under the circumstances.

This damage award was not reasonable.

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Case of the Day, Wednesday, October 15, 2014

UTAH SWINGERS ISO PLACE TO PLAY

swinger140320Sounds like a Craigslist come-on, doesn’t it? But morals weren’t loose here, just one of the fittings on a swingset.

A little boy and his father were at a Salt Lake City park, where the boy was swinging on a “toddler swing.” He fell and hit his head on a concrete lip surrounding the swing.

His father sued the City for negligence — after all, he couldn’t get jurisdiction over Sir Isaac Newton to sue for negligent gravity — and the City raised as a defense the Utah Limitation of Landowner Liability-Public Recreation Act. That mouthful of an act is Utah’s recreational user statute, and was intended to encourage public and private owners to open unimproved parklands to the public without charge by protecting them from liability for natural conditions.

The trial court made short work of Dad’s lawsuit, holding that he was a non-paying user of the facilities and that the City thus owed his son no duty of care. But on appeal, the Utah Supreme Court reversed. The Supreme Court held that the City hadn’t opened the park in response to the legislature’s encouragement. Rather, the park was opened long before the recreational user statute passed. The governmental immunity act already permitted suing for a city for negligence because of conditions in the park.

The Utah Limitation of Landowner Liability-Public Recreation Act was not intended to apply to an improved city park already covered by other laws. Plus, the Utah Supreme Court said, despite the patchwork of decisions across the country as to what was improved and what was not improved land, it appeared that an improved city park — one that included a swingset apparatus like the kind on which the boy was injured — took the city park outside of the protections of the Utah recreational user statute.

An inherently dangerous undertaking?

An inherently dangerous undertaking?

This may seem to be a great win for a poor little kid with a concussion, but not much attention is paid to the losers. Those would be the taxpayers who fund the settlement that’s sure to follow, as well as everyone who will have one less place to go when the City – flummoxed by the confusing state of the law – finds it easier and cheaper just to close the parks.

De Baritault v. Salt Lake City Corp., 913 P.2d 743 (1996). Young Marc De Baritault was on the toddler swing at Laird Park is a city-owned park located in Salt Lake City. He fell and injured his head on a concrete ridge surrounding the play area.

His father sued on his behalf, arguing that City had designed, constructed and maintained the playground negligently. The City argued that because the boy was a recreational user of public lands held open without charge to the general public, the City had no duty toward him under the Utah Limitation of Landowner Liability-Public Recreation Act.

De Baritault argued the Act didn’t apply because its purpose was to encourage private landowners to open up their lands for public use. Although the Act was amended in 1987 to apply to both public and private landowners, De Baritault maintained the Act didn’t apply to Laird Park because the City had not opened the park in reliance upon the Act.

The trial court granted summary judgment on the grounds that Marc was a nonpaying recreational user of Laird Park, and that under the Act, Salt Lake City owed no duty of care to the boy. The court also concluded that there was no evidence of deliberate, malicious, or willful conduct by the City, which would have resulted in liability under section 57-14-6 of the Act.

De Baritault appealed.

closed140320
Held: The Act did not protect the City. The Utah Supreme Court held that the Utah Limitation of Landowner Liability-Public Recreation Act did not apply to a small, improved city park, and thus, did not preclude Marc’s recovery for his injuries. The Court held that extending the Act’s application to improved city parks which, unlike many private wilderness lands, were not opened to the public in response to the Act, and which were already covered by other laws – such as the Governmental Immunity Act – would serve neither the legislative intent nor the purpose of the statute.

In Utah, courts that have focused on the nature of the land itself have found some combination of following characteristics must be present before immunity under the recreational use statute applies: the land must be (1) rural, (2) undeveloped, (3) appropriate for the type of activities listed in the statute, (4) open to the general public without charge, and (5) the type of land that would have been opened in response to the statute.

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Case of the Day, Thursday, October 16, 2014

EXTREME SPORTS

bikecrash141015Young Michael Rivera and his buddies were riding around, when one of them decided to cut off the sidewalk onto what could charitably be called a “beaten path” through some woods in the large Glen Oaks Village residential cooperative. Young Rivera was said to be an experienced rider, but this young BMX’er was no match for the big hole in the trail.   He fell and was hurt.  Then, of course, he sued.

That’s when the extreme lawyering commenced. The co-op argued that it was protected by the New York recreational user statute, because bicycling was one of the activities specifically mentioned in the law, and the trial was suitable as a bike trail. Not so, young Rivera’s mouthpiece claimed. The trail was just a path in the middle of a large residential community not designed for cycling.

The trial court, perhaps sympathetic to the young man’s crash found New York’s recreational user statute didn’t apply. But in an impressive piece of circular reasoning, the Appellate Division said that the trail was suitable for bicycling chiefly because Rivera and his buds were biking on it and other people had, too.

This reminds us somewhat of our mothers asking us whether we’d jump off a cliff just because our friends did, too. Anyway, shaky reasoning or not, the Appellate Division did justice to the intent of the recreational use statute: to protect landowners from liability when they make unimproved land available for the use of, as the Court put it, “recreationists.” The dictionary says it’s a good word, and the outcome in this case is probably a good result.

cliff141015Rivera v. Glen Oaks Village Owners, Inc., 41 A.D.3d 817, 839 N.Y.S.2d 183, 2007 N.Y. Slip Op. 05718 (N.Y.A.D., 2007). Rivera and two of his friends went bicycling on a dirt trail located in a two-acre wooded area, which was part of a large residential cooperative community. The trail was 500 feet long and 10 feet wide, and “bumpy.” After traveling about 30 to 40 feet on the trail, Rivera came upon a 2 x 3’ hole in the ground. Rivera was unable to avoid the hole, and his front wheel went into the hole, causing him to be thrown over the bicycle’s handlebars and into the hole. He only saw the hole “maybe a second” before he fell into it. As a result of his fall, Rivera was injured. His family sued the owner of Glen Oaks Village Owners, Inc., the residential cooperative community, to recover damages. The trial court denied Glen Oaks’ motion for summary judgment, made on the basis that the New York recreational use statute applied and that the youth had assumed the risk of injury. Glen Oaks appealed.

Held: The case was reversed. The appellate court found that New York’s General Obligations Law §9-103, commonly known as the recreational use statute, applied to this case. The Court said that the sole purpose of the statute was to induce property owners – who might otherwise be reluctant to do so for fear of liability – to permit persons to come on their property to pursue specified activities. In return for opening up their lands for public use, property owners are provided immunity from liability. The statute applies whenever a user engaged in one of activities identified in statute, and he or she is recreating on land suitable for that activity. The requirement that property be physically conducive to a particular recreational activity — for purposes of determining whether a landowner is protected by the statute against claims of ordinary negligence — is satisfied when the property is the type which is not only physically conducive to a particular activity or sport but is also a type which would be appropriate for public use in pursuing the activity as recreation.

bikecrashb141015The Court ruled that this so-called suitability test was a question of statutory interpretation and, therefore, a question of law for the court. The Court said that a substantial indicator that the property is physically conducive to a particular recreational activity is whether recreationists have used the property for that activity in the past. Such past use by participants in the sport manifests the fact that the property is physically conducive to it. Here, the recreational use statute applied to Rivera’s bicycle riding on dirt trail in large residential cooperative community because bicycling was an activity included in statute, and the trail was physically conducive to bicycling. Rivera’s use of the dirt trail — as well as the use by his friends — and the physical characteristics of the trial, established that it was physically conducive for bicycling.

The Court rejected Rivera’s claim that the fact that the trail was in the middle of a large private residential cooperative community rendered it unsuitable for bicycling. It held instead that the recreational use statute should be applied liberally to public and private land, to rural or urban property, whether developed or undeveloped.

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Case of the Day, Friday, October 17, 2014

THE LIMITS OF CAUSATION

We liked our lunch at Jimmy John's, and didn't discover that we were really victims - not patrons - until more than a year later.

We liked our lunch at Jimmy John’s, and didn’t discover that we were really victims – not patrons – until more than a year later.

Last week, we learned that we had been grievously injured a year or so ago when we ate a Jimmy John’s sub sandwich in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Sure, at the time, the sub tasted pretty good, and we seem to recall that we left the place feeling like we had gotten our money’s worth.

Boy, were we ever wrong!  It turns out that we may have gotten a sandwich that may have been advertised as having alfalfa sprouts, but did not.  We don’t really remember what sandwich we ate, and if alfalfa sprouts were omitted (and if that had been important to us), we imagine we would have noticed.  No matter, we are members of a class of consumer harmed by high-handed chicanery, alfalfa sprout deprivation that shocks the conscience!

There’s much about the current class action lawsuit against Jimmy John’s that we don’t understand.  ccording to the information we’ve gleaned from the settlement documents, we’re maybe going to get a coupon for a free pickle, or maybe a bag of chips.  The lead plaintiff gets $5,000 for her trouble, and her lawyers get about $400,000.  Regardless of the amount of damages that may someday flow our way to heal our psyches, we were intrigued.  It made us wonder about causation and damages. And, of course, about trees …

America's right to alfalfa sprouts – vindicated by the majesty of the law.

America’s right to alfalfa sprouts – vindicated by the majesty of the nation’s legal system.

Back in the early days of the last decade, Georgia Power was building a new transmission line through some swampland. The utility mapped out an area in which, due to environmental considerations, trees had to be cut by hand instead of machine. The area was larger than the minimum required by law. While an employee of one of its contractors was cutting down trees, a branch fell from behind him and paralyzed him.

So what caused the injury? The fact the worker didn’t watch the trajectory of what he was cutting? Just bad luck? His employer’s lousy safety program? Maybe a sproutless sandwich from Jimmy John’s? Or was it the fact – as Rayburn argued at trial – that Georgia Power insisted more trees be cut by hand than the law mandated? Or maybe it was the fault of the consumers whose need for more electricity caused the building of the power line? Or maybe mainstream religion, for rejecting an Amish lifestyle that would eschew electricity?

You get the idea … when someone is badly hurt (and often when they’re not hurt at all), it’s good sport to look around for someone to blame, someone with deep pockets. But here, the Court refused to stretch the limits of causation unreasonably. And while not conceding that tree cutting was inherently dangerous, the Court nevertheless said in essence that the Plaintiff was a consenting adult, and he freely agreed to assume the risks.

pickle141017The lesson, kiddies, is this (and we don’t care what the slick lawyer’s ad on the back of your phone book says): Someone else doesn’t have to pay every time you get hurt. Here, have a pickle …

Rayburn v. Georgia Power Co., 284 Ga.App. 131, 643 S.E.2d 385 (Ct.App. Ga., 2007). Georgia Power set out to build a new transmission line. The coastal plain on which the power line was being built included wetlands and rivers. Because of Army Corps of Engineers concerns with destruction of wetlands, Georgia Power maintained a policy of clearing wetland buffers of trees by hand rather than with machines, which tended to tear up root mats and the ground. As well, the Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act required at least a 25-foot buffer to be cleared by hand on each side of a warm water stream, and at least a 50-foot buffer for trout streams, within which vegetation must be cleared by hand. In one case, a Georgia Power environmental supervisor specified a 50-foot buffer because the area was especially sensitive, but his assistant, an environmental analyst, marked in her notebook that they put 100-foot buffers on the stream. She set out flags showing the buffers. At some point, Georgia Power staff moved the wetland buffer to the edge of the right of way.

Caffrey Construction won a contract to clear timber, having taken into account that several areas in the project had to be hand-cleared. While working in a buffer zone, Rayburn was struck from behind by a limb from another tree. Rayburn sued Georgia Power, contending that the company’s negligence caused his injury. The trial court granted summary judgment for Georgia Power, holding that Rayburn’s injury was “the product of a normal risk faced by persons employed to cut down trees.” The court held that the decision to extend the buffer did not cause Rayburn’s injury, the cause of which was either his decision to cut down the tree in the circumstance presented, or else an unforeseen occurrence for which no one was responsible. The court also declined to find that tree-cutting is an “inherently dangerous” occupation or that Georgia Power directed the time and manner of Caffrey’s work. Rayburn appealed.

lawgold141017Held: Georgia Power was not responsible for Rayburn’s injury. The Court noted that the employer of an independent contractor owes the contractor’s employees the duty of not imperiling their lives by the employer’s own affirmative acts of negligence. However, the employer is under no duty to take affirmative steps to guard or protect the contractor’s employees against the consequences of the contractor’s negligence or to provide for their safety. This is especially true where a plaintiff has assumed the risk. An injured party has assumed the risk where he or she (1) had actual knowledge of the danger; (2) understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger; and (3) voluntarily exposed himself or herself to those risks.

Here, Rayburn argued that Georgia Power owed him a legal duty not to expose him to unreasonable risks of harm by requiring hand-clearing in an area that could have been more safely cleared by machine, and that it breached this duty. He submitted evidence that clearing timber by hand is more dangerous than clearing it by machine. While state regulations only required a 25-foot buffer to be hand-cleared on each side of a creek, Georgia Power marked a buffer line more than 100 feet from the stream. Rayburn complained that, despite the option of a safer means of tree cutting, Georgia Power “directed that the work be performed by inherently dangerous methods in extremely hazardous conditions contrary to accepted construction industry standards.” Therefore, he argued, Georgia Power’s decision to hand-clear this section of property regardless of the danger to Caffrey’s employees should make it liable for his injury.

The Court held that notwithstanding all of this, Georgia Power could not have appreciated the dangers better than he did. The Court said that exposing someone to harm generates liability only when the person exposed does not appreciate the harm or is helpless to avoid it, which was not the case here. While Rayburn’s experts concluded that the working conditions were “abhorrent,” the Court said, none of the witnesses said that the conditions were out of the ordinary for that part of the state. If the contractor’s employees can ascertain the hazard known to the entity hiring the contractor, the contractor need not warn the employees of the hazard. Rayburn argued that, even if he knew the general risk involved in felling trees with a chain saw, he did not assume the specific risk that the particular branch that hit him would do so.

Chainsawb&w140225Rayburn was hired to cut trees. He had experience cutting trees. He testified that he observed the conditions and would have spoken to his supervisor if he thought they were unsafe. He already knew that cutting trees with a chain saw was hazardous, and therefore Georgia Power had no duty to warn him that he could get hurt by doing the job which presented hazards that he fully understood. He had actual knowledge of the danger associated with the activity and appreciated the risk involved.

Rayburn also argued that OCGA §51-2-5 made Georgia Power  liable for Caffrey’s negligence, because the work was “inherently dangerous,” and because it controlled and interfered with Caffrey’s method of performing the job. But the Court said the statute only makes an employer liable for the contractor’s negligence, and here, Rayburn has not established that Caffrey’s negligence led to his injury. Even if he had, Rayburn had not shown that Georgia Power retained the right to direct or control the time and manner of clearing the timber. Georgia Power’s on-site supervisor visited the property once or twice a week, but did not direct the Caffrey employees in how or when to do their jobs. The Court observed that merely taking steps to see that the contractor carries out his agreement by supervision of the intermediate results obtained, or reserving the right of dismissal on grounds of incompetence, is not such interference and assumption of control as will render the employer liable.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day, Monday, October 20, 2014

EVEN THE PARANOID HAVE ENEMIES

Those tin hats really work -- it's just that THEY want you to think there's something wrong with wearing 'em ...

Those tin hats really work — it’s just that THEY want you to think there’s something wrong with wearing ’em …

Could you say that “it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get … your trees?”  Put on your tin foil hat, conspiracy enthusiasts!  Or not, if you think that’s an aluminum industry conspiracy. 

In today’s case, the Riehl family had what could be fairly described as a mania for not trimming their trees and bushes.  Their preoccupation with the natural look made the neighbors’ use of a common roadway rather tough.   As a result, the Riehls were sued in the 1970s, and while the neighbors were found to have an easement, the court didn’t force the Riehls to trim the trees. 

Some 15 years later, the City of Rossford passed a nuisance ordinance aimed at people who didn’t trim their trees along streets.  And the odor of conspiracy wafted through the town, spread by black UN helicopters …

The City sued the Riehls in 1997, but then cut a deal with them by dismissing the action and trimming the Riehls’ trees itself.  But in subsequent years, aided no doubt by the Illuminati and Council for Foreign Relations, the City cited the Riehls almost annually, hired contractors to cut the trees down, and then billed the Riehls for the trimming.  Finally, the Riehls had had enough, and — proving that a man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client — they filed their own complaint, alleging everything from fraud to contract breaches to infliction of emotional distress to multiple Constitutional law violations.  And they sued the City, the prosecutor and all of their neighbors. 

The trial court (probably in the pockets of the New World Order) threw out the suit even with respect to defendant who didn’t answer.  The Court of Appeals agreed, expressing bafflement as to why the neighbors were even named, and finding that the fact that the City made a deal in 1997 didn’t mean that it couldn’t come back every year after. 

 Time for the Riehls to raise their own militia … and maybe set them to work trimming the bushes.

conspiracyalert140321 Riehl v. City of Rossford, Slip Copy, 2007 WL 2164158 (Ct.App. Ohio, July 27, 2007).  This case is the latest installment in the ongoing dispute between property owners in Eagle Point Colony about an undedicated access road/alley commonly known as Thirwal Drive. The Riehls owned property along Thirwal Drive, and their perpetually untrimmed trees and bushes encroached on the road to the detriment of other property owners who use it, as well as delivery and trash truck servicing all of the owners along the road.  In 1977, a number of the other residents sued the Riehls seeking to enjoin them from clogging, choking or narrowing the width of Thirwal Drive.  The court ruled that the other owners had an easement by prescription over the Riehls’ land in the form of Thirwal Drive and permanently enjoined the Riehls from clogging, narrowing, or impeding the use of Thirwal Drive. 

But when the neighbors filed a contempt motion because the Riehls weren’t cooperating, the trial court determined that the Riehls didn’t have the obligation to remove or trim the bushes and trees, or otherwise to repair or maintain the easement. 

Thereafter, in 1995, Rossford City Council passed Ordinance No. 94-045, which held that “[e]very occupant of land shall maintain his property so that no brush, trees, bushes or obstructions extend into, on or over any public or private way generally used for the passage of persons or vehicles so as to obstruct or interfere with the passage of such persons or vehicles, or with the ingress and egress of emergency, maintenance, repair or service vehicles or equipment.”  Pursuant to the ordinance, the City cited the Riehls in 1997 but later dismissed the case.  Thereafter, it cited the Riehls virtually every year, trimmed the trees and bushes itself, and billed the Riehls for the cost. 

Finally, in 2005, the Riehls sued the City, the prosecutor, and all of the other neighboring property owners.  The poorly-drafted complaint alleged the City had breached a contract by passing an ordinance charging the Riehls for the trimming, committed fraud, violated the Riehls’ property rights, and retaliated against them by enforcing the nuisance ordinance.  The trial court dismissed the action on all counts as to all defendants.   The Riehls appealed.

Held:  The dismissal was affirmed. The Court said the current litigation, reduced to its essence, was simple: it involved the Riehls’ continuing violation of Rossford’s nuisance ordinance, which was passed after the 1978 decision.  Nothing in the prior decision of the trial court had any effect on the subsequently-passed ordinance.  And, the Court held, the Rossford nuisance ordinance had a real and substantial relation to the safety and general welfare of the public and is neither unreasonable nor arbitrary.  It seeks to prevent Rossford property owners from obstructing any public or private way that is used for the passage of persons or vehicles, including emergency, maintenance, repair or service vehicles or equipment. The nuisance ordinance applies equally to the Riehls and all other residents of Rossford. 

At its heart, the Riehls’ complaint alleged that the 1997 judgment granting the city’s motion to dismiss the first nuisance action filed against the Riehls, amounted to a res judicata determination that the Riehls never again had an obligation to trim their bushes and trees and prevent them from obstructing Thirwal Drive.  However, the Court held, a political subdivision or an employee of a political subdivision is immune from liability in a civil action for injury or loss to property when the claims are in connection with the political subdivision’s or employee’s performance of legislative or quasi-legislative functions, or the enforcement or nonperformance of any law.  What’s more, the Supreme Court of Ohio has expressly stated that “[t]here are no exceptions to immunity for the intentional torts of fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress …” 

Because the Riehls’ claims against the city arose out the city’s performance of governmental functions, and because no exceptions to immunity apply with regard to the Riehls’ claims against the city for fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the city was entitled to summary judgment on those claims. 

 The city’s immunity doesn’t extend to contracts.  The Riehls argued that in 1997 the city of Rossford entered in to a settlement agreement with the Riehls approved by Judge Dwight Osterud.  They claim that the city agreed to trim the Riehls’ bushes and trees that encroached on Thirwal Drive.  Nevertheless, in 2003 and 2004, the city of Rossford passed ordinances assessing the costs of trimming against the Riehls’ real estate. The Riehls claim that the February 1997 judgment entry amounted to a contract and that through their actions, the governmental defendants breached this contract with the Riehls.  

blackhelicopter140321 The Court rejected their argument.  It held that there was no enforceable plea agreement.  The City got no benefit and the Riehls suffered no detriment from the deal.  Thus, the Court held, there was no consideration for the contract, and thus there could be no contract.   The Riehls also argued that assessing them for trimming their trees constituted an unconstitutional taking of their property without compensation.  But the Ohio Supreme Court has held that the government must pay just compensation for total regulatory takings “except to the extent that ‘background principles of nuisance and property law’ independently restrict the owner’s intended use of the property.”  That’s all that was happening here.  There was evidence that the nuisance ordinance had been enforced against other residents, too, so the Riehls’ claim of disparate treatment failed as well.  Finally, there was no evidence that the city had enforced the tree nuisance ordinance against the Riehls as punishment for their voicing their views pursuant to their First Amendment rights.

 Just like everyone else in Rossford, the Riehls must keep their bushes and trees trimmed at their own expense.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day, Tuesday, October 21, 2014

DOUBLE DIPPING, KENTUCKY STYLE

 

Lon Chaney was not a part of this lawsuit.

Lon Chaney was not a part of this lawsuit.

It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Mr. Chaney (Dave Chaney, not Lon Chaney) in today’s case. He and his wife lived in a hollow on the Ohio River, downhill from the Wilsons.

When the Chaney homestead filled with mud because of a landslide, the Chaneys saw green where most homeowners would just see brown. They sued the hilltop Wilsons, complaining that their neighbors had trespassed and cut down some 400 trees, many of them belonging to the Chaneys. The Chaneys alleged that the removal of the trees — insulting enough on its own — led to the hillside ending up in the Chaneys’ living room.

The trial court got the two sides to agree that their surveyors would decide on the proper boundary. The surveyors did so, and concluded that Mr. Wilson had cut down his own trees, not Chaney’s trees. Meanwhile, The Chaneys lost or fired their attorney — we’re unclear what happened, but regardless, it came at a bad time — and proceeded to lose on summary judgment. They then appealed, arguing for the first time that they hadn’t agreed to have their surveyor work with the other side’s surveyor.

The Court of Appeals ruled against the Chaneys, holding that their allegation was too little, too late. Because it hadn’t been raised in the trial court (where it could have been corrected), the argument could not be raised on appeal. Besides, the Chaneys’ lawyer had agreed to the two-surveyor mechanism, and that agreement was binding on the parties.

There may have more to the Court’s repudiation of the Chaneys’ position. The trial judge was clearly a little put off that the Chaneys had told their insurance company that the landslide was caused by rain, thus collecting a cool $200,000 for the damage. (The Chaneys had had quite the living room) Now, the Chaneys were saying that the mudslide resulted the Wilsons’ alleged tree cutting. The shifting story didn’t especially smack of sincerity.

Most people see a mudslide as a disaster ... the Chaneys saw it as a ticket to Easy Street.

Most people see a mudslide as a disaster … the Chaneys saw it as a ticket to Easy Street.

It is considered poor form to try to collect twice.

Chaney v. Wilson, Not Reported in S.W.3d, 2007 WL 2019673 (Ct.App. Ky., July 13, 2007). Philip and Michaelynn Wilson owned property adjacent to David Chaney’s property in Maysville, Kentucky. The Chaneys lived at the bottom of a steep hill near the banks of the Ohio River. The Wilsons lived at the top of the hill, overlooking the river.

The Chaneys charged that the Wilsons caused timber to be cut and removed from the Chaneys’ property, and that such actions caused the removal of lateral and subjacent support, either causing or aggravating a landslide that damaged their property. At the behest of the trial court, two surveyors surveyed and agreed on boundary line between the parcels. The surveyors also concluded that any trees that had been cut were in fact on the Wilsons’ property.

The Chaneys may have been perfectly honest with the insurance company ... but if they were, it meant they were trying to snooker the court.

The Chaneys may have been perfectly honest with the insurance company … but if they were, it meant they were trying to snooker the court.

The trial court entered a final order, incorporating by reference the surveyors’ agreed description as the disputed boundary line and granting the Wilsons’ motion for summary judgment. Regarding the Chaneys’ claim that some 400 trees had been cut, the trial court found that the physical evidence on the site did not support the allegation, and, “based upon the boundary line as agreed and established by the parties two independent surveyors, any minimal cutting of trees occurred on the defendant’s side of the established boundary line, effectively negating any claims of improper ‘cutting of timber’ as alleged in the Complaint.”

The court also took judicial notice of a separate legal proceeding filed by the Chaneys against their insurance company in which they also alleged that their home was damaged by a landslide in March 1997 – nine months before the Wilsons cut down any trees –which had been triggered by heavy rains. The Chaneys had received a settlement of $200,000 from their insurer for the landslide damage.

The trial court dismissed the Chaneys’ complaint. An appeal followed.

Held: The summary judgment was upheld. On appeal, the Chaneys — who had lost their attorney during the proceedings — only made one argument, that they did not authorize counsel to agree to the surveyors’ collaborating on the legal description of the disputed boundary line. But the Court held that while an attorney cannot substantively settle a case without his client’s express authority, a party is nonetheless bound by the procedural agreements and stipulations of its attorney in the conduct of the litigation for which that attorney was hired. The agreement entered to have the surveyors conduct a joint survey was such a procedural agreement, and was within the attorney’s authority.

What’s more, the Chaneys never complained in the trial court that their attorney lacked the authority to make the agreement. The Court noted that an issue not timely presented to the trial court may not be considered for the first time on appeal.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day, Wednesday, October 22, 2014

ANGELS WITH DIRTY WINGS

Filthy_animal140324Any fan of the Christmas comedy hit of the 1990s, Home Alone, remembers Angels with Dirty Wings. It was the film noir movie that the kid protagonist played repeatedly, the mobster’s taunt – “Keep the change, ya filthy animal” – punctuated with a spray of .45 cal. bullets from a Model 1928 Thompson submachine gun, being used as part of the boy’s plot to keep the bad guys at bay.

In today’s case, the angel is Angel’s Path, a developer, and the dirt on its wings slid off a big mound the company put right on its property line as it built houses. The neighbors didn’t much like the dirt sliding into their back yard, and weren’t big fans of the stagnant water that collected after every rainstorm. But when Angel’s Path asked for summary judgment on the trespass and nuisance claims the Peters brought, for some reason they opposed it on the cheap, with an affidavit from Mr. Peters and a bare letter from their engineer.

It’s seldom a good idea, saving money at the most crucial moment in the litigation. Better to adhere to the old law school maxim, “too much is not enough.” You have affidavits from five experts? Use ’em all. You have five boxes of documents? Attach ’em. Opposing a motion for summary judgment is no time to spare the horses. Here, Mr. Peters should have had an affidavit from his engineer, his own survey done by a registered surveyor and recorded down at the county building, and enough pictures of shifting dirt piles and standing water to start his own tumblr.com site.

angelsfight140324But he didn’t. The trial court granted summary judgment to Angel’s Path, finding the survey of property lines — showing the dirt piles on its own land — more persuasive than Mr. Peters’ affidavit claim that the dirt had sloughed over the line. Peters’ affidavit was “self-serving,” the trial judge complained.

The Court of Appeals reversed. Sure the affidavit may be a little self-serving, the Court said, but for purposes of summary judgment — a fairly high bar for a defendant to leap — the Court had little problem believing that a property owner knew where his own boundary lay. The summary judgment test, after all, is whether the evidence, taken in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment is sought, shows there’s no material question of fact.

This standard required that the trial court assume that any reasonably detailed facts Mr. Peters raised in his affidavit were true. If after doing this, the court still believes that Peters was not entitled to a judgment, then summary judgment could go for Angel’s Path. It was pretty clear that Mr. Peters was going to need a whole lot more persuasion at trial to pull the halo off Angel’s Path, but for now – at the summary judgment stage– his showing was enough to stay in the hunt. Just barely.

Incidentally, this case was brought with a companion case from the Kramers, who sued Angel’s Path, too. That decision is an interesting study in nuisance and trespass. We’ll consider that decision tomorrow.

angelspath140324Peters v. Angel’s Path, L.L.C., Slip Copy, 2007 WL 4563472 (Ohio App. 6 Dist., 2007). Clarence and Nanette Peters said that Angel’s Path, LLC, a developer, damaged their two residential properties. As a result of residential property development by Angel’s Path, dirt mounds at the edge of the development property caused water run-off and flooding on their adjacent land. They sought restraining orders to prevent Angel’s Path from trespassing on their properties or continuing to alter the natural flow of water, as well as damages.

Angel Path filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the earth mounds did not cause run-off to appellants’ property or any sinkhole conditions, and therefore, were not a nuisance; and that their surveyor said that the mounds did not encroach upon appellants’ property, so no trespass had occurred. The trial court also granted summary judgment against the Peters on both their nuisance and trespass claims. The Peters appealed.

Held: Summary judgment was reversed. A “nuisance” is the wrongful invasion of a legal right or interest. A private nuisance is a nontrespassory invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of land. In order for a private nuisance to be actionable, the invasion must be either intentional and unreasonable, or unintentional but caused by negligent, reckless, or abnormally dangerous conduct.

If the private nuisance is absolute, strict liability will be applied. By contrast, a qualified nuisance is premised upon negligence, essentially a negligent maintenance of a condition that creates an unreasonable risk of harm. To recover damages for a qualified nuisance, negligence must be averred and proven. A qualified nuisance is a lawful act so negligently or carelessly done as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm, which in due course results in injury to another.

Where damage to one property by water run-off from an adjacent property is alleged, Ohio has adopted a reasonable-use rule. A landowner isn’t allowed to deal with surface water as he or she pleases, nor is the owner absolutely prohibited from interfering with the natural flow of surface waters to the detriment of others. Instead, each landowner over whose property water flows is allowed to make a reasonable use of the land, even though the flow of surface waters is altered thereby and causes some harm to others. He or she incurs liability only when the harmful interference with the flow of surface water is unreasonable.

nonuisance140324In answer to Angel’s Path’s motion for summary judgment, Mr. Peters provided an affidavit along with referenced photos that claimed the mounds created by Angel’s Path had slid across the common property onto his property. Peters’ affidavit also said that Angel’s Path workers entered onto his property to cut the weeds because the slope of the mounds didn’t allow appropriate maintenance without entering onto his land. Finally, the Peters affidavit stated that the back portion of his property now flooded and would not dry out, preventing his use of the land for a rental or for farming. Peters also included as a letter from his expert stating the mounds blocked the natural flow of the water, creating a “permanent pond,” and suggesting possible ways to eliminate the problem.

The Court said that Mr. Peters’ testimony about the location of his property lines, although perhaps not the best evidence to rebut a commercially prepared survey, was something presumably within the property owner’s personal knowledge. Therefore, despite the fact that he had not yet had a separate survey done, the Court would not disregard the affidavit. At the same time, the Court criticized the trial judge for placing too much weight on the fact that Angel’s Path plans had been approved by the local county engineers. The Court of Appeals said that while the county engineer and other agencies approved the Angel’s Path development plans, including the projected effects that it might have on surrounding properties, “such facts are of little consequence and comfort when examining the real-world results of the construction …”

Here, for the purposes of summary judgment, the Court concluded that the Peters had presented prima facie evidence to establish causes of action for private nuisance and trespass. Whether Angel Path’s actions were reasonable, intentional, or negligent, the Court said, are decisions to be made in a trial, not on summary judgment.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day, Thursday, October 23, 2014

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

Angelspathsite140325Rare is the opportunity to glean two instructive cases from one malefacting (if that’s a word) defendant.  However, such is our good fortune with Ohio developer Angel’s Path, LLC (and yes, the apostrophe suggests there was only one angel on the path).  Yesterday, disgruntled Angel’s Path neighbor Clarence Peters narrowly escaped being thrown out of court because he defended against summary judgment on the cheap.  Today, we find out how his neighbors, the Kramers, fared when they went after the same developer because their home was disrupted by noise, dirt and even light from the new home development.

The Kramers claimed the dust and dirt was a public nuisance, and that Angel’s Path was causing the light to trespass on their homestead. These were both creative arguments, but the Kramers were doing their best to find a legal theory that would address the injustice they were experiencing. The developer leveled its legal guns, taking a very legalistic approach: the nuisance couldn’t be a public nuisance, it said: a public nuisance has to be affecting the plaintiff differently from the general public, and the general public was eating Angel Path’s dust just as badly as were the Kramers. As for the annoying light, Angel’s Point contended, there just weren’t any cases that said light could be a trespasser.

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously chided a lawyer arguing before him that “this is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.”  Fortunately for the Kramers, the Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals wasn’t having any of that. Often one can tell when a court is stretching to find some way to do justice. Clearly, the appellate judges were disenchanted with the developer, the lawyers for which were essentially telling them that while Angels’ Path had done everything the Kramers accused it of, there wasn’t anything the law could do about it.  Nyah-nyah.

But it turned out that there was something the Court could do about it. It reinstated the suit, warning the Kramers that they might find it tough to win a trial, but the facts they had alleged suggested several theories they could pursue.

With the case once again headed for a jury of just plain folks who would be unimpressed with Angel Path’s legal hair-splitting and probably sympathetic to the sleep-deprived, dust-covered Kramers, one imagines that Angel’s Path very quickly recalled another pithy legal aphorism: “A bad settlement is better than a good lawsuit.”

Our takeaway from this case is that nuisance actions can be both flexible and powerful means of redressing neighbors’ activities that interfere with the legitimate enjoyment of home and hearth.

Kramer v. Angel’s Path, LLC, 174 Ohio App.3d 359, 882 N.E.2d 46 (Ohio App. 6 Dist. 2007). William and Patricia Kramer, sued Angel’s Path, L.L.C., , alleging that construction in a housing development resulted in blowing dust and dirt tracked onto their street and trespass from a lighted “promotional” sign that lighted the front of the Kramers’ residence 24 hours a day. They alleged that Angel’s Path’s development was a public nuisance because of the dirt and Angel’s Path was actually trespassing on their land with the 24-hour lighted sign.

The trial court threw the suit out altogether. The Kramers appealed.

Held: The Kramers could proceed to trial against Angel’s Path.

The Court of Appeals held that the Kramers were clearly wrong that the development was a public nuisance, but the facts they had alleged in their complaint, if true, did make out a claim for a private nuisance. The rule is that courts should interpret complaints to do “substantial justice,” and it would be unfair to make hyper-technical demands for precision in complaints. The rules only require that a complaint “contain a short and plain statement of the circumstances entitling the party to relief and the relief sought.” The factual allegations in the complaint should control whether some legal cause of action has been properly pleaded and supported on summary judgment.

The opinion contains a welcome primer on nuisance law. The Court noted that the law of nuisance “has been described as the most ‘impenetrable jungle in the entire law’.” Generally, though, nuisance” is defined as “the wrongful invasion of a legal right or interest.” It may be designated as “public” or “private.” A public nuisance is “an unreasonable interference with a right common to the general public,” and arises only where a public right has been affected. To recover damages under a claim of public nuisance, the plaintiff must establish (1) an interference with a public right and (2) that the plaintiff has suffered an injury distinct from that suffered by the public at large.

"Blinded by the Light" was a much more than a Springsteen ditty ... it was an every-night occurrence.

To the Kramers, “Blinded by the Light” was more than a Springsteen ditty once covered by Manfred Mann … it was an every-night occurrence.

By contrast, a “private nuisance” is a non-trespass “invasion of another’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of land.” Unlike a public nuisance, a private nuisance threatens only one or few persons. In order for someone to be entitled to damages for a private nuisance, invasion has to be either (a) intentional and unreasonable or (b) unintentional but caused by negligent, reckless, or abnormally dangerous conduct.

A nuisance may be “continuing or permanent.” A continuing nuisance arises when the wrongdoer’s tortious conduct is ongoing, perpetually generating new violations. A permanent nuisance, on the other hand, occurs when the wrongdoer’s tortious act has been completed, but the plaintiff continues to experience injury in the absence of any further activity by the defendant.

For a nuisance to be an absolute nuisance, it must be based on intentional conduct or an abnormally dangerous condition that cannot be maintained without injury to property, no matter what precautions are taken. Strict liability is imposed upon an absolute-nuisance finding. When a defendant commits an unlawful act deemed to be an absolute nuisance, he or she becomes an insurer, and will be liable for “loss resulting from harm which may happen in consequence of it to persons exercising ordinary care, irrespective of the degree of skill and diligence exercised by himself * * * to prevent such injury.”

Every day seemed like the Dust Bowl to the Kramers ...

Every day seemed like the Dust Bowl to the Kramers …

On the other hand, if the conduct is a “qualified” nuisance, it is premised upon negligence. A qualified nuisance is defined as essentially a lawful act “so negligently or carelessly done as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm, which in due course results in injury to another.” Under such circumstances, the nuisance arises from a failure to exercise due care. To recover damages for a qualified nuisance, negligence must be alleged and proven. Whether a party’s actions were reasonable is generally a matter for the trier of fact.

Trespass on real property occurs when a person, without authority or privilege, physically invades or unlawfully enters the private premises of another. The elements of a trespass claim are “(1) an unauthorized intentional act and (2) entry upon land in the possession of another.” A trespass claim exists even though damages may be insignificant. A person can be a trespasser without actually stepping onto another’s property. A trespass may be committed by invading the airspace of the property. This principle is based upon the concept that an owner of land owns as much of the space above the ground as he or she can use.

Here, Angel’s Path argued that the Kramer’s “public nuisance” was undercut by their admission that several neighbors suffered from the same excessive dirt and dust that bothered the Kramers. Therefore, it claimed, the Kramers failed to establish a claim for nuisance, because their injuries were no different that those suffered by the public in general. Angel’s Path also argued that the light shining into the Kramer home was not a trespass.

The Kramers countered with an affidavit and photos of the property across from their home and of their home, showing that the dirt and dust blew straight from the Angel’s Path property across their land. They even produced Weather Service wind records supporting the claim. As for the light, they contended that the entrance-sign light ­– directly across from their house – continuously lit up their home “in an annoying and harassing manner,” including the three front bedrooms. They had asked Angel’s Path turn off the light, nothing changed until after they sued, and took the deposition of an Angel’s Path executive.

The Kramers showed proof of the dirt in their home, and documented the costs of cleaning it up. They also described the Angel’s Path sign – “like a headlight shining into [the] bedroom windows” – and the problems this caused.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with Angel’s Path that a claim for “public” nuisance could not be sustained, because too many people apparently suffered the same deprivations. Under this line of reasoning, the Court observed, a person creating a public nuisance could escape liability simply by harming more than one party. Plus, the Court held, even if the Kramers had no public nuisance claim, they may still have a claim for private nuisance. Although Angel’s Path construction may be lawful, questions of fact remained as to whether the developer failed to exercise due care and was so negligent “as to create a potential and unreasonable risk of harm” resulting in the Kramers’ injuries. Thus, the Court wouldn’t through out the suit.

The Court was concerned that light invasion claim was “an unusual and perhaps creative application of trespass law.” The Court conceded that arguably, the Kramers could assert that the light physically invaded the airspace over their property. But even if this argument doesn’t carry the day, the Court said, genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether the lighted sign may be a public or private nuisance.

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Case of the Day, Friday, October 24, 2014

CRY ME A RIVER

lawjoke140326Law students learn in first-year civil procedure that it’s entirely proper to file utterly inconsistent pleadings. For example, if a complaint is that the defendant borrowed plaintiff’s bucket and broke it, the defendant can answer that (1) he never borrowed it; (2) when he returned it, it wasn’t broken; and (3) it was broken when he borrowed it. And lawyers wonder why there are so many attorney all jokes …

But there are limits, and complaints in civil actions should not be completely mindless in their allegations.  In today’s case, landowner Fischer changed the slope of his land, rebuilt a driveway and installed a retaining wall. His neighbor Christiana complained that the effect of his neighbor’s construction project was to send unwanted drainage onto his property.  Fischer was unimpressed.  “Cry me a river,” you can imagine him saying.  Christiana’s lawyer – who perhaps was charging his client by the word – obliged, tearfully filing a four-count complaint claiming negligence, recklessness, nuisance and trespass.

crymeariver140326Fischer filed a motion to strike the recklessness and trespass counts. He argued that the complaint — even assuming everything Christiana has alleged was true — simply didn’t state a claim.  Christiana depended on pretty much the same facts for recklessness as he did for negligence, except in the recklessness count, he charged that on top of everything else, Fischer hadn’t gotten permits from the town for the project.  Well, maybe that was a little sloppy, at least as far as paperwork goes, but the Court held that Fischer’s lack of a few permits didn’t constitute recklessness towards Christiana.  The recklessness count was bounced.

Fischer argued that the trespass count should be dismissed, because there was no allegation that he intended for the water to flow onto Christiana’s land.  The Court disagreed with Fisher’s novel interpretation of trespass, holding that  Fischer didn’t have to intend that the water trespass on Fischer’s land, just intend the act  – that is, the diversion of the water – that resulted in the trespass.  The distinction is subtle but crucial.

Thus, the trespass count remained, an important holding: the Court said in essence that without ever stepping foot on Christiana’s property, Fischer could have trespassed, just by being negligent in the way he altered water flow.

Christiana was upset because Fischer's retaining wall left his place a little soggier than it had been before ,,,

Christiana was upset because Fischer’s retaining wall left his place a little soggier than it had been before …

Christiana v. Fischer, Not Reported in A.2d, 2007 WL 3173949 (Conn. Super.Ct., Oct. 17, 2007). Christiana sued Fischer after Fischer altered the slope of his land and built a retaining wall. Christiana sued for negligence, recklessness, nuisance, and trespass. Fischer moved to strike the recklessness and trespass counts as insufficient to state a cause of action.

Held: The court split its holding, striking the count for recklessness but not the trespass count. Recklessness is a state of consciousness with reference to the consequences of someone’s acts, more than negligence, more than gross negligence. While the actor’s state of mind amounting to recklessness may be inferred from conduct, there must be something more than a failure to exercise a reasonable degree of watchfulness to avoid danger to others or to take reasonable precautions to avoid injury to them. Reckless conduct tends to take on the aspect of highly unreasonable conduct, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent.

In Count 2, Christiana repeated his allegations of negligence and additionally alleged that Fischer rebuilt a driveway without a building permit and in violation of the town’s zoning regulations. Christiana, however, made no allegation that Fischer was made aware prior to completion of the alteration and construction work of any problems that he was causing that would drain water onto Christiana’s property. The Court found that the allegations failed to support a cause of action for recklessness.

As for the trespass count, Fischer argued that Christiana failed to allege any intentional conduct essential to state a cause of action for trespass, pointing out that there was no allegation that the defendants intended to direct water or other debris onto the plaintiffs’ property or that they acted with knowledge to a substantial certainty that the water or other debris would enter the plaintiffs’ property. But the Court held that to make out a trespass, a plaintiff had to have ownership or possessory interest in the land; there had to be an invasion, intrusion or entry by the defendant affecting the plaintiff’s exclusive possessory interest; the act had to be done intentionally; and the act had to cause direct injury.

trespass140326However, a trespass need not be inflicted directly on another’s land, but may be committed by discharging water at a point beyond the boundary of such land. In determining “intent” for trespass purposes, the issue was not whether Fischer had intended the water to enter the Christiana’s land, but whether he had intended the act that amounted to or produced the unlawful invasion and had good reason to know or expect that subterranean and other conditions would cause the flow.

Christiana alleged in his complaint that he had notified Fischer that he was having severe drainage problems as a result of the land alteration and construction on several occasions, and that Fischer failed to take corrective action. The Court found that Christiana’s allegations were sufficient to establish a cause of action for trespass.

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Case of the Day, Monday, October 27, 2014

ADVERSE POSSESSION BY COMMITTEE

Weyerhaeuser Co. bought a big old farm in southeastern Oklahoma for timber operations back in the 1980s. No sooner had it harvested its last tree but next-door neighbor Brantley started taking advantage of the absentee owner.

Not so fast, Mr. Brantley ... it's not quite that easy.

Not so fast, Mr. Brantley … it’s not quite as easy as all that.

Over a 20-year period, Brantley claimed, he had grazed his cattle on the place, even running off hunters authorized to hunt there and denying access to Oklahoma Wildlife officers who had a deal with Weyerhaeuser to open the place as a recreation area. But the farm was a big place and there were a lot of players.  Brantley’s father grazed his cattle on the place, too, for awhile, but unlike his boy, Père Brantley had a lease from Weyerhaeuser. Brantley’s brother — cut from the same cloth as Brantley himself — grazed his cattle on the place and claimed a piece of it, too. Even Oklahoma State University had a lease from Weyerhaeuser to use part of the farm as a research facility.

Finally, the time came that Weyerhaeuser was ready to resume timber and gravel operations.  it found Brantley to be underfoot, so  the company sued him in trespass to remove him from the place. Brantley claimed he owned the place under the doctrine of adverse possession.

No, the Court said, he did not. Adverse possession requires, among other things, that the possession of the land be exclusive. Brantley’s possession of the place was more communal, the Court observed, with other actors coming and going all the time. You just can’t have a committee of people commonly possessing a place adversely. Where two people have entered on land, the one who has the better title is the one in possession. And in this case, that was the guy who occupied the land as lessee.  Brantley’s Dad, who had leased the land from Weyerhauser, was the one in possession. Not his piratical son.

Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Brantley, 510 F.3d 1256 (Ct. App. 10th Cir., 2007). Sherrill Farm is located in a scenic portion of southeastern Oklahoma, along the Mountain Fork River and near the Arkansas border. Weyerhaeuser had owned the farm since the early 1980s at least, the entire period of the dispute.  Young Carl Brantley claimed he had began grazing livestock on Sherrill Farm as early as 1980-81, although he had never had permission to use it. Since then, Brantley said he had built corrals, feed troughs, and fences on the property. He also removed brush, applied fertilizer, harvested wheat, and maintained roads. Although he installed a locked gate on the farm in the early 1980s, he never paid property taxes on the land. Brantley claimed his adverse possession of Sherrill Farm began in the winter of 1987-88, after Weyerhaeuser last harvested a stand of trees on the property.

During the years Weyerhaeuser used the area for its timber operations, it permitted others to use on Sherrill Farm. Brantley’s father had a license agreement to graze on Sherrill Farm beginning in 1983 until 1992. In 1987, Weyerhaeuser leased parts of Sherrill Farm to Oklahoma State University. OSU planted two research sites in the southern part of Sherrill Farm but made no use of the northern half. OSU complained to Weyerhaeuser about damage to its research plantations from livestock and built a fence to protect the plantations, but it did not seek to have Brantley’s cattle removed from Sherrill Farm entirely. OSU asked Brantley to cease grazing in the leased area, but Brantley was uncooperative. OSU also maintained its own locked gate to Sherrill Farm. Because of this alternative access, Brantley’s gate never prevented OSU or Weyerhaeuser from accessing Sherrill Farm.

In 1998, Weyerhaeuser and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation included Sherrill Farm in the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area. According to the agreement, the general public could access Sherrill Farm for hunting, fishing, and other recreation. Brantley’s locked gate prevented a state wildlife officer from accessing Sherrill Farm during some visits. Brantley testified he saw hunters on the property during this time and asked them to leave. In 2003, Weyerhaeuser granted an easement to another landowner to access her property across Sherrill Farm, but Brantley refused to allow access to the easement through his gate.

You can't adversely possess by committee ...

You can’t adversely possess by committee …

Oklahoma State’s lease terminated in 2004. Weyerhaeuser had to resume timber production and begin gravel mining, but Weyerhaeuser said Brantley’s presence delayed these activities, resulting in monetary damages. In 2006, Weyerhaeuser sued Brantley for trespass.

Brantley asserted adverse possession or prescriptive easement as affirmative defenses. After a trial, the district court entered judgment in favor of Weyerhaeuser. Both the parties appealed. Brantley argued he possessed the land adversely, and Weyerhaeuser complained it should have been awarded $200,000 in lost profits.

Held: Weyerhaeuser’s judgment was upheld, but not the lost profits. Under Oklahoma law, to establish adverse possession, Brantley had to show that his possession was hostile; under a claim of right or color of title; actual; open; notorious; exclusive; and continuous for the full 15-year statutory period.

Weyerhauser owns or controls over 7 million acres of timber in the U.S. – it knows how to give squatters the bum's rush.

Weyerhauser controls over 7 million acres of timber in the U.S. – it knows how to give squatters the bum’s rush.

The Court found that Brantley did not have exclusive use of property for 15 years – that length of time being the Oklahoma standard (your home state’s period may vary), and thus failed to establish adverse possession of the land. During the 15-year period, Brantley’s father held a grazing lease on property, Oklahoma State conducted activities on the property, Weyerhaeuser conducted activities such as road maintenance and gravel sampling on property, the land was part of a wildlife area managed by the State, it was open to the public, horses not belonging to Brantley grazed on the property and Brantley’s own brother also claimed grazing rights to property by adverse possession. To show exclusive possession, Brantley had to show an exclusive dominion over the land and an appropriation of it to his own use and benefit. Two persons cannot hold one piece of property adversely to each other at the same time, the Court said, and where two persons have entered upon land, the one who has the better title will be deemed to be in possession.

However, Brantley did not have to pay the $200,000 special damages for trespass. A forest manager’s testimony that, but for the presence of Brantley’s cattle, the property owner would have netted $200,000 in profits from gravel mining — based on 150,000 tons during first year and 300,000 tons during second year — was held by the Court to be too uncertain and speculative to support damages award for lost profits. But the award of $10,000 against Brantley based on Weyerhaeuser’s lost timber sales, was reasonable: Weyerhaeuser had previously used the property for timber harvesting, and the property was currently suitable for planting and harvesting. Weyerhaeuser’s witness was a certified forester who had submitted an affidavit identifying methodology for his damage calculations.


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Case of the Day, Tuesday, October 28, 2014

DIVING INTO THE SHALLOW END

diving140330There’s nothing funny about it: there are about 800 spinal cord injuries a year from swimmers — mostly young people — diving into shallow water. The idea that you ought to check the depth of the water before diving in is a pellucid as Bahamian waters. Yet diving accident victims often litigate the issue anyway. Today’s case is an interesting application of the “open and obvious” doctrine.

The Koops, who were the property owners, weren’t recreational users, because their property was open only to invited guests, not the public. So they had no immunity under Ohio’s recreational user statute. As invitees, their guests were owed ordinary care by the Koops – which included a warning of any dangers that weren’t open and obvious. When one guest ran across the dock and dove into 18-inch water — rendering himself a quadriplegic — he sued the Koops for negligence. The Court ruled that the danger was open and obvious.

Not to be deterred, Galinari argued he had been distracted by “attendant circumstances.” Not a bad argument: “attendant circumstances” can defeat the “open and obvious” doctrine. But such circumstances must divert the attention of the injured party, significantly enhance the danger of the defect, contribute to the injury, and be beyond the control of injured party. Attendant circumstances in the past have included such circumstances as time of day, lack of familiarity with the route taken, lighting conditions, and accumulation of ice. But here, the best the plaintiff could muster was that the water was inviting, other people were swimming in the lake, and there were no posted warnings. Not enough, the Court ruled, to excuse the young man from the simple precaution of checking water depth first.

Not all shallow water is so well labeled ...

Not all shallow water is so well labeled …

Galinari v. Koop, Slip Copy, 2007 WL 2482673 (Ct.App. Ohio, Sept. 4, 2007). In a tragic July 4 accident, 21-year old Nick Galinari dove off a dock into a shallow lake owned by Koop, severely injuring his spinal cord and rendering him a quadriplegic. Galinari was invited by his girlfriend, Kristin Bounds, to attend a family party hosted by Koops on their property.

The property included a small, man-made lake on which guests are permitted to swim, canoe, fish, and generally use for recreational purposes. On the shore of the lake, there was a ramp connected to a floating dock, all of which extends about 28 feet into the water. The water near the shoreline is quite shallow, fluctuating between approximately ankle-deep and knee-deep. Galinari and his girlfriend pitched a tent and then mingled with guests at the party for about 45 minutes. Galinari, Kristin, and Kristin’s sister then decided to go swimming. Kristin went into the lake while Galinari changed clothes. He then headed down the stairs to the ramp and floating dock to enter the water. He saw Kristin in the water near the end of the dock, but could not recall later if she was standing or swimming. Without stopping to check the depth of the water at the end of the dock, Galinari jogged to the end of the dock and attempted a “shallow dive” to the right of Kristin. The water where he dove was about 18 inches deep. He struck the bottom of the lake, severely injuring his spinal cord. There was no sign on the property, nor did anyone give any verbal warnings, about diving off of the dock due to the depth of the water.

Galinari sued the property owners for negligence for failure to warn him about a dangerous condition on their property. The owners moved for summary judgment, arguing that they were under no duty to warn Galinari of something as open and obvious as the shallow lake. The trial court granted the Koops summary judgment, agreeing that the shallow water was an open and obvious condition and that theytherefore had no duty to warn Galinari about a danger which he could have discovered through ordinary inspection. Galinari appealed.

Held: Galinari lost. he contended that despite the known dangers involved in diving, the question of the Koops’ negligence in failing to warn him of the shallow water required jury evaluation. He argued that he was a social guest on Koops’ property and that they breached a duty of care in failing to warn him of the dangers of diving off of the dock into their lake.

No-DivingThe Court disagreed, holding that in order to establish a cause of action for negligence, Galinari had to first show the existence of a duty. A social host owes his invited guest the duty to exercise ordinary care not to cause injury to his guest by any act of the host or by any activities carried on by the host while the guest is on the premises. This includes warning the guest of any condition of the premises known to the host and which a person of ordinary prudence and foresight in the position of the host should reasonably consider dangerous, if the host has reason to believe that the guest does not know and will not discover the dangerous condition.

However, a property owner owes no duty to warn invitees of dangers which are open and obvious. The rationale for this “open and obvious” doctrine is that the nature of the hazard serves as its own warning, and invitees then have a corresponding duty to take reasonable precautions to avoid dangers that are patent or obvious. In determining whether a condition is open and obvious, the determinative question is whether the condition is discoverable or discernible by one who is acting with ordinary care under the circumstances. This determination is an objective one: a dangerous condition does not actually have to be observed by the claimant to be an open-and-obvious condition under the law.

Here, the Court held, it is clear that the depth of water at the end of the Koops’ dock was a discoverable condition. Kristin was standing in the water near the end of the dock when Galinari dove in. The water on that day was at or below her knees. The lake bottom was clearly visible from the floating dock where Galinari dove. Galinari presented no evidence justifying any reason to believe that the water may have been deeper where he dove. He hadn’t been told he could dive from the dock and that he hadn’t seen anyone dive from that dock before him. Kristin was the only person he recalled seeing in the water as he jogged forward along the ramp and dove off of the dock. Based on this evidence, the Court said, the water was a discoverable condition by someone exercising reasonable care under the circumstances. Sadly, the Court said, if Galinari had merely looked at the water at the end of the dock, or stepped into the water to determine its depth, he would have easily determined that the lake was too shallow for diving. However, he took no precautionary measures prior to diving into the lake.

But Galinari argued that despite the open and obvious danger created by the shallow water, the doctrine of attendant circumstances precluded summary judgment. Attendant circumstances are an exception to the open and obvious doctrine and refer to distractions that contribute to an injury by diverting the attention of the injured party and reduce the degree of care an ordinary person would exercise at the time. An attendant circumstance must divert the attention of the injured party, significantly enhance the danger of the defect, contribute to the injury, and be beyond the control of injured party. The phrase refers to all facts relating to the event, including such circumstances as time of day, lack of familiarity with the route taken, lighting conditions, and accumulation of ice. Galinari argued the “inviting nature of the water,” “other water activity” and the “lack of warnings” were circumstances contributing to his belief that the water was safe for diving.

The Court noted that while the nature of the cool water may have been inviting on a hot Fourth of July, it could not consider that to be an attendant circumstance distracting appellant from the ordinary use of care. Certainly, the Court said, inviting water did not prevent appellant from being able to discover its depth. Nor did the existence of other docks and slides, the length of the dock from which he dove, and the presence of people and canoes in the water create a visual appearance that diving from the end of the dock was safe. It was clear from this testimony that the “attendant circumstances” which Galinari asserted were not distracting him from exercising due care because he did not even notice them. These circumstances in no way prevented him from exercising the ordinary amount of care or led him to believe that the water was safe for diving.

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Case of the Day, Wednesday, October 29, 2014

THE WORTH OF A HUMAN LIFE

CBS News reported recently on the continuing controversy over General Motors’ failure to recall cars with ignition switch effects. The news story included the obligatory appearance from the mother of a teenager killed in a Chevy Cobalt. Although GM maintains that no confirmed deaths are linked to the defect, the mother alleges that GM’s desire to save money by not repairing the defect resulted in her daughter’s death. She asked the reporter, “How can you place a value on human life?”

Is your PBJ sandwich worth the risk to some peanut-adverse kid somewhere?   C'mon ... let's be socially responsible.

Is your PBJ sandwich worth the risk to some peanut-adverse kid somewhere? C’mon … let’s be socially responsible.

Today’s case seems rather a rather prosaic springboard into that debate, but the hard fact is that the dollar value on human life is set every day. People are always making demands on government or industry that are objectively unreasonable, but that they believe with all their hearts are absolutely necessary because of our own experiences.

It’s the old “cost of a human life” argument, as in “how can you place a price tag on a human life?” We do, of course, all the time. If we didn’t balance lives against costs to society, we’d have no cars, airplanes, or even peanut butter. Think of the lives that would be saved! Without cars, over 34,000 lives would be saved annually in the U.S. alone. Hundreds of people a year die in aviation-related mishaps. And how about peanut butter? Is your guilty pleasure of peanut butter-banana sandwiches before bedtime worth the horrendous risk to countless children with peanut allergies? Tough policy questions, to be sure …

In today’s case, Mrs. Lacasto didn’t lose her life, but she was a mite inconvenienced (and a bit injured) in her run-in with gravity in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. A piece of city sidewalk had been pushed up by the roots of a ficus tree, also a piece of city property. Mrs. Lacasto tripped on the 1-inch rise and injured herself.

In the inevitable lawsuit — this was California, after all — she argued that the City’s tree maintenance program was deficient, and if it hadn’t been so defective she wouldn’t have fallen. The deficient maintenance program meant that the City had “constructive notice” of the damaged sidewalk, and it thus owed her a lot of money for her fall. The defect? Why, she argued, Santa Barbara only inspected trees once every five years! Horrors! If it had inspected more often, she complained, the defective sidewalk caused by the ficus tree would have been discovered.

The numbers tell the story: the City employed four tree trimmers, who had responsibility for maintaining some 32,000 city trees along some 500 miles of sidewalks. The trimmers trimmed 5,500 trees a year, and tried to get to each tree in town once every five years. The Court didn’t use a calculator, but it reckoned that the cost of inspecting sidewalks and trees every two years, as Mrs. Lacasto thought would be prudent, would have been “an onerous burden” on the City.

What’s more, the Court wisely observed, even if the ficus tree had been inspected every two years, it was sheer speculation that sidewalk rise would have been found to be a dangerous condition two years before appellant’s fall.

Of course, the City could just replace the 500 miles of concrete sidewalk with rubber. The taxpayers clearly wouldn’t mind shouldering the cost: after all, who can put a price on Mrs. Lacasto’s shins?

cracked_sidewalk140401Lacasto v. City of Santa Barbara, Case No. 1188148, 2007 WL 3203036 (Cal.App., Nov. 1, 2007). On a sunny morning in September 2005, appellant tripped on a rise in a sidewalk maintained by City. The one and a quarter-inch rise occurred at the expansion joint between two adjoining concrete panels. One foot to the south of the maximum rise, the elevation diminished to one inch. Appellant tripped at a point between the one and a quarter-inch rise and the one-inch rise. Her toe caught on the sidewalk rise and she fell, breaking her left hip.

A search of the records of the City Division of Public Works showed that, before Lacasto’s trip and fall, the division had never received any complaints or information regarding the condition of the area of sidewalk in question. A search of the records of the City Risk Management Division also failed to disclose any reports, but the City’s Street Maintenance Manager said the sidewalk defect was a hazard and should have been repaired. Near the rise in the sidewalk, a ficus tree had been planted, and a city expert opined that the rise was caused by the tree root lifting the sidewalk. The lifting had also caused a crack in the sidewalk that ran perpendicular to the rise. Mrs. Lacasto’s expert said that ‘[r]aising of hardscape does not happen overnight but over a period of time …” The City admitted it “would have taken several years” for the tree root to grow to the point where it would cause a one and a quarter-inch rise in the sidewalk.

The only sidewalk inspection the City had was to charge all City employees to be on the lookout for hazards. No City employees were responsible for inspecting sidewalks for defects. The only way the City would know about a sidewalk hazard would for a citizen or City employee reporting it to the City. The City has over 500 miles of sidewalk area. About five years before Mrs. Lacasto’s fall, City tree trimmers performed maintenance on the ficus tree in question. The City employed four tree trimmers to maintain over 5,500 of the 32,000 City trees. The City’s current system for pruning trees was based on elapsed time, with every City street and park tree receive some type of maintenance over five years. Lacasto’s expert said the City’s trees should have been inspected at least every two years. The trial court found for the City on summary judgment. Mrs. Lacasto appealed.

Held: Mrs. Lacasto’s case was thrown out. She had based her complaint on the California Tort Claims Act, that provided that a public entity is liable for injury caused by a dangerous condition on its property if the entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition. A public entity had constructive notice of a dangerous condition only if the plaintiff established 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.

scalelife140401Mrs. Lacasto conceded that there was no evidence that the City had actual notice of the defective condition. Therefore, the City’s liability had to be predicated on constructive notice, which would be found to exist only that have existed for such a length of time and are of such a conspicuous character that a reasonable inspection would have disclosed them. In order to charge the city with constructive notice, Mrs. Lacasto had to show some element of notoriety to put the city authorities on notice as to the existence of the defect or condition and its dangerous character. An inch and a half-inch rise in the sidewalk, the Court said, simply wasn’t sufficiently conspicuous to put the city on constructive notice of the defect.

In view of the City’s more than five hundred miles of sidewalks and approximately 32,000 street and park trees, the Court said it would not have been reasonably practicable to impose such an onerous burden upon the City. Even if the ficus tree had been inspected every two years, as recommended by Mrs. Lacasto’s expert, the Court said it would be speculative whether the sidewalk rise constituted a dangerous condition two years before appellant’s fall.

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Case of the Day, Thursday, October 30, 2014

THE LOG WAS TOO BIG

The first rule of plaintiffs advocacy ... look for the deep pockets.

The first rule of plaintiffs advocacy … look for the deep pockets.

Mr. Spano was a municipal employee, detailed to haul away debris left by a tree trimming company that had been hired by the village government. A fellow employee using a village front-end loader dropped a log on Spano, injuring him.

Quick, legal scholars – whose fault was it Spano was hurt? Not the village worker whose ham-handed running of the loader had caused the log to fall on Spano.  Not the village manager, who had let an unqualified worker run some dangerous heavy equipment.  No, the real culpable party, according to Spano’s lawyers, was the tree-trimming company.  Of course!  It cut the log too large, so large that it was too hard for the front-end loader to handle.

The back story here, of course, is that a patchwork of well-intended New York laws (and may God save us from well-intended laws) made it impossible for Spano to  successfully sue his employer or, for that matter, his fellow workers.  It wasn’t that Northwood Tree Service was negligent. Rather, it was that Northwood was the sole party at the scene that wasn’t immune to a lawsuit. It wasn’t the deepest pocket, it was the only pocket.

Of course, Spano also could have sued the front-end loader manufacturer for making a machine that couldn’t safely pick up a big log, or the chainsaw manufacturer for negligently making chainsaws that cut big pieces instead of small pieces, or even Starbucks for putting too much caffeine in the front-end loader operator’s latte. With lawyers this creative, the list could be endless.

lawyer-cartoon140402The court thought so, too.  It held that Northwood owed no duty to Mr. Spano simply because it had a contract with the Town.  Even if it did, it was hired to cut down a tree, and that’s what it did.  Spano’s attorney could see where the case was heading and tried to amend his way out of it, but the Court said where the complaint was palpably without merit and the amendment not sufficient to fix the problem, pulling the plug on the whole case was the only humane thing to do.

Spano v. Northwood Tree Care, Inc., 852 N.Y.S.2d 289, 48 A.D.3d 667 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept., 2008). Spano was injured while performing tree debris removal for his employer, the Town of Mount Pleasant, which contracted with Northwood Tree Care to cut down a tree. The Town provided its own employees to haul the logs away. When one of Spano’s coworkers attempted to pick up a particular log with a front-end loader, the log — which was too big for the bucket — fell on Spano’s ankle.

And just how big was the log?

And just how big was the log?

Spano said Northwood Tree Care’s employees negligently created unreasonably large and unmanageable logs for Town employees to haul away. He sued Northwood Tree Care, seeking to recover damages for injuries suffered as a result of the accident. The trial court granted summary judgment for Northwood Tree Care, and Spano appealed.

Held: The suit was properly dismissed. Northwood Tree Care established that it did not owe a duty of care to Spano by virtue of its contract with the Town, and in any event, the Town properly performed its obligations. The trial court also correctly denied Spano’s cross motion for leave to amend the complaint. While leave to amend a complaint shall be freely given under the rules, the Court said leave may be denied where, as here, the proposed amendment was palpably insufficient or patently devoid of merit.

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Case of the Day, Friday, October 31, 2014

MEASURING HARM

oopsMr. Harper accidentally cut down 70 trees on Ms. Dumas’ property, thus markedly improving his view. Oops!

The more skeptical among us think that cutting one Dumas tree would have been an accident, cutting down a few would be tragedy. But cutting down 70 of ‘em, and coincidentally achieving the better view Mr. Harper coveted … well, that sounds like enemy action.

The Connecticut court is considerably more credulous than we are. The judge bought the notion that Mr. Harper and his woodsmen goofed, but pondered long and hard about how to figure the damages. In a weird inversion of schadenfreude, Ms. Dumas argued her damages should be measured by the value that Mr. Harper derived from his better view. The Court rejected that.

Instead, it held, the measure of damages is either the value of the timber or the diminution in value of Ms. Dumas’ place. Harper said that the trees he accidently lopped weren’t ornamental, so the only damage is about $1,000 worth of debris (thus proving that while he couldn’t identify a property line, old Mr. Harper didn’t lack for chutzpah).

schaden141031The Court disagreed. The trees weren’t strictly ornamental, but that was their purpose, regardless of Mr. Harper’s sad attempt at speciesism. The damages should be measured by the cost of repair, the Court said, and the repair will cost $16,000.

Careful testimony by Ms. Dumas’ expert was crucial to establishing her damages, and arborists and landscape professionals should consider how plenty of detail can persuade a court to side with an expert’s report. For the same reason play-by-play people keep a color commentator near at hand, an expert should tell a story that’s not only accurate and complete, but interesting as well.

Dumas v. Harper, Not Reported in A.2d, 2008 WL 496558 (Conn.Super.Ct., Feb. 6, 2008). Yvon Dumas claims that Emery Harper and his agents entered on her land without permission and cut down about seventy trees. Dumas claimed trespass, and sought damages and treble damages pursuant to Connecticut law, and other equitable relief. The matter was tried to the court.

Based on the evidence, including a site inspection, the court found that Harper and his minions cut down about 70 trees, resulting in the area looking unsightly, with tree stumps and branches and debris strewn about. The Court found that Harper’s trespass was the result of a mistake.

Nothing left but a stump field ...

Nothing left but a stump field …

Dumas introduced evidence of the value of the “view” to Harper with the trees on her property cut down. But the Court ruled that the value of any view to Harper was not the measure of damages, but rather the damages were either the market value of the tree once cut down, or the diminution in the market value of Dumas’ property caused by the cutting. Harper argued that the only measure of damages the court can award pursuant to Connecticut General Statute § 52-560 was the market value of the 70 trees as severed from the soil, because the trees in question were neither ornamental nor shade trees. The Court disagreed, holding that while the trees were not ornamental trees as such, the evidence was that they had ornamental value insofar as their removal rendered that portion of Dumas’ property unsightly. It would make no sense, the Court said, for the damages to be limited to the value of the trees as severed from the realty. The damages to be awarded to Dumas should be based on the reduction in the pecuniary value of the land because of the cutting.

The Court found that the diminution in value to the Dumas property should be measured by the cost of cleanup and screening the area with new trees. The Court accepted the expert opinion of Dumas’ landscape consultant, who testified that the work would take a week or more and would cost $9,180 for labor and $6,000 for new trees.

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