Cases from September 2014


Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 2, 2014

PEOPLE BEHAVING VERY BADLY

 

Remember the California Dahlquists, the neighbors from hell we reported on in our July 25th case? Well, they have Doppelgängers in Connecticut. But unlike the real thing, these are even more evil than the first.

Welcome to the neighborhood ...

Welcome to the neighborhood …

Meet the Cooleys, neighbors who were so bad as to drive the Court to write a plaintive plea that everyone try to get along. How bad, you ask? Well, Mrs. Cooley tried to run down her neighbor with her car.  She built a chicken-wire spite fence.  Her son threatened to beat up his elderly neighbor (who had just had a heart transplant). Yeah, that bad …

This case is one of those rare fact-driven trial court decisions worth reading just to get the flavor of the Court’s incredulity that people could carry on like this. At one point, the judge observes that “[o]ne could almost use that well worn lawyer’s expression ‘I rest my case’ after merely viewing Mrs. Cooley’s Exhibit 12, which in gruesome detail sets out the ‘this is my property’ syndrome.” The court finally issues a 15-point injunction ordering the Cooleys to stop doing 12 acts of malice, and the Quarantas to refrain from three others. It found application for a seldom-used Connecticut statute prohibiting structures built out of malice, banning a chicken-wire monstrosity erected by the Cooleys as a “spite fence.” Finally, it found the often-alleged but seldom-proven “intentional infliction of emotional distress” tort to have been shown here, and ordered the Cooleys pay the Quarantas legal fees.

At the end of its opinion, the Court ordered each party to read his final words out loud.  Those were a plea by the Court for these people to rewind the clock to the beginning and try to get along. The Court’s frustration and sense that no matter what the law said, nothing would stop the bickering, comes through. Not great moments in the development of the law … just a neighbor law tale worth reading.

There was even a "spite fence" in the story ...

There was even a “spite fence” in the story …

Quaranta v. Cooley, Not Reported in A.2d, 2007 WL 4577942 (Conn.Super. 2007). People behaving very badly. You know how the opinion’s going to go when the Court begins by quoting an old Supreme Court opinion that “… it is the bickerings, spite, and hatred arising from neighborhood quarrels; it is difficult for any legislation to remedy such evil.”

The Quarantas were senior citizens who had lived in the same home for 26 years. Mr. Quaranta was on life support system and eventually had a heart transplant. The Cooleys were younger than the Quarantas, but had a 25-year-old son and health considerations of their own. When the original landowner subdivided his property into the lots which became the homes of the Cooleys and Quarantas, there was an existing paved driveway to the Quarantas’ home from the street, bordered with a split rail fence and a grassy area on each side. The landowner created by deed two 25’ easement roads (for a total width of 50 feet) over the same area on which his driveway existed. Each lot owned 25’ of the road, and each owner had the right to pass over the 25 feet owned by the other. The practical effect of these easements is to allow all three parcels of land to share access to the public street with one common driveway. Although the neighbors couldn’t see each others’ homes, they ended up in a continuing vitriolic spat in which each side accused the other of using the “F” word, raising the middle finger on numerous occasions, and other immature and harassing behavior, such as the noisy racing of vehicles, the blowing of car horns and trash placement fights.

The Court held that the Cooleys, who were New York City dwellers unused to the suburban life, utterly lacked credibility on the stand. It found that the battle began with Mrs. Cooley delivering a letter to the Quarantas within 30 days of her having moved in, in which she told them their lampposts and driveway sat on the Cooley property. Then, the Cooley son began throwing keg parties at the Cooley home, with noisy partygoers parking all along the right-of-way. The parties were noisy and annoying, and afterwards, the Quarantas found themselves cleaning up empty bottles and cigarette butts. The parties were held about four times a month. The Quarantas complained without effect. The grand finale was the Cooley Halloween Party in 2005. When Mrs. Quaranta went out in her nightgown to ask for peace and quiet, the partygoers cursed her – one exposing himself to her – and urinated toward her. After this, Mrs. Cooley and her daughter, took to riding at high speed over the grassy area, even leaving deep tire tracks. Although the Cooley’s trash pickup was on Friday, they would put their trash out all week long, at a spot where it was viewable only from the Quarantas property. Animals got to the trash during the week and the plaintiffs did the clean up. Mrs. Cooley would to drive fast down the mutual passage raising dust and her middle finger while blowing her horn the entire distance. She overdosed her own lawn with weedkiller, killing all of the grass ostensibly so she wouldn’t have to mow. Her lawn, of course, fronted on the Quarantas’ lush and meticulous.

badneighbora140204There were countless verbal confrontations as well. The Cooley son yelled at Mr. Quaranta, a man past 65 with a heart transplant, “Hit me! I’ll wipe the ground up with you.” Previously, another judge had ordered the parties to refrain from intimidating, threatening, harassing, stalking, assaulting, or attacking each other, and to refrain from entering the property of the other, until the dispute was tried and resolved on the merits. After that, the Cooleys built an ugly chicken wire f ence on the side of the passage that fronts the Quarantas’ house only. The trial court was called upon to mediate the dispute.

Held: The Court found for the plaintiffs, the Quarantas. It held that Mrs. Cooley’s testimony was so bad that it noted that “[o]ne could almost use that well worn lawyer’s expression ‘I rest my case’ after merely viewing Mrs. Cooley’s Exhibit 12, which in gruesome detail sets out the “this is my property” syndrome. The court found it unsurprising that she took an axe to, and threatened to destroy, anything – even things of beauty – found on her property. These items included a lamppost, (that provided her light with the Quarantas paying for the electricity), fences (that enhanced the entrance to both their properties), a beautiful birch tree (with no professional evidence that it had to be cut down), a ceramic nameplate, (which her son admitted smashing) and even shrubbery. “Such warmth!” the Court said. “And it shows in the fifty plus exhibits.”

The Court held that the chicken wire fence was maliciously erected, based on its character, its location, and the obvious state of mind and motive of the defendant. It ordered the fence removal pursuant to §52-480 of the Connecticut Statutes. It found that the Cooleys had exceeded the use of the right of way in a vindictive and malicious manner so as to harm the Quarantas, rather than just for ingress and egress. It held that number of the Cooleys’ activities on this simple right-of-way were, “in layman’s terms, ludicrous, and in legal terms harmful, unnecessary, illegal and unreasonable.” It issued a detailed injunction spelling out 12 acts in which the Cooleys were not to engage, and 3 acts in which the Quarantas were not to engage.

A happy ending?  Not with these folks ...

A happy ending? Not with these folks …

Based upon the totality of the evidence, the Court held that the Cooleys directly and indirectly negligently and intentionally caused severe emotional distress to the Quarantas, and knew or should have known that their acts would result in severe emotional distress to the plaintiffs. In the case of Mr. Quaranta, the distress was found to be life threatening. The Cooleys evidenced a reckless indifference to the Quarantas’ rights and showed an intentional and wanton violation of these rights. The injury was inflicted maliciously, with evil motive and violence. The Court awarded the Quarantas their legal fees as damages.

The Court took the unusual step of ordering a final statement to be personally read by the parties. It begged both parties to “go back to the day the Cooleys moved in and put everything back the way it was. Let us dig a hole and bury all of the ill feelings and hatreds that are all consuming.” The Court, writing this on Thanksgiving Eve, ended by noting that “[t]he person whom many people honor in this Holiday Season forgave everyone. Isn’t it time that the Quarantas and the Cooleys caught the spirit of the Season?”

Postscript: They did not. Rather, they were back in court repeatedly between 2007 and 2012, arguing over contempt motions filed against each other. Oh, the humanity …

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THE RISK WAS OBVIOUS TO A CHILD

The McDonald's coffee lawsuit - easy to deride, but conventional wisdom is probably wrong.

The McDonald’s coffee lawsuit – easy to deride, but conventional wisdom is probably wrong.

Tort law has long been a popular target for those lamenting the demise of the Republic. You know, the folklore about the McDonald’s coffee case (which in reality, wasn’t so outrageous after all) and the phony “view with alarm” e-mails that circulate about absolutely fictitious decisions.

But truth be told, most tort law decisions aren’t nearly as outrageous as its would-be reformers would have us believe. Take today’s case. Some boys were playing at a school playground, and decided to raid oranges from a neighbor’s tree. After they had gotten all the low-hanging fruit, one of them stuck his bicycle handlebars in the chain link fence, climbed up his makeshift ladder, and reached across the fence. Naturally, the bike came loose from the fence and he fell, cutting himself on the sharp tines on top of the fence.

The boy sued the school district for maintaining a dangerous fence. The only outrage was that his lawyer decided to sue at all. The fact that no one had ever been hurt on the fence in 16 years didn’t matter. The boy’s attorney argued that it was reasonably foreseeable that young boys would be attracted to oranges adjacent to the fence and would use the fence (whether by climbing or using a bicycle or other means to fashion a ladder) to enable them to reach the fruit.  The Court said ‘nonsense’.

Kids really do some pretty foolhardy things.

Kids really do some pretty foolhardy things.

Chain link fences are ubiquitous, the Court said, but not even kids — who are held to lower standards than adults — would think that it was a reasonable use of the property to thread bicycle handlebars through the links to make an impromptu ladder. The dangerous condition of property should be defined in terms of the manner in which it is foreseeable that the property will be used by persons exercising due care. After all, the Court said, any property can be dangerous if used in a sufficiently abnormal manner.

This decision would be refreshing were it not so commonplace. Less than 5 percent of all civil cases are torts, and only about 4 percent of those go to trial. Recent statistics show that plaintiffs only win about half of the trials, and only half of those winners get more than $24,000 in damages. Most tort lawsuits are losers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, tort law does not always come with a leprechaun and a pot of gold.

Biscotti v. Yuba City Unified School Dist., 158 Cal.App.4th 554 ( 2007). Nine-year-old Christian Biscotti and his friends were riding bicycles on the grounds of a public school. The boys decided to pick oranges from a tree located in a neighbor’s yard, which was separated from the school’s grounds by a metal chain link fence. The fence, installed when the school was built in 1959, had metal prongs across its top edge. After the boys had picked all the oranges they could reach from the ground, Christian placed a bicycle next to the chain link fence, poking one handlebar through an opening in the fence to help stabilize the bicycle. He then climbed up and stood on the bicycle, balancing himself with one foot on its seat and his other foot on the bar. While Christian reached over the fence and yanked on an orange, the bicycle slipped and he fell onto the fence. His left arm struck the metal tines and was cut.

For at least 16 years prior to the accident, there had been no reported complaints about the safety of the fence and no reported accidents or injuries related to it. That didn’t keep Christian from suing Yuba City Unified School District, which promptly won on summary judgment. Christian appealed.

Standing on the seat and handlebars of a bike leaning against a chain-link fence ... who could imagine that could go so wrong?

Standing on the seat and handlebars of a bike leaning against a chain-link fence. in order to pick an orange … who could imagine that such a reasonable activity could go so wrong?

Held: The school district was not liable. In California, public entity liability for personal injury — governed by statute — is imposed for injuries caused by a dangerous condition of public property where a plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition. A “dangerous condition” of public property is a condition of property that creates a substantial risk of injury when the property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used. The intent of these statutes, the Court said, is to impose liability only when there is a substantial danger which is not apparent to those using the property in a reasonably foreseeable manner with due care.

The Court held that Christian failed to raise an issue of material fact as to whether the school district maintained a dangerous condition on its property. The Court said that the risk of falling and being seriously injured would be obvious even to a nine-year-old boy at the time Christian poked the handlebar of his bicycle into an opening in the chain link fence, climbed onto the bicycle, balanced himself with one foot on the seat and his other foot on the bar, and reached over the fence to pick an orange from a tree on the adjacent property. While unfortunate, the injury that resulted when the readily apparent risk of falling became a reality is not compensable. The undisputed facts established that Christian was not using the fence with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.

The lesson the boy learned, the Court observed, is that tort law did not protect him from the consequence of his careless decision.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, September 4, 2014

TAKING A MULLIGAN

mulligan140904There was trouble in Randolph County, Alabama, up near the Georgia line. The Ledfords had purchased a nice vacation home on a lake, next to a place owned by the Youngs. The Youngs appear to have loved the natural setting. The Ledfords were more concerned that nature’s bounty – specifically one large pine tree on the boundary between the Ledford’s land and the Young property – was going to fall on their house. They wanted the tree cut down. The Youngs refused. The matter ended up in court.

Of course, regular treeandneighborlawblog readers know how that should have turned out: if the tree really sits on the boundary line, both landowners have to agree before it can be cut down. The trial court reasoned otherwise. Under the Massachusetts Rule, a landowner can trim parts of a tree that overhang or grow under his or her property, all the way from the center of the earth to the sky. So that meant the Ledfords could cut out half of the tree, the court mused. That would kill the tree, but the court interpreted the Massachusetts Rule to mean that since you’re allowed to hack at the roots and branches of a tree without regard to the damage you cause, then you can take down the whole boundary tree if you like. The trial court gave the Ledfords the go-ahead to take down the tree.

The Youngs appealed, and common sense prevailed. The Court of Appeals explained the proper boundary tree rule, and reversed the trial court’s errant ruling. But in so doing, a few judges on the appeal panel wondered aloud (or at least, in the written opinion) why the Ledfords hadn’t argued that they had the right to cut down the pine tree because it was a nuisance. Remember Fancher v. Fagella? One judge went so far as to say that if the record held evidence of nuisance, he would have upheld the trial court, wrong though its reasoning was.

Do we have to spell it out?  The trial court was just plain wrong.

Do we have to spell it out? The trial court was plain wrong.

Well, the Ledfords could take a hint. When the case went back to the trial court “for proceedings consistent with this opinion,” as the court of appeals decisions like to say, they asked for a do-over, a second hearing, this one on nuisance. ‘Hold the phone!’ the Youngs cried. ‘The Court of Appeals said the Ledfords lost. The tree stays standing. Game over.’

The trial court gave the Ledfords their Mulligan. It ordered a second hearing, and afterwards found the pine tree to be a nuisance. The Ledfords were told they could cut it down. Again.

The Youngs went back the court of appeals for a writ of mandamus, essentially a request that the court of appeals issue an order telling the trial court it couldn’t hold the second hearing. The court of appeals refused to do so. Applying an obscure rule called the “law of the case” doctrine, the appellate court held that while the trial court was required to apply the ruling the court of appeals had issued, that ruling was just that the Ledfords could not cut down a boundary tree without the agreement of their neighbors. The court of appeals did not say the tree had to remain – just that if it was to be cut down, it couldn’t be on the basis originally articulated by the trial court.

The lessons here? The Ledfords’ attorney should have argued nuisance to begin with. It should have been clear that arguing that his clients could cut down a boundary tree was a loser. Besides, in civil litigation, you argue as many alternative theories as possible to get your clients where they want to end up. Who knows which one will be a winner?

Of course, the Ledfords ended up winning, and the pine tree lost. But as an old judge once cautioned, you should never dig up more snakes than you can kill. Why buy a second trip to the court of appeals by leaving out an argument, and asking for a Mulligan later?

A few too many snakes?  The Ledford's lawyer courted procedural trouble.

A few too many snakes? The Ledfords’ lawyer courted procedural trouble.

Ex parte Young, 79 So.3d 656 (Ala.Civ.App. 2011): The Ledfords owned a vacation house with a pine tree located slightly over 10 feet from Ledford’s house, on the boundary between their property and that of the Youngs. Fearing that [a] strong wind against the tree could cause it to fall on the home and could cause damage to the [house] as well as serious injury to any occupants,’ the Ledfords wanted a court order that they could cut it down.

The Youngs argued that the pine tree was ‘a true boundary line tree’ and contended that it could not cut down by either property owner without permission of the other. After a hearing in which the Ledfords, the Youngs, and a forester hired by the Youngs all gave testimony, the trial court held that Ledford and her husband could remove the tree at their convenience, taking steps to minimize damage to the Youngs’ lot. The trial court held that because Alabama law let a landowner remove any trees on his or her property up to the property line, and this right extended to the center of the earth and into the sky, the Ledfords were free to hack into the pine tree up to the property line and then cut from that point to the center of the earth and into the sky. The Court said that “[s]ince [the Ledfords] unquestionably has the right to remove any portion of the tree that is located on [their] side of the property line and since doing so would likely kill the tree, the Court is of the opinion that [they] should be allowed to completely remove the tree to ensure” that the property and the health of anyone there are protected.

When the case got to the Court of Appeals the first time, it was promptly reversed. Rejecting the trial court’s tortured “center of the earth to the sky” analysis, the appellate court ruled that “[i]n the special case of a boundary-line tree, … each adjacent landowner has ownership rights that cannot be trumped by the other’s desires in the manner suggested by the trial court’s judgment” and that the Ledfords – contrary to the trial court’s judgment – could not properly “‘cut into the tree to the property line and then cut from that point to the center of the earth and into the sky'” without incurring liability to the Youngs.

But the appellate court went a little further. In a concurring opinion, two of the judges on the appellate panel observed that the action had been argued on the basis of the Ledfords’ contention that they were entitled to remove the boundary-line tree at issue merely because its trunk was located in part on their property. The judges noted that whether the “boundary-line tree at issue in this case constituted a nuisance for which an exception to the general rule set forth in the main opinion might apply” had not been litigated. A third judge on the panel said that had the record contained evidence indicating that the tree at issue posed a danger to the Ledfords’ house,” he would have voted to affirm the judgment instead of reverse it.

After the appellate judgment issued, the Ledfords asked the trial court for another hearing to consider whether the pine tree was a nuisance. The Youngs argued that the appeals court had decided in their favor, and the case should be closed. But the trial court had another hearing, and afterwards decided that the tree was a nuisance, and that the Ledfords could remove it on that basis.

The Youngs filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the appeals court to order the trial court to enter judgment for them, and end the hearing.

Held: The Ledfords could cut down the tree. A court will issue a writ of mandamus only when the petitioner has a clear legal right to the order sought; the respondent has an imperative duty to perform, accompanied by a refusal to do so; there is no other adequate remedy at law; and the court has jurisdiction of the court.

Mulligan140206Here, the Court of Appeals said, the only real question was whether the trial court had the right to hold a second trial in this matter. The Youngs contended that the prior appellate court’s decision was final as to all matters before it and that the trial court, after that initial appeal, was not allowed to hold another hearing and take additional testimony without permission of the appellate court to do so. The court of appeals agreed with that statement of the law, but said that only the particular issue that had formed the basis of the trial court’s judgment – whether Ledfords could unilaterally remove the boundary-line tree simply because the majority of it was located on their side of the common boundary – was addressed. Based upon that conclusion, the court of appeals had reversed the trial court’s judgment letting the Ledfords unilaterally remove the tree,” and remanded the cause “for further proceedings consistent with [that] opinion.”

Because of the limited scope of the trial court’s previous judgment, no one had ruled on whether the boundary-line tree posed a danger to Ledford’s home or amounted to a nuisance. While the prior decision was thelaw of the case,” nothing in the prior opinion limited the trial court from ruling on the nuisance question, which the court of appeals admitted remained open for decision. Deciding to examine the nuisance question did not put the trial court in the position of doing something contrary to what the court of appeals had ordered.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, September 5, 2014

ACQUIESCENCE

One big happy family ... until part of the homestead gets sold.

One big happy family … until part of the homestead gets sold.

Lawyers and surveyors are the first to tell you that you should always carefully survey and protect the boundaries of your property.  Daily.  It’ as important as flossing.  And the advice is ignored just as often.

This is especially so when the adjoining property owners are family.   If you can’t get along with your kin …

In today’s case, a family farm — handed down from father to son to son — had adjacent farmland parcels. The brothers owning them agreed that a barbed-wire fence they laid — measured off the centerline of a county road — was the boundary between their lands. They measured carefully and marked the fence with fed flags and pennies crimped around the barbed wire, but they didn’t use a surveyor. After all, we’re all family, so who needs to waste money on a third-party?

The problem was that the county road centerline wasn’t accurate. As a result the 60-acre parcel and the 18-acre parcel were off by about a quarter-acre in favor of the bigger piece of land. But no one knew it, and the agreed-upon boundary survived the decay of the fence, the installation of a mobile home and the digging of a well to replace one end of the fence.

It wasn’t until the 18-acre parcel passed out of the family that the buyer discovered — four years after he took possession — that the presumed boundary was off a bit. What’s a quarter acre out in Nebraska farm country? For the buyer, Aaron Sila, it was a lawsuit.

A long-standing rule provides that mutual acquiescence between owners can establish a boundary line where the actual location of the line is unknown. The Nebraska trial court held, however, that the doctrine wouldn’t work in this case, because the line could easily have been calculated by a surveyor using the legal descriptions in the deed. The ruling, of course, begged the question: when exactly would a boundary be unknown if the owners hired a surveyor? Shades of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns,” back in the golden days of the Iraq invasion!

EasementsThe Nebraska Supreme Court recognized that the trial court’s impossible standard effectively gutted the mutual acquiescence doctrine, and it reversed the decision. It didn’t matter, the Court said, that owners might be able to fix the actual boundary by hiring lawyers and surveyors. They in fact didn’t know where the line was for sure, and they agreed to what each knew was an approximation. It worked for longer than the 10-year statutory period, the Court found, and that was good enough to establish a new boundary by acquiescence.

Sila v. Saunders, 743 N.W.2d 641, 274 Neb. 809 (2008). This case arose as a boundary dispute between two adjoining farm property owners, Kirk and Aaron. The properties were once part of a single farm owned by Kirk’s grandfather, but the land was divided into three parcels and given to his three sons: Vern, George, and Kirk’s father, Eugene. George got an 18 acre parcel east of a county road. Vern and Eugene were each given adjacent 30-acre parcels to the east of George’s 18 acres.

A year later, Vern died, and his 30 acres were acquired by Eugene. Kirk eventually inherited a 20-acre segment of Eugene’s 60 acres. That segment abutted the disputed 18-acre parcel originally given to George. In the early 60s, George and Eugene established the shared boundary of their properties, “[t]o split the farm up to get a boundary line so [George] knew what he owned and what my dad owned,” according to Kirk’s brother, Elloite. George and Eugene decided not to hire a professional surveyor to mark the boundary, and they mistakenly believed that the middle of the county road represented a section line marking the west boundary of George’s 18 acres. George and Eugene took a 100-foot tape measure and some flags and measured 594 feet east from the middle of the county road. They crimped a penny over the barbed wire and tied red flags on the fence at the 594-foot line of both the north and the south ends of the properties. After this, George’s crops were farmed on the west side of the boundary, and Eugene planted his crops on the east side of the boundary. An aerial photograph from the time showed a clear demarcation between the two parcels that appeared to be parallel to the county road from which the boundary had been measured.

In 1965, Kirk removed the barbed wire fence on the south end of the property, but placed a water well next to the property line designated by the crimped penny. After the removal of the fence in 1965, the well was understood by George and Eugene to be the south visual marker for the boundary between their properties. George and Eugene farmed their respective lands with the well on the south end and the crimped penny on the north end of the boundary for 21 years. When George died in 1986, Eugene and Elliotte continued to farm Eugene’s 60-acre parcel, and they also farmed George’s land for his widow, but they maintained the crop boundary line according to the well/stump boundary. When Eugene died three years later, Elliotte continued to farm George’s land and the 20 abutting acres inherited by Kirk, and he still considered the well and the tree stump as boundary markers.

Aaron Sila bought the 18 acres from George’s widow in 2001. Four years later, he hired a surveyor, who found that the centerline of the county road along the west side of Aaron’s property did not — as George and Eugene had believed — correspond to the section line. Aaron’s surveyor didn’t notice either a stump or a well as visual markers of a boundary line.

Remember Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknows?"  The Court said that doctrine didn't limit mutual acquiescence


Remember Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns?” The Court said that doctrine didn’t limit mutual acquiescence.

Elliotte hired a surveyor, whose survey showed the disputed area as a trapezoid of about .264 of an acre in issue. The trial court found that Aaron owned the disputed parcel, because mutual acquiescence can only fix a boundary that is otherwise unknown. Since the true location of the boundary was set forth in the legal description and was readily ascertainable through conventional surveying techniques, the court concluded it was “known.” The court also rejected Kirk’s adverse possession claim. Kirk appealed.

Held: The trial court’s decision was reversed. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that under the doctrine of mutual recognition and acquiescence, while a boundary may be fixed in accordance with a survey, when a different boundary is shown to have existed between the parties for the 10-year statutory period, it is that boundary line which is determinative and not that of the original survey. The fact that the true boundary might be “knowable” because the deed contains a metes and bounds description that a registered surveyor could have properly marked on the land — but did not — does not preclude the property owners from acquiescing in a boundary that they believe corresponds with the deed’s description.

Here, the two owners knew that the boundary line was merely an approximation of the real boundary. Nevertheless, that fact did not preclude a finding of mutual recognition and acquiescence, so long as the acquiescing parties recognized this approximation as their actual boundary. In order for mutual recognition and acquiescence to operate, there had to be an assent, by words, conduct, or silence, in a line as the boundary.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, September 8, 2014

THAT EQUITY MAY PREVAIL

A barricuda in one of its habitats - the other is a courtroom.

A barracuda in one of its habitats – the other is a courtroom.

Sometimes you really wish you knew the back story on a lawsuit. To merely read the recitation of facts and the application of the law in some cases leaves you wondering – why is this case even in the courtroom?

Today’s case is a perfect example. The Mannings lived in a housing development. Behind their well-manicured lawn lay some scrubby, undeveloped woods. Their neighbors had a back lawn that was about 30 feet deeper, and the Manning family mistakenly thought that their own lawn must be that long, too. So they cleaned and chopped weeds and took down some saplings, and installed a park bench and baseball batting cage.

But it turned out that the land wasn’t theirs. Presently, they got a letter from some limited liability company’s lawyer, telling them to cease and desist forthwith, govern their actions accordingly, and all of that legal mumbo-jumbo. Chastened, the Mannings withdrew to their own boundary.

End of story? Nope. The owner of the land, CUDA Associates, LLC — “CUDA” undoubtedly being short for “barracuda” — sued the Mannings for the grievous harm they obviously had done to its rather decrepit piece of real estate. The “‘Cuda” sued for trespass, for intentional and wrongful cutting of timber in violation of Connecticut law, and for “unjust enrichment.”

OK, fo technically, the Mannings did commit a trespass ... but they left the land in better shape than they found it.

OK, so technically, the Mannings did commit a trespass … but they left the land in better shape than they found it.

You have to wonder why CUDA would have sued at all. After all, there was no damage to the CUDA land.  In fact, the Court suggested the Mannings had improved it.  What’s more, the trespass was an honest mistake, and the trespassers withdrew as soon as their attention was called to the error.  We’ll never know the whys.  But the trial court pretty clearly agreed with us that the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot: the judge dryly observed that “[t]he equities in this claim clearly rest with the defendants, and as such must be balanced with the nominal losses that the plaintiff has suffered.” In other words, the Mannings’ trespass was pretty minor and done honestly enough, and CUDA didn’t really suffer for it. It seemed like a waste of the court’s time.

However – and we should all know this by now – litigants are allowed to waste the court’s time, and they do so daily.  As maligned as lawyers are, sometimes the fees they charge are the only brakes ever applied to the wacky legal claims their clients want to press in the courtroom.   Unfortunately for the Mannings, no cooler heads prevailed in the offices of CUDA’s counsel, so the suit was litigated to judgment.

The court recognized that Connecticut law dictated that damages had to be awarded, even where the trespass was trifling. So it awarded CUDA $1,500, an amount which (we hope) was probably much less than its attorney’s fee.  So some justice prevailed in the end, even if it was only found in lining a lawyer’s pocket.

CUDA Associates, LLC v. Manning, Not Reported in A.2d, 2008 WL 249974 (Conn.Super., Jan. 8, 2008). CUDA Associates owned 3,000 square feet from which the Mannings cleared trees, removed underbrush and in effect extended the back boundary of their property line by approximately 30 feet along the entire easterly line of their backyard. All of the surrounding land owned by CUDA or its successor was undeveloped. The Mannings’ house was located in a developed residential area with housing on both sides of White Avenue, and abutting the plaintiff’s property to the east and south. The Mannings installed a park bench, a baseball practice apparatus and the cutting of certain trees and undergrowth, an intrusion into the CUDA’s property that ended when CUDA wrote to them. The Mannings were operating under a mistaken belief that the property that they had encroached upon was theirs and roughly matched the back property line of their neighbor. This mistaken belief led them to do certain clearing and cutting of trees and underbrush and to use the property for their own benefit. CUDA sued for trespass, removal of timber in violation of statute and unjust enrichment.

An accidental trespass is still a trespass.

An accidental trespass is still a trespass.

Held: The Court found that the Mannings commited a trespass upon a portion of CUDA’s property for their own use and benefit, but any loss of use for CUDA was not measurable. The trespass was negligent and not intentional and, therefore, only minimal damages were awarded. As for the cutting of trees, timber or shrubbery in violation of Connecticut General Statute §52-560, while the Mannings did cut trees, CUDA failed to establish the quantity or the value of any of the trees that had been removed. In fact, the Court said, the cutting may have actually improved the overall site appearance for CUDA’s benefit. Nothing more than reasonable and ascertainable value under the statute can be awarded.

As for unjust enrichment, the Court held that the non-permanent intrusion by the Mannings was unintentional and any benefit derived by them was coincidental to the use of their own backyard property, and was of a de minimis nature.  The Court said that equities in this claim clearly rested with the Mannings, and had to be balanced with the nominal losses that the CUDA suffered. The Court awarded CUDA $400 for the common-law trespass, $600 for the timber statute violation, and $500 for unjust enrichment.

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Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 9, 2014

SHUT MY MOUTH!

When the Harrises moved in back about 1956, they thought their land extended back well beyond where it actually did. They tended to their land – including the part they thought was theirs but wasn’t ­– planting flowers, mowing the lawn and finally putting in and nurturing a beautiful break of pine trees along what they thought was the property line.

The pines trees marked what everyone thought was the property boundary.

The pines trees marked what everyone thought was the property boundary.

The Harrises eventually sold the land to their granddaughter, Melissa Watts-Sanders. She likewise believed that the land went back to the trees, and she maintained it as her own. Finally, she installed a dog pen on the disputed property.

Or perhaps we should we say “soon-to-be disputed property.” Because it seems she had a new neighbor, Mindy Chambliss. Ms. Chambliss did things right. She hired a surveyor who, sure enough, found that the land with the dog pen on it belonged to her

Ms. Chambliss was not a lawyer (or much of a speller, which is a rapidly-dying art in this day and age). However, she knew some cool-sounding legal terms – “cease and desist” being among them – so she wrote Ms. Watts-Sanders a missive demanding that she “cease and desist” with the dog pen, and claiming what she believed to be rightfully hers. In the letter, Ms. Chambliss officiously explained that her survey “does superscede [sic] the fact that the property was maintained for 49 years.”

Badspelling140909Maybe it was the spelling. Whatever the reason, Ms. Watts-Sanders was not suitably cowed by the letter, so Ms. Chambliss sued. When she did, Ms. Watts-Sanders defended by arguing that a new boundary line had been established over the years by acquiescence. Nonsense, said Ms. Chambliss. Pine trees did not a boundary make, and none of Ms. Watts-Sanders’ predecessors had ever expressed an intention to occupy the land. And, Ms. Chambliss said, proudly showing her “cease and desist” letter to the Court, she had told Ms. Watts-Sanders about the surveyor’s findings.

‘Say what?’ the court asked, looking at the letter. ‘You mean Ms. Watts-Sander’s people had maintained the property for 49 years?’  Well, the Court said, that was something.  In fact, given that the Watts-Sanders people maintained and used the land for half a decade without any complaint from Chambliss’s predecessors, the case was pretty compelling that someone had acquiesced to the pine tree boundary.

The lesson here? Clients, let your lawyers be your mouthpiece. Ms. Chambliss’s smug “explanation” of what trumped what turned out to be an admission against her own interests, and ended up being a pretty costly law lecture.

There's a reason lawyers are called 'mouthpieces' ...

There’s a reason lawyers are called ‘mouthpieces’ …

Chambliss v. Watts-Sanders, Not Reported in S.W.3d, 2008-AR-0131.003, 2008 WL 241288 (Ark.App., Jan. 30, 2008). Ms. Chambliss and Ms. Watts-Sanders share a common backyard boundary. The dispute began after Ms. Chambliss ordered a survey which showed that Ms. Watts-Sanders had built a dog pen on Ms. Chambliss’s land. Ms. Watts-Sanders claimed property up to a row of pine trees planted on the disputed tract, but those trees were 23 feet east of the surveyed boundary line. Ms. Chambliss demanded that Ms. Watts-Sanders remove the dog pen, claiming to Ms. Watts-Sanders in writing that her survey superseded the fact that Watts-Sanders maintained the property for 49 years.

The property formerly belonged to Watts-Sanders’ grandparents, Vivian and Loren Harris. The Harrises bought the property in 1956 and built a house there. They later planted the pine trees and developed the flower bed toward the rear of the property. Mr. Harris cut the grass between the flower bed and the pine trees and that he treated the pine trees as the boundary between the two properties. No one except the Harrises used the disputed area since 1956. Ms. Watts-Sanders received the deed to the property from her grandmother in 2004. She noted that the pine trees were planted as close to in a line as possible and that the trees marked the boundary line between the properties.

Ms. Chambliss purchased her property in 2003, and thought her land went to the concrete edging of the flowerbed. She was unaware that Ms. Watts-Sanders claimed possession of the disputed property until she placed the dog pen. Ms. Chambliss claimed that she had maintained the disputed property since purchasing it in 2003 and that she never saw Watts-Sanders on the property. The trial court found that Watts-Sanders had established the row of trees as the boundary by acquiescence and quieted title to the disputed property in her name. It also awarded her $250 in damages for the cost of rebuilding the dog pen. Ms. Chambliss appealed.

Held: The decision in favor of Ms. Watts-Sanders was upheld. Ms. Chambliss argued that the tree line was not a physical and permanent boundary, there was no evidence that Watts-Sanders’ predecessors occupied the disputed property, and there was no proof that any of Watts-Sanders’s predecessors-in-interest took any actions to indicate that the disputed land belonged to them.

The Court noted that the mere existence of a fence or some other line, without evidence of mutual recognition, cannot sustain a finding of boundary by acquiescence. However, silent acquiescence is sufficient, and the boundary line usually can inferred from the parties’ conduct over so many years. A party trying to prove that a boundary line has been established by acquiescence need only show that both parties at least tacitly accepted the non-surveyed line as the true boundary line.

The takeaway for today?  Remember this ...

The takeaway for today is this …

Here, the Court said, the law merely required the boundary line to be some monument tacitly accepted as visible evidence of a dividing line, and the row of pine trees sufficed. The evidence was sufficient to show that Ms. Watts-Sanders and the Harrises occupied the disputed area, including evidence that Mr. Harris planted the pine trees and Ms. Chambliss’s own ill-advised admission that Ms. Watts-Sanders and the Harrises had maintained the disputed tract for forty-nine years.

Finally, evidence showed that only Ms. Watts-Sanders and her predecessors used the disputed tract. A boundary by acquiescence exists in cases where one party has used land belonging to another and the true landowner did nothing to assert his interest. Here, Ms. Watts-Sanders’ family’s use of the property remained undisturbed for almost 50 years. No one objected when her mother had one of the trees removed. Acquiescence can result from the silent conduct of the parties, and the fact that none of appellant’s predecessors used the property east of the tree line could be seen as tacit acceptance of the tree line as the boundary between the two properties.

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A NICE DAY FOR A FROLIC

apple_tree140217Today and tomorrow, we’re going to look at an issue that’s over 140 years old. That’s because a class of sharp-witted grade school students at Western Reserve Elementary School asked us a question the other day, one which seemed simple but is deceptively complex. Inquisitive kids that they are, they wanted to know whether it would be an act of theft for the owner of an apple tree to go onto neighboring property to retrieve apples fallen from the owner’s tree.

Turns out it’s a darn good question. Very little has been decided on this, requiring us to read an 1870 New York case for an answer. In that decision, a logger lost his logs in a flood. They came to rest on the riverbank, making a mess of the riverbank owner’s land. A fast talker convinced the log owner to let him negotiate with the landowner, pay the guy’s damages and retrieve the logs. He made a deal with the landowner and hauled the logs away, but he never made the promised payment. The Court ordered the logger to pay the damages, holding that the owner of property that ends up on the lands of another has a choice: abandon the property and have no liability to the landowner, or retrieve the property and pay for any damages caused by the property’s coming to rest.

Of interest to our intrepid 6th graders was this: the Court observed in passing that it was settled law that one whose fruit falls or is blown upon his neighbor’s ground doesn’t lose ownership, but instead “may lawfully enter upon the premises to recapture his property.”

There you go, sixth grade! Who says adults don’t listen to you? And as for the rest of us, isn’t it curious how contrary the holding is to the Massachusetts Rule of self-help, that was handed down some 55 years later? And at the same time, isn’t it interesting how consistent the New York court’s decision is with the North Dakota Supreme Court opinion in Herring v. Lisbon, that the portion of the tree overhanging a neighbor’s land still belongs to the tree’s owner, thus imposing on the owner a duty to ensure that the tree does not cause harm.

Sheldon v. Sherman, 3 Hand 484, 42 N.Y. 484, 1870 WL 7733 (Ct.App.N.Y. 1870), 1 Am.Rep. 569. Sherman’s logs were swept away in a spring flood on the Hudson River, coming to rest on Sheldon’s property where — Sheldon complained — they caused great damage. A third party, Mayo Pond, told Sherman he’d pay Sheldon’s damages, have the logs cut into lumber and deliver the boards to Sherman for a set fee. But then the double-dealing Pond told Sheldon he was agent for Sherman in settling the damages, and that Sherman would pay the damages agreed upon. This was news to Sherman, who refused to pay the damages because he already had a deal with Pond that Pond would pay. Landowner Sheldon sued log owner Sherman for the agreed-upon damages, and the trial court found for Sheldon. Sherman appealed.

upcreek140217Held: Sherman was up a creek without a paddle. The Court of Appeals — New York’s highest court — held that Sherman had a choice. One whose property ends up on the lands of another by an inevitable accident (such as a flood), without the owner’s fault or negligence, may elect either (1) to abandon the property, in which case he is not liable to the landowner for any injury caused by the property; or (2) to reclaim it, in which case he is obligated to make good to the landowner the damages caused by the property. Here, once Pond agreed with Sherman that he’d settle with the landowner and retrieve the logs. Pond’s authority from Sherman to remove the logs was clear, whatever his right to promise payment might have been. Thus, the law implied the existence of a promise by the log owner to pay damages.

The waters receded, but the logs were everywhere ...

The waters receded, but the logs were everywhere …

Of interest in the decision is the Court’s discussion of what it called “a large class of cases” in which injury is suffered by a party, but the law gives no redress. The Court said, “If a tree growing upon the land of one is blown down upon the premises of another, and in its fall injures his shrubbery, or his house, or his person, he has no redress against him upon whose land the tree grew. If one builds a dam of such strength that it will give protection against all ordinary floods, the occurrence of an extraordinary flood by which it is carried away, and its remains are lodged upon the premises of the owner below, or by means whereof the dam below is carried away, or the mill building is destroyed, gives no claim against the builder of the dam.” In this case, the Court said, the logs were carried down the river and deposited on Sheldon’s land without fault on the part of the defendant. Thus, Sherman was not responsible for damages, and a promise by him to Sheldon to make it good would be unenforceable.

If Sherman chose to abandon his property, he had the right so to do and no one could call him to account. He was not compelled, however, to abandon it, but had the right to reclaim it. The Court said the case was “like one whose fruit falls or is blown upon his neighbor’s ground, the ownership is not thereby lost, but the owner may lawfully enter upon the premises to recapture his property. When he does so reclaim or recapture, his liability to make good the damage done by his property arises. He then becomes responsible. Before he can reclaim or recapture the property thus astray, justice and equity demand that he should make good the injury caused by its deposit and its continuance.”
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Case of the Day – Thursday, September 11, 2014

RECREATIONAL USE STATUTE AND NATURAL DEFECTS

It's hard to enjoy an idyllic sunset when you can't get to the lakeshore.

It’s hard to enjoy an idyllic sunset when you can’t get to the lakeshore. Recreational use statutes make it easier.

A landowner really has no natural incentive to let people freely enjoy his or her land. You have a nice pond and woods, and, being as you’re a nice person, you let the birdwatchers’ society wander around looking for the white-throated needletail. Next thing you know, one of them steps into a prairie dog hole, and you’re being sued.

But public policy is strongly in favor of getting people out to enjoy nature’s bounty. For that reason, virtually all states have passed some version of a recreational use statute. These statutes generally that a landowner only has a duty not to be grossly negligent to people using his or her unimproved land without charge for recreational activities. They are intended to encourage the opening of private land – unspoiled natural areas – for free recreational use by shielding landowners from liability for the most common forms of negligence.

Today’s case raises an interesting question under the Texas recreational use statute. In this case, the City of Waco had a park that included limestone cliffs. A boy was sitting on the cliffs when a portion collapsed, causing him to fall to his death.

A user might anticipate he could fall off a cliff – but not that it would give way.

A user might anticipate he could fall off a cliff – but not that it would give way.

The City argued it couldn’t be held liable under the statute, because it did nothing to cause the defect in the cliffs. The Court of Appeals agreed with the boy’s mother, however, that it wasn’t necessary for the landowner to cause the defect, if the defect was so latent, that is, hidden, that the recreational user would not reasonably be aware of it. That one might accidentally fall off a cliff was foreseeable, the court admitted. But it wasn’t open and obvious that the cliff one was sitting on would suddenly give way.

Because the defect wasn’t obvious, all the boy’s mother had to do was advance in her pleading some allegation of gross negligence. In her complaint, she argued that the City was aware others had been hurt by falling rocks, and it had reports warning of the danger of collapsing cliffs. Those reports recommended the City post warning signs, but it didn’t do so. The court said that those allegations were good enough to make out a claim under the recreational use statute.

Kirwan v. City of Waco, 249 S.W.3d 544 (Tex.App 2008). Debra Kirwan’s son, Brad McGehee, was sitting on the edge of Circle Point Cliff in Cameron Park, a park owned and operated by the City of Waco, when the ground beneath him gave way and he fell about 60 feet to his death. Kirwan brought a wrongful death suit against the City, alleging a premises defect.

A firefighter who responded to the scene of Brad’s fall testified that an average person would “probably not understand that the ground could give way underneath them.” The trial court threw out the suit, holding that Kirwan had not: (1) “alleged that the Defendant was grossly negligent in creating a condition that a recreational user would not reasonably expect to encounter in Cameron Park in the course of permitted use;” or (2) “raised a genuine issue of material fact. Kirwan appealed.

Held: The suit was reinstated and sent back for trial. Kirwan challenged whether Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code § 75.002(c)the state recreational use statute –requires that all premises defect claims be based on a condition created by the defendant, thus barring any claim based on the existence of a natural condition that the defendant happened to know about. Under the recreational use statute – intended to encourage landowners to open their property to the public for recreational purposes – a landowner’s duty to a user is no greater than that owed to a trespasser, the very limited duty to not injure anyone willfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence.

A few signs like this one might have saved the City of Waco a lawsuit – and spared a boy's life.

A few signs like this one might have saved the City of Waco a lawsuit – and spared a boy’s life.

The law is clear that a landowner has no duty to warn or protect trespassers from obvious defects or conditions. Thus, an owner may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river, or even a concealed rattlesnake. But the appeals court held that the recreational use statute permits claims based on natural conditions as long as the condition is not open and obvious, and the plaintiff furnishes evidence of the defendant’s alleged gross negligence. Here, the court said, the crumbling rocks and cracks on the cliff that gave way did not conclusively prove that the danger of the unstable cliff rock was open and obvious. Crumbling rock may alert the average person to the risk of slipping and falling, but certainly not that the ground will simply fall apart beneath him. The court ruled that unstable cliff rock is not necessarily an open and obvious condition that a person might reasonably expect to encounter.

To state a claim under the Texas recreational use statute, Kirwan had to allege sufficient facts to show that the City of Waco was grossly negligent. The pleadings need only provide a plain and concise statement of the cause of action sufficient to give the defendant fair notice of the claim involved. In her pleading, Kirwan alleged that the City was actually aware of the dangerous condition on the cliff, that other park patrons had died or been seriously injured by the condition of the cliffs, that the City received a report from its own expert warning of dangerous rock falls and advising the City to post signs warning of potentially fatal rock falls, and the City’s failure to do so, in fact, to warn or guard against this danger at all amounted to gross negligence.

The court agreed that Kirwan plainly alleged the City’s conduct amounted to gross negligence. The City’s complaint that the pleading didn’t allege that the City had created the condition was meritless: where a claim is based on hidden natural conditions, such as the structurally unstable cliff rock in this case, a plaintiff need not plead that the City was grossly negligent in creating a condition.

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Case of the Day – Friday, September 12, 2014

MEAN WHAT YOU SAY

clinton140912Back when George Stephanopoulos was a mere flack for President Bill Clinton, and not yet a respected television commentator for ABC, he defended his boss to a skeptical Larry King as having “kept all of the promises he intended to keep.”  The malefactors in today’s case apparently intended the same.

In order to get a zoning variance to add on to their newly-purchased estate in the tres chic village of Centre Island, New York (once home to Billy Joel and his $32.5 million shanty), the Comacks promised not to let the shrubs and trees obstruct anyone’s view of Oyster Bay. Believing their sincere pledge, the Village OK’d the proposal.

A few years later, the bushes were high and the trees were leafy, and the Comacks said something to the effect of, “Promise? What promise? Oh, that promise … It’s … uh … kind of unclear what we really intended to promise. Let’s just forget the whole thing.” Or something like that.

Sometimes, as nice as the trees may be, the view without them is even better.

Sometimes, as nice as the trees may be, the view without them is even better. (Editor’s note: this photo was not taken at the Comack’s – it is illustrative only)

The Village elders didn’t forget it, soreheads that they apparently were, and sued the Comacks. The trial court found for the Comacks, but the court of appeals reversed and required the Comacks to keep their word. The appellate judges apparently could figure out what the meaning of “is” was.

Incorporated Village of Centre Island v. Comack, 39 A.D.3d 712, 834 N.Y.S.2d 288 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept., 2007). In 1999 the Comacks purchased property in the village of Centre Island and sought a variance to maintain and enlarge the pre-existing, nonconforming home on the lot. Specifically, they sought to build a second story addition over the existing garage and to change the roof line. The proposed expansion and changes would have necessarily affected the neighboring properties’ existing views of the waters of Oyster Bay.  And, Centre Island being a ghetto of the fabulously well-to-do, unobstructed views of all that their wealth had enabled them to accumulate were rather important to the residents.

In consideration for the granting of the variance, the Comacks signed a “Declaration” that provided “[a]ll open views from points off the premises to Oyster Bay shall remain in their present unobstructed state … [n]o trees or major shrubs shall be planted on lots 85 and 86 with the exception of minor shrubs and bushes which if allowed to grow to full height would not impede the aforesaid open views. Any shrubs or plants which if allowed to grow to maturity would exceed three feet in height will require the approval of the village building inspector for compliance with the intent of the declaration …” 

Remember Johnny Nash?  Are you really that old?  Johnny obviously didn't live near the Comacks, or he would never have written the song.

Remember Johnny Nash? Are you really that old? Johnny obviously didn’t live near the Comacks, or he would never have written the song.

The variance was granted, but a few years later, shrubs and trees planted by the Comacks began obstructing neighbors’ views of the Bay. The Village sued. The trial court agreed with the Comacks that the “Declaration” was vague, and the case should be dismissed. The Village appealed.

Held: The trial court was wrong. It was the Village’s complaint that should be granted, not the Comack’s request that it be dismissed. Contrary to the trial court’s determination, the language of the “Declaration” and, in particular, the first provision thereof, was not “imprecise and vague” so as to render it unenforceable. Instead, the “Declaration” — read as a whole to determine its purpose and intent — is clear that the Comacks made a deal. In consideration for the granting of the variance, the Comacks agreed to maintain “[a]ll open views from points off the premises to Oyster Bay … in their present unobstructed state.”

Because there is no ambiguity, the “Declaration” must be enforced according to the plain meaning of its terms. The Court held that to the extent that certain shrubs and trees planted by the Comacks obstructed “open views from points off the premises to Oyster Bay,” these violate the “Declaration.” The Court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the Village was entitled to damages, and whether the Comacks should be ordered to cut down certain shrubs and trees from the subject property that obstructed “open views from points off the premises to Oyster Bay.”

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Case of the Day – Monday, September 15, 2014

SNAP, CRACKLE AND POP

An arborist defendant's nightmare - the troop of Brownies your client's tree toppled onto.

An arborist defendant’s nightmare – the troop of Brownies your client’s tree toppled onto.

Arboriculture professionals pride themselves at being expert at what they do, which is – generally put – to manage trees. Management may be trimming, preservation, or in many cases, removal of trees. Often, how the tree is to be treated depends on the arborist’s expert opinion of the condition of the tree, and the threat (if any) that the tree poses to persons or property.

A lot can depend on the arborist’s opinion. If an examination of a tree misses a defect or disease, and the tree ends up falling on a troop of Brownies who happen by on the public sidewalk at just the wrong time, the unlucky arborist will end up with a lot of ‘splainin to do.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit handed down a decision last week that involved not a single tree. Nevertheless, the decision should serve as a caution to arborists, landscapers and tree trimmers – not to mention those who hire them.

It seems that small-time grain handler ConAgra Foods, Inc. (September 12th market capitalization $13.73 billion) had a problem with a wheat pellet storage bin. Grain can be tricky stuff, generating a lot of dust as well as carbon monoxide. Both of these like to explode with little provocation. The technical people call it “deflagration,” more of a low-level snap and crackle than a high-level detonation “pop” – but to the man or woman on the street, it’s an fairly destructive bang.

ConAgra knew just what to do when one of its grain bins in Chester, Illinois, started heating up spontaneously. It called in an expert in “hot bins,” sort of a Red Adair of wheat silos. The company, West Side Salvage, went to work on the unstable grain bin, but only after a delay occasioned by contracting procedures and West Side’s other business commitments.

The delay proved the project’s undoing. West Side tried to salvage some of the wheat pellets in the bin, but removal of the grain let more oxygen into the bin, and the instability increased. West Side’s supervisor called firefighters to stand by, but while he awaited their arrival, he sent several workers for one of West Side’s subcontractors into the bin through a tunnel to retrieve tools. While they were doing so, the grain dust exploded, seriously injuring them.

Everyone knows that an owner is not responsible for the negligence of an independent contractor. Everyone also knows that the owner may be liable if it does not provide the independent contractor with a safe place to work. The district court agreed that ConAgra had done just that, and that West Side was negligent in sending the employees into the dangerously unstable grain bin. It smacked ConAgra and West Side jointly with $18 million in damages for negligence.

ConAgra appealed, arguing that it was not liable for any damages to the subcontractor employees, because West Side knew what it was getting into. Besides, its contract with West Side provided that west Side would indemnify ConAgra from any West Side negligence. West Side, anxious to have a company with ConAgra’s deep pockets around to share the $18 million, retorted that ConAgra failed to reveal material information to it about the unstable grain bin. Furthermore, West Side’s indemnification of ConAgra may have been written into the contract, but West Side had never signed the document.

Your customer hired you because you're an expert at  what you do.  You have to act like one.

Your customer hired you because you’re an expert at what you do. You have to act like one.  If something goes wrong, you’ll surely be judged like one.

The Seventh Circuit was baffled. The injured workers complained that ConAgra had provided them with a dangerous workplace? Of course it did, the Court said. The whole point of hiring a “hot bin” expert was that the bin was dangerous. The Court held that where an owner hires an independent contractor to remedy a dangerous situation, the owner would not be held liable if the feared disaster came to pass. Such a policy would only discourage people with serious or dangerous problems to hire experts to get them fixed.

The Court has just as little patience with West Side’s complaint that ConAgra had failed to disclose information to it about the grain bin’s condition. West Side didn’t exactly say that ConAgra had provided false information. In fact, it admitted that ConAgra adequately answered all of the questions it had put to its client. The problem, West Side argued, was that ConAgra had other information about the dangerous grain bin – specifically, temperature readings from earlier in the month – that it failed to volunteer.

The Court expressed incredulity at the claim. West Side was a self-professed expert in “hot bins.” ConAgra was not. An owner like ConAgra was entitled to assume that when an expert like West Side is hired, the expert will ask for all the information it deems important. In this case, ConAgra did not end up sharing liability with West Side simply because it didn’t answer questions that were never asked.

The Court seemed almost perplexed by West Side’s argument that it had never gotten around signing the contract with ConAgra, so it wasn’t bound by the provision that it indemnify ConAgra from damages resulting from its negligence. That hardly mattered, the Court said. West Side began the work, whether it signed the contract or not. That was enough to signify that it had accepted the contract terms.

So what’s the takeaway for arboriculture professionals? First, be sure the contract is completely negotiated and signed the way you want it. If you leave it for later but begin work now, a court may conclude you had accepted terms you thought were still being negotiated. Second, you’re an expert at what you do. Be certain to gather all of the information you need for the job. When the tree falls on that Brownie troop, you can’t hide behind the owner’s failure to give you information about the condition of the tree that you never asked for.

Jentz v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., Case No. 13-1505 (7th Cir. September 9, 2014). A grain bin in Chester, Illinois, exploded in April 2010, injuring three workers.  The month before, ConAgra Foods – the owner of the bin, which was part of a flour mill – discovered a burning smell coming from the storage vessel, which contained wheat pellets. ConAgra hired West Side, which claimed expertise in handling “hot bins.” When work began, West Side hired A&J Bin Cleaning to do some of the tasks. Two of the injured workers, John Jentz and Robert Schmidt, were employees of A&J. The third, Justin Becker, was employed by West Side itself.

ConAgra wanted to salvage as much of the grain as possible, but as pellets were removed from the top more oxygen reached wheat composting at the bin’s bottom. West Side decided to remove some grain via side tunnels. On April 27 West Side detected smoke coming from the bin. Its crew sprayed water on the pellets and used an air lance to try to discover the smoke’s source; the effort failed. Mel Flitsch, West Side’s foreman, told ConAgra to call the fire department. Waiting for firefighters to arrive, Flitsch sent Jentz and Becker into a tunnel, instructing them to remove tools that might impair firefighters’ access. While they were there, the explosion occurred. They were severely injured but survived. Schmidt, who was in an elevator nearby, also was injured, but less seriously.

A Federal district court jury awarded $180 million in damages against ConAgra Foods and West Side Salvage. ConAgra contended that liability rested on West Side, which it had hired to address problems in the bin. For its part, West Side did not contest liability to the workers but contended that it does not have to reimburse ConAgra for the cost of repairing the facility. The injured workers contend that both ConAgra and West Side must pay the full verdict.

The dust may just deflagrate and not really detonate - but it's mighty impressive nonetheless.

The dust may just deflagrate and not really detonate – but it’s mighty impressive nonetheless.

Held: The Court of Appeals held that ConAgra was not liable. Normally, the appellate panel said, employees of an independent contractor cannot obtain damages from the owner of the premises at which the contractor was working. The injured workers contended that ConAgra nevertheless was liable for failing to provide West Side with a safe place to work. ConAgra responded that of course the grain bin was unsafe — that’s why West Side had been hired to begin with. ConAgra relied on the principle that someone who engages an independent contractor to redress an unsafe condition is not liable when the feared event occurs.

The Court agreed, pointing out that Illinois law held that “in a case involving negligent rendition of a service [by an independent contractor] … a factfinder does not consider any plaintiff’s conduct that created the condition the service was employed to remedy.” Here, ConAgra may have delayed in hiring West Side (it rejected other companies for lack of liability insurance), and it may not have provided all of the information about the bin it had, but that does not matter. The evidence showed that West Side was hired to deal with a hot bin, and all liability therefore is on its account. Having hired a self‑proclaimed expert in hot bins, ConAgra was entitled to assume that West Side would ask for whatever information it needed. The Court said that “[p]eople who hire lawyers rely on them to ask for information material to the situation, and no court would hold a client liable to his lawyer for failing to reveal spontaneously something that the lawyer never asked about; similarly people who hire specialists in controlling the risks of grain storage are entitled to rely on them to know what matters and ask for the material information.”

Finally, ConAgra signed and tendered to West Side a contract containing a promise by West Side to indemnify ConAgra for any damage caused by West Side’s negligence. The jury concluded that West Side is liable under this promise, but West Side argued that it did not return a signed copy of the contract to ConAgra. It agreed to undertake the job, and set to work, but did not sign on the dotted line. The district judge thought this irrelevant, because performance usually is as good as a signature as a way to accept a proposed written contract. The Court of Appeals agreed. Knowing the proposed terms, West Side began the work. That was as good as a signature on the dotted line.

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Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 16, 2014

WHEN IS FEE SIMPLE NOT FEE SIMPLE?

Potatotruck140220When land is conveyed from one party to another without any limitations whatsoever, the conveyance is done in “fee simple absolute,” or just “fee simple” for short. The conveyance usually says that the land is conveyed “unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever,” or words to that effect.

At the time the railroad came through a part of Idaho (think “Famous Potatoes” ) in the late 19th century, a lot of landowners thought they were conveying their land to the railroad in fee simple. But their deeds had not just the magic “fee simple” language, but also a “habendum clause.” A “habendum clause” is a clause in a deed that defines the extent of the interest being granted and any conditions affecting the grant.

Legal mumbo-jumbo?  Not when the facts changed.

Legal mumbo-jumbo? Not when the facts changed.

In the case of the Idaho deeds, the conveyance language transferred title to the railroad “to have and to hold all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances as a perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever.” Yeah … yadda, yadda, yadda, how lawyers like to natter on and on … None of this gibberish seemed important for a century, during which time the trains puffed up and down the track. But when the rail line was torn up, suddenly the old documents became very interesting.

Under the National Trails System Act, the government can convert an old railroad right-of-way into a recreational trail without the rail line being deemed to be abandoned. That’s what happened in Idaho. But some of the landowners whose properties were transected by the abaondoned right-of-way, talked to a smart lawyer. She said, “these old documents aren’t deeds, they’re just easements for a railroad.” That was an important distinction – the easements weren’t for the benefit of some granola-munching hikers, but rather for rolling stock.

The Federal Court of Claims had a tough task. The Idaho Federal District Court had already ruled that such deeds were conveyances in fee simple, which meant that the owners who abutted the railroad had no means of reclaiming the land. The problem was that the interpretation of the deeds was a matter of Idaho law, and the Idaho Supreme Court had never reached the precise issue. The Court of Claims carefully parsed other Idaho decisions and decided that, based on its treatment of other cases, the Idaho Supreme Court would rule — if it had been asked to do so — that the references in the deeds to the “perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line” limited the purpose of the conveyance, and therefore made the deed a grant of a mere easement, not perpetual ownership.

With two federal courts disagreeing on what Idaho jurists would say if asked, it’s likely that the state courts themselves ultimately will have to resolve the issue by ruling definitively on the question.

Abandoned right-of-way

Abandoned right-of-way

Blendu v. United States, 79 Fed.Cl. 500 (2007). Owners of land abutting or traversing an abandoned railroad right-of-way contested the government’s using the right-of-way as a recreational trail pursuant to the National Trails System Act, claiming that the government’s action effected a taking of their property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The predecessor landowners had deeded land to the railroad about a hundred years before, with deeds that contained language in the granting clauses that convey all estate, right, title and interest in the property to the railroad, but also contained habendum clauses “to have and to hold all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances as a perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever.” Under the Act, the government could convert abandoned railroad rights-of-way to trails without the use constituting an abandonment of the right of way. However, Blendu and the plaintiff property owners argued that under their deeds, they had really just given easements – not a deed in fee simple – and the cessation of rail service did not permit the government to use the easement of a trail. They moved for summary judgment in the U.S. Court of Claims, and the government cross-moved for summary judgment, arguing that the deeds were a conveyance of the property in fee.

Held: Under Idaho law, a deed which contained a granting clause which quitclaimed certain real estate to the railroad and a habendum clause stating that railroad held the real estate “as a perpetual right of Way for said second party’s Rail Way Line unto the said party of the second part and its successors and assigns forever,” the deed only conveyed an easement and not fee simple title.

The easement was for rolling stock, not for Birkenstocks.

The easement was for rolling stock, not for Birkenstocks.

The Court said that the use of the term “right of way” in the habendum clause unambiguously reflected an intention to convey an easement, overcoming Idaho’s statutory presumption in favor of a fee simple interest. The Court of Claims concluded the distinction between the granting clause and the habendum clause had not been made by the Supreme Court of Idaho, but the Court of Claims believed that the Idaho Supreme Court cases found the presence of the term “right of way” in any substantive part of the deed to be determinative. The deeds in this case contained the term “right of way” in the habendum clause, thus unambiguously reflecting an intention to convey an easement and overcoming Idaho’s statutory presumption in favor of a fee simple interest. As further evidence of the conveyance of an easement, the Court said, the deeds contained a designation for use of the right of way for the Railroad’s “railway line.”

Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 17, 2014

YOUR RESPONSE STINKS 

aspirin140917Today’s case is the septic equivalent to the old doctor’s advice of “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”

Mrs. Hubbell was a resident of Xenia, a small city in southeastern Ohio (Motto: One of America’s only cities to start with ‘x’”). One unfortunate day, Mrs. Hubbell discovered that ‘x’ didn’t just stand for “Xenia.” It stood for ‘x’crement, too.

When Mrs. Hubbell’s basement, bathroom and kitchen all started filling up with some pretty nasty effluent from the sewer line, she called the emergency help line the City of Xenia maintained for homeowners with such smelly problems. But it was the weekend, and the sewer department worker on duty wasn’t too keen on going out in the rain to check out her problem. He figured that it was just the rain backing things up, and if it were really bad, Mrs. Hubbell would call again.

Well, it was really bad, and Mrs. Hubbell did call again an hour later, to catalog all of the types of malodorous waste bubbling into rooms all over her house. That time, the worker did come. When he and his assistants pulled a manhole cover off the sewer main around the corner, a fountain of filth erupted and the liquid waste in the Hubbell home started draining away. It turned out that tree roots had jammed up the sewer main, and the City’s maintenance program hadn’t gotten around to clearing them away.

Mrs. Hubbell was unhappy at the Sewer Department’s lackadaisical response to her problem, so she sued. The City claimed it was immune under Ohio’s governmental immunity statute, because its inspection program was an exercise in discretion. True, the Court agreed, but there was nothing requiring any special expertise in the lazy worker’s refusal to respond when Mrs. Hubbell reported a problem. The problem, the Court said, is that almost everything required some discretion, and to accept the City’s argument meant that everything a governmental entity did would be immune.

Erupting effluvient ...

Erupting effluvient …

Here, the City had a kind of a contract with its residents. The City offered an emergency number, and the implied deal was that if a local taxpayer called, the City would respond. The worker’s decision to let the stink build — to be sure, it was a real problem worthy of his attention on a Sunday afternoon — could easily be negligence. The Court refused to deny Mrs. Hubbell her chance to prove that to a jury.

Hubbell v. Xenia, 175 Ohio App.3d 99, 885 N.E.2d 290 (Ct.App. Ohio 2008). Water and sewage began flowing into Mrs. Hubbell’s home through drains in a shower, a toilet, and a bathroom sink. Believing that the stinking problem was likely caused by a malfunction in the sewer system maintained by the City of Xenia. She called the City’s emergency services, and the call automatically transferred to the Xenia Police Department. The police paged an on-call sewer and waste maintenance worker, but he refused to do anything, suspecting that the problem was likely the result of heavy rainfall that day.

The sewage and dirty water continued to flow into Mrs. Hubbell’s home, and she desperately placed a second call for help several hours later. This time, the on-call worker decided to respond and investigate the problem, and a service crew was brought in.

Hubbell’s home is located at the intersection of Monroe and Home Avenues. The house is connected to the sewer main on Home Avenue, which in turn connects to the main on Monroe Avenue. The service crew examined the Home Avenue main line and found it was flowing freely, but when they removed the Monroe Avenue manhole cover, the back-up into Hubbell’s house promptly subsided. The crew removed tree roots that had invaded the main. Sewer Department officials conceded that the roots may have contributed to the blockage.

Hubbell sued, alleging that Xenia was negligent in maintaining and operating its sewer line because it failed to inspect the Monroe Street main, allowing the line to become obstructed and clogged by tree roots and collected refuse, causing the back-up into her home. She also said the sewer condition constituted a nuisance for which Xenia was liable. Xenia claimed it was immune from liability under the Political Subdivision and Tort Liability Act. The trial court refused to throw the case out, and Xenia appealed.

Held:  The City was not entitled to have the case dismissed without trial. Generally, the Court said, where a municipal corporation assumes the management and control of a sewer, it is required to exercise reasonable diligence and care to keep the system in repair and free from conditions which will cause damage to private property. The municipality’s failure to do so may make it liable for damages caused by its negligence.

However, a municipal corporation’s liability is nevertheless subject to the defense of governmental immunity provided by §2744.01 of the Ohio Revised Code, if any of the five exceptions or one of the defenses to immunity set out in the statute apply.

digging140917Here, the Court ruled, Xenia’s ongoing inspection and cleaning of its sewer lines was entitled to governmental immunity because the execution of the program involved judgment and discretion as to how extensive and in what manner the program would be executed. However, routine decisions requiring little judgment or discretion and which, instead, portray inadvertence, inattention, or neglect, are not covered by the statute’s grant of immunity.

The City maintenance worker’s decision not to respond to Mrs. Hubbell’s call regarding sewer back-up incident, due to his belief that her problem resulted from excess rainfall, wasn’t an act of judgment or discretion for which city was entitled to governmental immunity. Instead, the City’s contractual agreement with its residents to provide emergency services to those to whom it provided sewer services gave rise to duty to perform such emergency services with ordinary care.

When one undertakes a duty to perform an act, and another reasonably relies on that undertaking, the act must generally be performed with ordinary care. A genuine issue of material fact existed, the Court said, as to whether the City was negligent in its performance of its duty to provide emergency services to Mrs. Hubbell, and that matter could only be settled at trial.

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Case of the Day – Thursday, September 18, 2014

ANNOYING NEIGHBORS

drivethru140221 There are annoying neighbors and then there are annoying neighbors: but what to do about them? The house next to the Rileys was owned by a landlord who rented it to some dopers. But not just any dopers. This wasn’t the occasional boom box blasting the Grateful Dead at 2 a.m., or even the wafting smell of medical marijuana. Nope, the neighbors here were good capitalists, appearing to run a brisk retail operation, with traffic at all hours of the night and unsavory customers. Imagine a McDonald’s drive-thru window, but handing out nickel bags instead of Big Macs.

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

Shooting the Rileys dog was just plain wrong.

Shooting the Rileys dog was just plain wrong.

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

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

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

nuisance140221 Shortly after the Parkers moved in, the Rileys began experiencing problems with their tenant neighbors. A high number of unknown persons would come to the Parkers’ house at all hours of the day and night, with horns honking, tires squealing and loud voices. They would drive up, engage in a brief conversation or transaction with a resident at the Parkers’ home, and leave after a few minutes. The Rileys overheard many conversations about the sale of drugs, as well as frequent profane and abusive language. On several occasions, firearms were discharged at the Parkers’ residence at various times during day and night. Some activities were directed toward the Rileys: chemicals were put in their gas tanks, a laser pointer was aimed at Timothy Riley, personal property was stolen from the Rileys’ home, and when the Rileys were seen by the Parkers or their visitors, they were taunted, cursed at or stared at menacingly. The Rileys’ dog was even shot by a visitor to the Parkers’ home.

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

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

The Rileys could have used this sign ...

The Rileys could have used this sign …

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

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

The case went back to trial.
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Case of the Day – Friday, September 19, 2014

A NUISANCE PINE IN THOUSAND OAKS

A lone pine ... but not in Lone Pine, California.

A lone pine … but not in Thousand Oaks

Alert reader Sylvan Glade of Thousand Oaks, California, wrote us last week with a very good question. His inquiry is deceptively simple: “I have a 50 year old pine tree and it is now overhanging on the neighbor’s property,” Sylvan said. “He wants it trimmed back. I have refused. Can he legally trim my tree back?”

“Well, sure he can!” the rest of you readers say. After all, you’re fairly expert at the Massachusetts Rule. Normally we would agree. But this is California we’re talking about, so nothing’s simple.

We’ll answer Sylvan’s question over the next three days (actually five, because we don’t work on the weekends), looking at how common-law notions of self-help enshrined in Michalson v. Nutting, the grand-daddy of encroachment cases that gave use the Massachusetts Rule, are applied in California.

In today’s case, Bonde v. Bishop, Mr. Bishop had a big old white oak tree he loved as much as our reader is attached to his pine. But the oak was overhanging his neighbor’s place, and his neighbor wanted it trimmed back. Sound familiar? But Mr. Bishop’s oak had some problems. It shed branches quicker than the NFL can say “domestic violence.”   It had already taken out Mr Bonde’s fence, his garage and (very nearly) his head. Cleaning up after the tree was a daily chore, and the old tree was so dangerous that the Bondes wouldn’t leave their baby on the patio (probably generally a good idea, anyway).

The Bondes asked Mr. Bishop for permission to trim the tree, but he refused and threatened to sue if they so much as touched a single bough. So they sued Mr. Bishop first, asking the Court to declare the tree a nuisance and force him to remove it.

The Court agreed. California does indeed follow the Massachusetts Rule, which meant that the Bondes had the right to trim the tree’s branches overhanging their property. But here, the problem went beyond that. Mr. Bishop’s white oak was a nuisance under California law, the Court held, because of the pervasive damage it caused. The Court, perhaps reacting to the extent of the mess as well as Mr. Bishop’s intransigence, ruled that a tree owner is liable for damage — even insignificant damage — is caused to his neighbor.

So it would appear that our reader’s neighbor would have the right to trim the tree back to the property line. In fact, if the 50-year old pine is a persistent branch-shedder, it might be a nuisance, and our reader’s refusal to let the neighbor trim it could leave him in Mr. Bishop’s position: having to remove the offending branches himself.

But — and this is California, so there’s always an “on the other hand” — as we will see tomorrow, there are limits on what the neighbor can do, even on his own property.

The Bondes could no longer park their kid on the back patio, out of fear that a falling branch would bean him.  The infant was not amused ...

The Bondes could no longer park their kid on the back patio, out of fear that a falling branch would bean him. The bambino was not happy …

Bonde v. Bishop, 112 Cal.App.2d 1, 245 P.2d 617 (Ct.App. Div. 1, 1952). Some of the branches of Bishop’s white oak tree were overhanging Bonde’s property by 25 feet, about 40 feet off the ground. Early one September morning, a large limb broke loose from the tree, smashed through Bonde’s garage and destroyed a section of fence. Bishop said it was not his responsibility, and Bonde’s insurance paid for repair. The tree continually dropped smaller branches on Bonde’s roof, driveway and patio. One small branch almost hit Bondes while he was standing in the middle of his driveway. During the rainy season it became a two-hour job every Sunday to clear tree debris from the gutters and the drainspouts. The Bondes were afraid of the overhanging limbs, and stopped leaving their baby out in the patio.

The debris required the Bondes to sweep the patio and driveway daily and rake the lawn before mowing. They put screens on the gutters so they would not be required to clean them. When Mrs. Bonde told Mr. Bishop that the Bondes desired the tree cut back to their line, he not only refused but warned her that if they had it cut back and damaged the tree in any way, he would sue them. Nevertheless, after the limb fell Bishop had the foliage thinned out. Finally, Bonde sued Bishop, asking the trial court to declare that Bishop’s tree was a nuisance.

The court agreed, and ordered Bishop to abate the nuisance and awarded damages.

Mr. Bishop's white oak dropped branches with regularity.

Mr. Bishop’s white oak dropped branches with regularity.

Held: The Court agreed the tree was a nuisance, and ordered Bishop to abate the nuisance. The Court explained the rule in California generally is that to the extent that limbs or roots of a tree extend upon adjoining landowner’s property, the adjoining owner may remove them, but only to the property boundary line. Nevertheless, the remedy isn’t exclusive. An owner of a tree, the branches of which overhang adjoining property, is liable for damages caused by overhanging branches. The Court said that even insignificant damage is enough for the statute — might this include falling leaves in the fall, one wonders — because the significance of the damages goes to the amount the plaintiff can recover, not to whether the plaintiff has a case on which to sue to begin with.

But, the Court said, absent the tree being a nuisance, no landowner has a cause of action from the mere fact that branches overhang his premises. Instead, the adjoining landowner’s right to cut off the overhanging branches is a sufficient remedy, indeed, the only remedy. In order to obtain a court owner that the tree’s owner do something, an adjoining landowner must show that the tree is a nuisance under the nuisance statutes.

The Court observed sadly that “apparently this is one of those rows between neighbors in which the defendants are standing on what they erroneously believe to be their strict legal rights to the exclusion of any consideration of the fair, decent, neighborly and legal thing to do.”

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Case of the Day – Monday, September 22, 2014

LIMITS OF SELF-HELP

 

All right, your last weekend of astronomical summer 2014 is over … time to get to work. Fall arrives tonight. We trust that you recall last Friday, when we tackled a question sent to us by our California correspondent, Sylvan Glade of Thousand Oaks. His neighbor has demanded that he trim back his 50-year old pine tree, the branches of which hang over the neighbor’s place, and he wondered whether the neighbor might be able to start the chopping himself, even without Sylvan’s permission.

We determined that California generally recognizes the Massachusetts Rule, which permits a neighbor to use “self-help,” trimming the branches back to the property line. Of course, California seems also to permit use of the private nuisance laws — something that seems like the Hawaii Rule or Virginia Rule — to let a neighbor force someone like Sylvan to remove the tree himself if it is a nuisance.

cutdown140922But Sylvan was focused on whether his neighbor could fire up his chainsaw. While yesterday’s case said perhaps he can, today’s case should be a caution to him – especially because it’s a California case.

Mr. Patel was unhappy that the roots from Mr. Booska’s pine tree had heaved some of Mr. Patel’s sidewalk. He excavated along the edge of his yard down to three feet, severing the roots of the pine tree that had encroached under his sidewalk. The root cutting so weakened the tree that it started dying and was in danger of falling. Mr. Booska had to take the tree down, and he promptly sued.

The lower courts said that Patel had an absolute right to cut the roots on his property, citing the holding in yesterday’s case of Bonde v. Bishop.  Not so, said the appeals court. Instead, Mr. Patel had an obligation to cut the roots in a reasonable manner that would achieve his aims — to stop sidewalk heaving — without undue harm to the tree. The Court held that “no person is permitted by law to use his property in such a manner that damage to his neighbor is a foreseeable result.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the final answer. The Booska court was swayed by testimony that Mr. Patel could have protected his sidewalks with a much less aggressive method. We don’t yet know what the result would be if the only means of protecting Mr. Patel’s sidewalk would have required root cutting that would necessarily be fatal.

In the situation Sylvan presented to us, he didn’t report why his neighbor wanted the pine tree trimmed back. In discussions with his local lawyer, Sylvan will have to consider whether the tree could be found to be a nuisance (as in yesterday’s case), a finding that Bonde suggests can be easily made in California. Even if it is not a nuisance, Sylvan’s neighbor can probably start hacking away on his side of the property line, but the hacking has to be done in a way that weighs the neighbor’s legitimate aims — whatever they are — against the health and safety of the tree.

Oh, the complexity! And to make it worse, tomorrow we’ll look at a Kafkaesque result where a neighbor’s right to cut back a tree can’t be exercised without approval of the property owner, resulting in an old-fashioned California SLAPP-down.

Fool Booska v. Patel, 24 Cal.App.4th 1786, 30 Cal.Rptr.2d 241 (Ct.App. Div.1, 1994). Attorney Booska, representing himself in this action, sued his neighbor Mr. Patel. The roots of a 40-year-old Monterey pine tree owned by Mr. Booska extended into Mr. Patel’s yard. Mr. Patel hired a contractor to excavate along the length of his yard and sever the roots of the tree down to a level of about 3 feet. Mr. Booska complained that Mr. Patel’s actions were negligently performed, and the tree became unsafe, a nuisance, unable to support life, and had to be cut down at Mr. Booska’s expense. The complaint alleged causes of action for negligence, destruction of timber and nuisance. The trial court granted summary judgment for Mr. Patel, holding that under Bonde v. Bishop, Mr. Patel had an absolute right to sever the roots without regard to the effect on Mr. Booska. Mr. Booska appealed.

Held:   The Court of Appeals reversed. It held that adjoining landowners do not have absolute privilege to sever encroaching tree roots without regard to reasonableness of their action or consequences to neighbors. Instead, neighbors act reasonably, and failure to do so could be basis for recovery of damages. The Court distinguished the rulings in Bonde v. Bishop and Grandona v. Lovdal, noting that neither of those cases discussed the limits on what an adjoining property owner could do.

The Patels and Booskas apparently hadn't gotten this word ...

The Patels and Booskas apparently hadn’t gotten this word …

The Court observed that “[i]n the instant case, Patel has not addressed the issue of negligence in his summary judgment motion but contends that he has an unlimited right to do anything he desires on his property regardless of the consequences to others. No authority so holds. ‘No person is permitted by law to use his property in such a manner that damage to his neighbor is a foreseeable result.’”

The appeals court was apparently disturbed that these neighbors hadn’t found the time or inclination to be neighborly about the dispute. It cites language from Bonde v. Bishop: “‘Apparently this is one of those rows between neighbors in which the defendants are standing on what they erroneously believe to be their strict legal rights to the exclusion of any consideration of the fair, decent, neighborly and legal thing to do’.”

The Court then pointedly said, “It seems, in the instant case, that neither party has considered what would be the neighborly thing to do to resolve this problem. While we express no opinion on the appropriate outcome of this case, we find that there are disputed factual issues to be resolved.”

The Court reversed the decision, and sent the case back to the trial court to resolve the issue of negligence.
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Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SLAPP-HAPPY

Only in California could a tree-trimming case end up as a free speech issue.

bureaucracy140923For the past few days, we’ve been exploring the question raised by our faithful reader Sylvan Glade of Thousand Pines, California, who wondered whether his neighbor could trim the branches from Sylvan’s pine that were overhanging the neighbor’s place. We concluded that self-help was available to the neighbor, within limits. Today, we look at what happens when good old-fashioned common law self help runs into bureaucracy.

The Dilbecks wanted to add a second story to their house, but their neighbors’ oak tree had extended its branches so close to the Dilbecks’ place that they had to be trimmed back in order to make room. No problem, right? We all know that self-help is available to the Dilbecks anywhere in California. Sure, but it turns out the Los Angeles isn’t just anywhere. In LA, oak trees are “protected,” and before trimming the oak, the Dilbecks had to get a permit from the County. And the County wouldn’t issue a permit unless the tree’s owner signed on to it.

So much for self-help. The Dilbecks sued, asking that the County be ordered to issue the permit and that their neighbors be found liable in trespass for the tree (the theory being that the neighbors let the branches intrude over the Dilbecks’ lawn). And here’s where it got even more complicated. California has a statute addressing litigation known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” the so-called anti-SLAPP statute. This mouthful with the catchy name is intended to stop oppressive lawsuits intended to keep people from exercising their rights to free speech. There’s a whole cottage industry in the Golden State surrounding SLAPP actions. And as with a lot of other good ideas (such as RICO), the anti-SLAPP statute is another tool in the canny lawyer’s arsenal, something else with which to bludgeon a plaintiff.

Here, the neighbors complained that the Dilbecks were trying to force them to petition the County to let the tree get trimmed, and the suit should be thrown out as violating the anti-SLAPP statute. The trial court refused dismiss the action. The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the Dilbecks weren’t demanding that the neighbors do anything. They were asking the County to do something, and they were suing the neighbors for trespass because of the tree. California law would let them collect money damages if the encroaching tree was a nuisance (Bonde v. Bishop held as much). So whether the Dilbecks win on the merits or not, the action was not a SLAPP suit, and it wouldn’t be dismissed.

Oaktree140923Whew! Makes you long for the simple, ol’ Massachusetts Rule … no permits, no lawsuits, just an aggrieved landowner with a chainsaw.

Dilbeck v. Van Schaick, Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2007 WL 2773986 (Cal.App. 2 Dist., Sept. 25, 2007).  The Dilbecks owned a place in Altadena, next door to the Van Schaicks. The Dilbecks planned to remodel their home by adding a second story. However, the branches of an oak tree located on the Van Schaicks’ property have grown over the Dilbecks’ home, rendering the Dilbecks’ plans unworkable unless the tree was pruned.

Oak trees are protected by California state law. The County of Los Angeles had adopted regulations to preserve and protect oak trees, requiring a permit to cut down mature oak trees or to prune their larger branches. The Dilbecks applied to the County for a permit, but the County had not approved it because it took the position that only the owner of the tree may obtain a pruning permit, and the Van Schaicks had not acquiesced. So the Dilbecks brought suit against the Van Schaicks and the County for declaratory relief and trespass. They alleged the oak tree growing on the Van Schaicks’ property had encroached onto the their land and interfered with their ability to add a second story to their home. The suit said the County refused to grant the permit because the Dilbecks were not the owners of the tree. The trespass cause of action alleged the oak tree branches were encroaching on the Dilbercks’ land, and asked for an order permitting the Dilbecks or an independent contractor to prune the tree.

The Van Schaicks filed a special motion to strike pursuant to the anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure §425.16, asserting that the complaint was based on their refusal to support the Dilbecks’ oak tree permit application and therefore attacked their right to free speech. They further argued that the trespass claim lacked merit because the law forbade the Van Schaicks to prune or cut the offending oak tree branches.

The Dilbecks contended that their action did not fit within the definition of a SLAPP suit and that, in any event, their complaint had merit. They denied that the complaint sought to compel the Van Schaicks to support or sign the oak tree permit. The trial court denied the Van Schaicks’ motion to strike, finding that they had not demonstrated that they were being sued for engaging in protected activity. Instead, the trial court held, they were just being sued for trespass. The Van Schaicks appealed the court’s denial of their motion to strike.

Freespeech140923Held: The Dilbecks’ complaint did not arise from acts undertaken in furtherance of the Van Schaicks’ rights of free speech or petition, and the Van Schaicks’ attempt to get it dismissed was rejected. The California Legislature enacted the anti-SLAPP statute in response to its perception that there has been an increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and to petition for the redress of grievances. The anti-SLAPP statute provides a procedure for the court to dismiss at an early stage non-meritorious litigation meant to chill the exercise of free speech rights. The statute requires the trial court to engage in a two-step process when determining whether a motion to strike should be granted, first, whether the defendant has made a threshold prima facie showing that the acts of which it complains were ones taken in furtherance of its constitutional rights of petition or free speech in connection with a public issue, and two, whether there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim.

The issue here, the Court said, was whether the complaint arose from conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest. The Van Schaicks contended the suit sought to compel them to petition the County for discretionary relief from the oak tree statutes. The Court disagreed, holding that their characterization of the complaint was wrong. In fact, the Court said, the suit merely sought to compel the County to review the merits of the permit application submitted by the Dilbecks, and requested an order permitting the Dilbecks or their arborist to prune the tree. The complaint did not seek to compel the Van Schaicks to become personally involved in the permit application process in any way, and thus did not violate the anti-SLAPP statute.

The Van Schaicks contended that the complaint would indirectly force them to speak because a judgment in favor of the Dilbecks on the trespass action would necessarily require the Van Schaicks to petition the County of Los Angeles for discretionary relief from the Oak Tree statute. The Court rejected that argumnt, finding that the Van Schaicks’ position was based on the incorrect assumption that the only remedy available for trespass was injunctive relief. However, California law held a party over whose land overhanging branches extend may either cut them off or maintain an action for damages and abatement, as long as he or she can prove the branches constitute a nuisance.

The prospect that the Van Schaicks could eventually be faced with an order to abate the nuisance and could do so only by seeking a permit from the County did not transform the Dilbecks’ lawsuit into a SLAPP action. The Court ruled that the thrust of the Dilbecks’ complaint was the injury caused to their property by the encroaching tree, not the Van Schaicks’ decision to refrain from involvement in the permitting process. The permit, although obtainable only by petitioning a governmental entity, principally concerned and affected the remodeling of a private home by private individuals.

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 24, 2014

SOMEBODY HERE OWES ME MONEY

Mailbag140924Back to the mailbag!

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

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

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

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

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

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

An insurance adjuster lie?  Horrors!

An insurance adjuster  would tell a lie? Horrors!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Case of the Day – Thursday, September 25, 2014

ZOOM, ZOOM, DING

An alert reader sent us a link to a sports car forum, in which the proud owner of a Mazda RX-8 bemoaned the fact that his car had been hit by a limb that fell from his landlord’s tree. The owner wondered whether his landlord was liable for the deductable on his insurance.

Collisions with trees can be harrowing, whether in a care or on a bicycle.

Collisions with trees can be harrowing, whether in a car or on  even just riding a bicycle.  

Good question! Because the RX-8 and the tree both are South Carolina, we looked first at Staples v. Duell. In that case, Ms. Staples was driving down a rural road when she came upon one of Mr. Duell’s trees, which had fallen across the road. She came upon it rather suddenly, because she collided with it. She sued Mr. Duell, who was a landowner of some magnitude (about two miles worth of real estate along each side of the road).

Mr. Duell had an employee who was assigned the task of checking the security of the estate, including looking for dead trees, on a daily basis. Somehow, he must have missed this 100-foot pine’s condition. Ms. Staples sued Mr. Duell for negligence.

The Court found for Mr. Duell. It held that in South Carolina, rural landowners have no duty to others to inspect and improve their land. The fact that Mr. Duell voluntarily did so by sending an employee around didn’t create a duty where none existed. And that makes sense: if voluntarily performing a good deed created a legal duty to perform such deeds, no one would ever perform a good deed, that is, to go beyond the minimum the law requires for fear they would become liable for a good deed.

This doesn’t exactly answer our driver’s lament. After all, the landlord may be an urban landowner, and the Court suggests that an urban owner’s duty is different. Also, as a landlord, the tree owner’s duty may be greater. We’ll consider that tomorrow.

Meanwhile, good news from the Mazda front … our hapless sports car owner reported that his landlord’s insurance will cover his deductable.

Mr. Duell owned a lot of trees ...

Mr. Duell owned a lot of trees …

Staples v. Duell, 329 S.C. 503, 494 S.E.2d 639 (S.Ct. S.C. 1997). Ms. Staples was driving from Charleston toward Summerville on Highway 61 when she encountered a dead pine tree in the road. She swerved but collided with the tree, a 100-foot long dead pine.

The tree fell about sixty feet from the roadway and was located on Mr. Duell’s land, a plantation that stretched for about two mile along both sides of the road. In this area, only one residence – a cabin – stood. About 13,500 vehicles a day passed by Duell’s two-mile stretch of land on Highway 61. Duell owned Middleton Place National Historic Landmark, a tourist attraction which received about 100,000 admission-paying visitors a year. The only public entrance or exit to Middleton Place is on Highway 61. Duell maintained a 250-foot buffer zone of trees on both sides of the highway to protect the scenic beauty of the road. Duell’s employee, James Woddle, took care of the woodlands at Middleton Place. Woddle’s job duties included twice a day driving around the perimeter of Middleton Place to inspect the premises. During his inspections, he looked for trespassers, abandoned vehicles, and dead trees.

Staples sued Duell for negligence in permitting the tree to become a hazard. The trial court directed a verdict for Duell, holding that because the land from which the tree fell was rural, he had no common-law duty to discover and prevent the dangerous condition caused by the dead pine tree. Even if Duell had a policy of searching for dead trees along the roadway, his voluntary practice did not create a duty. Duell could have abandoned it at any time and it did not increase the risk.
Staples appealed.

gooddeed140925Held:  The Court found for Mr. Duell. To prevail on her theory of negligence, Ms. Staples had to establish that (1) Duell owed her a duty of care, (2) that by some act or omission, he had breached that duty, and (3) that as proximate result of his breach, she had been injured. The Court ruled that as an owner of rural property adjacent to a highway, Duell did not owe duty of care to motorists on highway to inspect and improve his land. Rural landowners have different duties and responsibilities from city dwellers, the Court said, based on the different level of risk posed by defects on rural land and the burden of maintaining larger tracts of real estate. Thus, unlike urban landowners, rural landowners do not have a duty to inspect and improve land.

Mr. Duell’s policy of searching for dead trees on his property was good stewardship, but it did not result in his assuming a duty to motorists for injuries resulting from trees falling onto the road. His policy of examining his trees didn’t increase risk of harm to motorists. The people driving by had no prior knowledge of the policy and thus did not detrimentally rely on it. This of course makes one wonder – if people did rely on Mr. Duell’s perspicacity and gumption, would the Court have turned his voluntary good deed into a duty? A scary thought …
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Case of the Day – Friday, September 26, 2014

MORE ON MAZDAS AND BRANCHES

They may just be the best doughnuts on earth ...

They may just be the best doughnuts on earth …

Yesterday, we took up the case of a chagrinned Mazda RX-8 owner. Why was he unhappy? Was it the 18 mpg he got from the rotary engine? Was it the high-priced premium gas he had to burn? Was it the squirrely techniques he had to master for handing the temperamental little Regenesis engine? Of course not! RX-8 owners love their cars. Our guy was unhappy because a limb from his landlord’s tree had fallen on his pride and joy. He wondered whether he could sue.

The answer is, of course, sure he can sue. But, you ask, can he win? That’s a different question altogether. We tried to take up a collection to finance his lawsuit, but we got distracted once we had enough for a box of Lerch’s doughnuts. In the alternative, all we can do is consider his question. And we have an answer — a resounding, 9,500 r.p.m. “maybe!”

The car was damaged, the sandwich was a total loss.  A tragedy of epic scale ...

The car was damaged, but Ms. Israel’s sandwich was a total loss. A tragedy that easily rivals the plagues visited on Pharaoh’s Egypt …

Yesterday, we looked at South Carolina’s duty of care for rural landowners. In today’s case, we see that the duty of care that urban or residential landowners owe to invitees and passersby is much stricter. Ms. Israel was sitting in her car one breezy spring day enjoying what was arguably the 21st best barbeque in the South when a large branch from a neighboring property fell on her car, destroying it and her sandwich. She was troubled about the damage to her car; she was devastated by loss of the uneaten sandwich. So, naturally, this being the United States of America, she sued everyone.

The trial court awarded her thousands of sandwiches worth of damages, but the Court of Appeals reversed. As the owner of property in a residential or an urban area, the neighbor had duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on his premises, including trees of purely natural origin. The evidence showed that the decayed tree could be seen from the ground. So the tree’s owner was toast.

But the Court wasn’t willing to serve any barbeque up on the toast. The owner of the pulled pork stand had a duty to his customers to exercise reasonable or ordinary care, measured by his ability to anticipate danger. In the absence of evidence that the restaurant owner either saw or could have seen the decayed limb from his property, he wasn’t liable.

The scene of the mishap - Orangeburg - is n the center of South Carolina "mustard-based" country.

The scene of the mishap – Orangeburg – is in the center of South Carolina “mustard-based” barbeque sauce country, a fact probably having nothing to do with the falling tree branch or the subsequent lawsuit …

So away from the succulent pork (covered in a mustard-based sauce, no doubt) and back to the gutsy little RX-8. The landlord certainly has a duty to his tenants, who are, after all, invitees. And we suppose the house is in a residential area. But was it clear from the ground that the limb was about to let go? If so, the landlord had a duty to fix it. If it was just one of those things, well … that’s what they call an ‘act of God.’

Israel v. Carolina Bar-B-Que, Inc., 292 S.C. 282, 356 S.E.2d 123 (Ct.App. S.C., 1987). Charlotte Israel sued for injuries she received, when a large limb from a tree on property owned by Andrew Berry, Trustee, fell over and onto the car in which she was seated and which was parked in the parking area of the Carolina Bar-B-Que. She sued both the owner of the real estate on which the tree was located and the owner of the land onto which the tree fell.

The next-door lot (the “Berry lot”) was 173 by 135 feet, on which there were a number of trees. Some large water oaks, planted about 1911, were located about 25 to 30 feet from the BBQ property line. These trees had received a radical pruning in 1971. Pictures showed visible signs of decay and rot in one of these trees. Some smaller oaks, planted about 1955, were located some 4 to 10 feet from the property line, between the large water oaks and the BBQ parking lot. These trees were bushy with some limbs overhanging the barbeque operator’s property, and having trunks of no more than 12 inches in diameter. A picture showed these trees in their relation to the barbeque parking lot. The Carolina Bar-B-Que owner occasionally pruned branches off those trees to the extent they were overhanging his lot. The limb that hit the car came from one of the large water oaks, and had a diameter of between 12 and 25 inches. The limb was so large that the Israel car was, in effect, totally destroyed.

The Carolina Bar-B-Que’s manager said that no limbs from the large tree were overhanging his property. He noticed no decayed limbs on these trees. He surmised that the high winds that day “pushed [the limb] out” onto the Barbeque property. When he later removed the trees on this lot, he discovered only one tree in “bad shape” and it was not the tree from which the limb fell. A police officer who investigated the accident said that limb was about 25 feet long, and that he saw a tree from which the limb apparently came. He admitted that he couldn’t testify that there was a decayed portion of the limb visible from the Barbeque lot. However, the tree could have been inspected from the Berry property.

Ms. Israel sued the trust owning the Berry lot and Carolina Bar-B-Que. The jury awarded an $80,000 verdict (or about 27,119 really good BBQ sandwiches) against both the Barbeque and Mr. Berry. They both appealed.

treeoncar140302Held: The Court reversed the judgment against the Barbeque, but affirmed it against the Berry trust. The Court admitted that at common law, Berry would not have been liable for falling tree or limb. However, the realities of modern life had modified the rule. A landowner in residential or urban area has duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on his premises, including trees of purely natural origin. Here, the Court said, the evidence supported finding that Berry, the owner of the land from which the tree limb fell, was negligent. The tree was partially decayed, the limb’s dangerous condition and the likelihood of its falling could have been observed by reasonable inspection, and a reasonable person should have been aware of the danger which the decayed limb posed to persons on the adjoining property.

The Barbeque owed to a duty of care to the invitees or business visitors, one of exercising reasonable or ordinary care for the invitee’s safety. Reasonable care required by a business with respect to its invitees is measured by ability of reasonably prudent man to anticipate danger under conditions known or reasonably anticipated to exist. In the absence of evidence that the BBQ owner either saw or could have seen a dangerous condition from the Barbeque property with regard to a tree limb on the adjacent property, Carolina Barbeque was not liable to Ms. Israel.
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Case of the Day – Monday, September 29, 2014

THE COURT CHANNELS SHAKESPEARE

Traditionally, the Massachusetts Rule – which could be summarized as “I don’t owe you nuthin’ – held that a landowner had no liability to his neighbor for harm done by overhanging branches and encroaching root systems. If the neighbor didn’t like the mess, he or she could trim away the offending branches or roots up to the property line. But the courts didn’t want to hear about it.

However, courts had traditionally held an urban landowner to a higher standard of care when the people being protected were passing motorists on a public highway. In those cases, an urban landowner was obligated to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of trees on the land near the highway.

bellyachin140304In today’s case, Lois Lockhart had a decaying tree on her property. Neighbor Carl Mahurin complained about it, primarily because one of the branches was overhanging his property. But Lois did nothing. Neither did Carl – unless belly-aching counts as putting forth effort.

Finally, the branch broke off and hit Carl, who was standing beneath it.  You knew that had to happen, or else why would we be telling you this story?  Being injured, and piqued that Lois ignored his entreaties, Carl sued.  (You knew that would happen, too.)

Lois tried to get the case thrown out of trial court. She pointed out that Carl had nothin’ coming from her.  The traditional rule – read “Massachusetts Rule” here ­– dictated that she had no duty to protect Carl from the natural condition of her tree.

But as the great bard once wrote, “I do perceive here a divided duty.” Othello, Act I, Scene 3. And so did the trial court. It was troubled that Lockhart’s duty to strangers passing by in their Hudsons and Desotos was greater than to her neighbor.  That seem divided, and irrationally so.  Lois said, “Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, But seeming so, for my peculiar end.”  Othello, Act I, Scene 1.  The trial court said that might be so, but it nevertheless sent the case to the Court of Appeals for the appellate court’s opinion as to her duty.

William Shakespeare - he foresaw the problems with the traditional liability rule hundreds of years ago.

William Shakespeare – he foresaw the problems with the traditional liability rule urged by Ms. Lockhart hundreds of years ago. “Wondrous strange!” indeed.

The Court of Appeals said, “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!” Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5. It could see no reason for the disparate treatment, either. Certainly, just as Lockhart owed a duty to Mordred and Mildred Motorist, she must owe the same duty to her neighbor, Carl. However, the Court of Appeals did allow that Mr. Mahurin could have entered onto Ms. Lockhart’s place and cut the tree down itself. So he might be contributorily negligent. Likewise, could he have been a knucklehead for standing under a tree he had complained was dangerous?

To Lockhart, the Court said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Lois, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Such as a single duty owed by a landowner to both travelers passing on the road and her next-door neighbor. It sent the case back to trial.

Mahurin v. Lockhart, 71 Ill.App.3d 691, 390 N.E.2d 523 (Ill.App. 5 Dist. 1979). Plaintiff Carl Mahurin brought this action to recover damages for personal injuries he suffered when a dead branch extending over his property fell from a tree belonging to defendant Lois Lockhart, an adjoining landowner, and struck him. In his complaint, Mahurin alleged that Lockhart failed to prune the tree or take other necessary precautions after he warned her of the condition of the tree and the dangers it posed.

Lockhart moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that a landowner is not liable for physical harm to others outside of her land caused by a natural condition. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, certified that the question of law raised in Lockhart’s motion presented substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal would materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation.

Held: The Court held that a landowner in a residential or urban area has a duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on the premises, including trees of purely natural origin.

The narrow issue before the court was to determine the extent, if any, of the duty that a landowner in a residential area owes to persons outside of his premises to remedy some defective or unsound condition of a tree upon his land when the tree and its condition were of a purely natural origin. Mahurin urged the Court to adopt the traditional rule set forth in section 363 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. This section provided that 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. However, if the landowner was in an urban area, he was subject to liability to persons using a public highway for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of trees on the land near the highway.”

The traditional rule applied even though the landowner is aware of the dangerous natural condition and the expense necessary to remedy the condition is slight.

The Court noted that the traditional rule of non-liability developed at a time when land was mostly unsettled and uncultivated. The landowner – unable to keep a daily account of and remedy all of the dangerous conditions arising out of purely natural causes – was therefore shielded from liability out of necessity.

But, the Court of Appeals asked, if Carl knew the tree was dangerous, why was he standing under it?  Duh, Carl ...

But, the Court of Appeals asked, if Carl knew the tree was dangerous, why was he standing under it? Duh, Carl …

The Court disagreed that the duty an urban landowner owed to a neighbor should be less than owed to people passing in cars and trucks. It thus ruled that a landowner in a residential or urban area has a duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on the premises, including trees of purely natural origin.”

Therefore, Lockhart’s duty to Mahurin should “be defined using the ordinary rules of negligence. It is therefore appropriate for the trier of fact to consider … such factors as “the nature of the locality, the seriousness of the danger, and the ease with which it may be prevented” in resolving the issue of liability.

The Court noted Lockhart’s argument that Mahurin was contributorily negligent because he stood under a tree that he, by his own admission, knew was dying and dangerous. The Court noted that the Restatement provided that a landowner is privileged to enter upon a neighbor’s land to abate a condition thereon which constitutes a private nuisance. “While this privilege alone does not establish the contributory negligence of plaintiff, it could be considered by the jury in resolving this issue.”

The Court remanded the case for trial, using the standards it had adopted.

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A LEG TO STAND ON

 

Did that plaintiff ever have gall ... or gull ... or cojones or something...

Did that plaintiff ever have gall … or gull … or cojones or something …  What he didn’t have was any proof.

The plaintiff in today’s case had his foot broken when a branch from his neighbor’s tree fell.  So how was he different from this rather odd-looking seagull sitting on a seawall to our left?

Easy – the gull has a leg to stand on.

Our hapless litigant – Rick Meyers by name – lived next to a man named Delaney, who owned  a catalpa tree.  The catalpa is a pretty good-looking deciduous tree that drops bean pods and leaves in the fall, but little else. It’s a solid Anglo-American tree, flowering in the spring and with large leaves and deep shade in the summer. In fact, it’s the sole food source for the catalpa sphinx moth, a creature favored by southern anglers as bait. Birds love it, caterpillars love it, fishermen love it … and so do most people.

A catalpa -beloved by fisherman and fowl - but not by Rick Meyers.

A catalpa -beloved by fisherman and fowl – but not by Rick Meyers.

That list would exclude our hobbling protagonist, Rick Meyers. The Delaneys’ catalpa tree provided shade to Mr. Meyers’ driveway with its overhanging branches. But one day, Rick had run barefooted outside to put up the car windows (we suspect a thunderstorm was about to hit, which would have been accompanied by gusty winds, but the record didn’t say as much). While he was doing so, a branch broke free from the tree and fell on his foot.

Rick didn’t have a shred of proof that anyone – including the Delaneys – had reason to know that the branch was going to break. But lack of evidence would not inconvenience our Rick.  He sued anyway, claiming that as owners of a tree in a residential area, the Delaneys had a duty to know the branch was going to fall, and never mind how they were supposed to have figured that out.  You see, Rick’s foot hurt, and someone had to pay.

The trial court took a more sanguine view. It believed that if the Delaneys couldn’t clearly see that the tree was dangerous, they couldn’t be found to be negligent because they had not sleuthed it out. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed. The risk has to be seeable before it can be found to be foreseeable.

A landowner has no affirmative duty to inspect trees where no defect is "readily observable."

A landowner has no affirmative duty to inspect trees where no defect is “readily observable.”

Meyers v. Delaney, 529 N.W.2d 288 (Iowa Sup.Ct. 1995). Meyers and Delaney owned adjoining properties. Standing between their homes, but on the Delaney homestead, was a large catalpa tree. The tree limbs hung over the Meyers driveway. The Meyers family parked cars under the branch each day, and the Meyers kids played around it when outside.

One evening in mid-July, 1990, Rick Meyers ran barefoot out to his car to roll up the windows. He heard a large crack, and then a large catalpa limb fell from the tree, striking and severely injuring his foot. He sued the Delaneys for negligence, claiming they failed to maintain the tree properly, failed to warn him of the dangerous condition of the tree, and failed to protect him from a danger that in the exercise of reasonable care the Delaneys knew or should have known existed.

The trial court found that the Delaneys neither knew nor should they have reasonably known the tree was dangerous, so they were not negligent. Rick Meyers appealed.

Held: The Iowa Supreme Court agreed that the Delaneys were not liable.

The Meyers v. Delaney rule - it's not foreseeable unless its seeable.

The Meyers v. Delaney rule – a tree’s defects are not foreseeable unless they’re seeable.

The Court noted that the general rule is that one who maintains trees owes a duty to avoid injuring persons on adjoining premises by permitting a tree to become so defective and decayed it will fall on them. However, the Court held, there is no duty to consistently and constantly check all trees for non-visible decay. Rather, the decay must be readily observable in order to require a landowner to take reasonable steps to prevent harm. If the decay or infirmity is readily observable, the tree owner may be liable for injuries caused by a defective condition of the tree if he or she had actual or constructive notice of the trees defective condition.

In this case, the catalpa tree had had a dead limb removed by a friend of the Delaneys the summer before. The friend, who had some experience working in trees, testified he observed nothing in the tree to cause him concern about his safety. Furthermore, while Meyer’s expert tree trimmer testified that the tree was dangerous, he conceded on the stand that there was nothing that Delaneys could have observed about the tree before the accident that would have alerted them to be concerned over its safety.

Thus, there was no negligence.

TNLBGray140407

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