Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 1, 2015
A NICE DAY FOR A FROLIC
Welcome, first day of fall! Well, first day of meteorological fall. In honor of that – and back-to-school – 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, 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 (after whether they have to eat that healthy gluten-free, meat-free, taste-free lunch) was this: the Court noted 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.
Held: 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.
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.”
Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 2, 2015
WHEN IS FEE SIMPLE NOT SIMPLE?
Nothing light today, boys and girls. We have work ahead of us. Sure, it’s still hot and you feel like summer vacation should continue, but, as that great educator M.C. Hammer once said, “Yo, sound the bell, school is in, sucker …“
So listen up. When 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.
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.
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 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 – Thursday, September 3, 2015
A homeowner buys the house next door, planning to demolish it and turn the property into a playground for his kids. Touching, isn’t it?
Yes, except the homeowner knew that the deed restrictions on his place and the place he was buying required prior approval of a homeowners association before “changes or alterations.” But he reasoned that demolition was not a change, so he brought in the wrecking ball.
The company acting as the homeowners’ association sued and asked for an injunction. The case hadn’t gone to trial yet, but the Delaware trial court found that on balance, the equities of the case favor the homeowners association. First, the Court said, demolitions — like diamonds — are forever. The court all but told the property owner that his interpretation of “change and alteration” not to include “demolition” was a dead-bang loser.
And it turned out the property owner knew he was going to have to get permission, and busily and secretly stirred the pot for six months prior to going ahead by writing letters purportedly from other homeowners to the association supporting the demolition.
The court pretty much suggested to him that he had gotten just what he bargained for. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind, Mr. Guzzetta.
Service Corp. of Westover Hills v. Guzzetta, Not Reported in A.2d, 2007 WL 1792508 (Del.Ch., 2007). The Guzzettas had been homeowners in Westover Hills for 11 years, when they bought the property next to theirs, at corner of Berkeley and Stuart Roads. The adjoining property included a 1943 colonial-style house and mature maple and oak trees. The Guzzettas intended to raze the house in order to expand their backyard for their children.
Properties in Westover Hills, however, are subject to deed restrictions which are binding on all owners within the Westover Hills Section C development. One of the restrictions provides that “no building, fence, wall or other structure shall be commenced, erected, or maintained, nor shall any addition to or change or alteration therein be made, until the plans and specifications, showing the nature, kind, shape, height, materials, floor plans, color scheme, location and frontage on the lot and approximate cost of such structure shall have been submitted to and approved in writing by …” Service Corp., the property manager.
Service Corp. had the right to refuse to approve any such plans or specifications that it found not suitable or desirable for aesthetic or other reasons. Since 2004, Service Corp. has used an Architectural Review Committee to initially review proposals, request additional information as necessary, and make recommendations to the Service Corp. board. Service Corp. had approved demolitions before, as well as landscape plans.
The Guzzettas went ahead with their plans without obtaining approval, and Service Corp. sued for an injunction prohibiting the demolition of the home and landscaping. The trial court grated a temporary restraining order, and later heard Service Corp’s application for a preliminary injunction until a trial on the merits could be held. The central argument was whether a demolition of a building fell within the terms of the deed restriction, requiring Service Corp’s prior approval.
Held: Service Corp. was entitled to a preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo pending trial. Delaware’s standard for issuance of a preliminary injunction is much like other states. A party seeking the injunction must show (1) there is a reasonable probability that it will succeed on the merits of its claims; (2) it will suffer irreparable harm if injunctive relief is not granted; and (3) its need for the protection of an injunction outweighs any harm the Court can reasonably expect to befall the non-moving party if the injunction is issued.
Here, the Court found that Service Corp. was likely to succeed on the merits of its claim. Its interpretation of the deed restriction that the phrase “change or alteration” included outright demolition simply applied plain meaning to the words of the restriction. The dictionary defines “change” to include “replace with another.” The definitions, the Court said, do not support limiting the applicability of the restriction to modifications in the nature of an improvement or slight adjustment, as the Guzzettas suggest. The Court found it reasonably likely that, after trial, a court would construe the text of Article V to include any modification of a structure, especially those of a radical nature such as demolishing a house. Delaware courts have routinely upheld deed restrictions relating to design harmony and character of a neighborhood. In this case, the Court said, it is reasonably likely that Service Corp. will succeed in proving that the standards for review under the restriction are sufficiently objective to permit reasoned and nonarbitrary decisions.
Also, the Court held, Service Corp. — the agent for the property owners of Westover Hills — faces a significant risk of irreparable harm if the home is demolished and mature trees are removed before final resolution of Service Corp’s claims. Actions such as removing mature trees and demolishing a house are effectively irreversible. Moreover, as the process takes place, secondary harms may result. Heavy machinery could significantly damage the current landscaping on the Property and the association’s adjacent property by, for example, causing damage to Service Corp.’s London Plane trees, some of which are over 70 years old. BY contrast, the harm to the Guzzettas is only a delay of a few months in their ability to use the property as they wish.
The Court noted that at the hearing, Mr. Guzzetta admitted that he knew when he purchased the property that Service Corp. would not approve a demolition without an acceptable plan for the use of it following demolition, including a landscaping design to ensure that the demolition would not leave the property out of harmony with the neighborhood. Indeed, he admitted that he secretly drafted a series of letters from the previous owners to Service Corp. regarding the proposed demolition for more than six months before Service Corp. filed suit. By not disclosing his involvement to Service Corp. for a number of months and directly participating in a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse with it over the need for, and scope of review, Mr. Guzzetta bears responsibility for at least some unnecessary delay in the resolution of this matter.
The Court concluded that the balance of the equities in this case favors Plaintiff.
Case of the Day – Friday, September 4, 2015
RECREATIONAL USE STATUTE AND NATURAL DEFECTS
A landowner really has no natural incentive to let people freely enjoy his or her land. You have a nice pond and woods, and, being as you’re a nice person, you let the birdwatchers’ society wander around looking for the white-throated needletail. Next thing you know, one of them steps into a prairie dog hole, and you’re being sued.
But public policy is strongly in favor of getting people out to enjoy nature’s bounty. For that reason, virtually all states have passed some version of a recreational use statute. These statutes generally that a landowner only has a duty not to be grossly negligent to people using his or her unimproved land without charge for recreational activities. They are intended to encourage the opening of private land – unspoiled natural areas – for free recreational use by shielding landowners from liability for the most common forms of negligence.
Today’s case raises an interesting question under the Texas recreational use statute. In this case, the City of Waco had a park that included limestone cliffs. A boy was sitting on the cliffs when a portion collapsed, causing him to fall to his death.
The City argued it couldn’t be held liable under the statute, because it did nothing to cause the defect in the cliffs. The Court of Appeals agreed with the boy’s mother, however, that it wasn’t necessary for the landowner to cause the defect, if the defect was so latent, that is, hidden, that the recreational user would not reasonably be aware of it. That one might accidentally fall off a cliff was foreseeable, the court admitted. But it wasn’t open and obvious that the cliff one was sitting on would suddenly give way.
Because the defect wasn’t obvious, all the boy’s mother had to do was advance in her pleading some allegation of gross negligence. In her complaint, she argued that the City was aware others had been hurt by falling rocks, and it had reports warning of the danger of collapsing cliffs. Those reports recommended the City post warning signs, but it didn’t do so. The court said that those allegations were good enough to make out a claim under the recreational use statute.
Kirwan v. City of Waco, 249 S.W.3d 544 (Tex.App 2008). Debra Kirwan’s son, Brad McGehee, was sitting on the edge of Circle Point Cliff in Cameron Park, a park owned and operated by the City of Waco, when the ground beneath him gave way and he fell about 60 feet to his death. Kirwan brought a wrongful death suit against the City, alleging a premises defect.
A firefighter who responded to the scene of Brad’s fall testified that an average person would “probably not understand that the ground could give way underneath them.” The trial court threw out the suit, holding that Kirwan had not: (1) “alleged that the Defendant was grossly negligent in creating a condition that a recreational user would not reasonably expect to encounter in Cameron Park in the course of permitted use;” or (2) “raised a genuine issue of material fact. Kirwan appealed.
Held: The suit was reinstated and sent back for trial. Kirwan challenged whether Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code § 75.002(c) – the state recreational use statute –requires that all premises defect claims be based on a condition created by the defendant, thus barring any claim based on the existence of a natural condition that the defendant happened to know about. Under the recreational use statute – intended to encourage landowners to open their property to the public for recreational purposes – a landowner’s duty to a user is no greater than that owed to a trespasser, the very limited duty to not injure anyone willfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence.
The law is clear that a landowner has no duty to warn or protect trespassers from obvious defects or conditions. Thus, an owner may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river, or even a concealed rattlesnake. But the appeals court held that the recreational use statute permits claims based on natural conditions as long as the condition is not open and obvious, and the plaintiff furnishes evidence of the defendant’s alleged gross negligence. Here, the court said, the crumbling rocks and cracks on the cliff that gave way did not conclusively prove that the danger of the unstable cliff rock was open and obvious. Crumbling rock may alert the average person to the risk of slipping and falling, but certainly not that the ground will simply fall apart beneath him. The court ruled that unstable cliff rock is not necessarily an open and obvious condition that a person might reasonably expect to encounter.
To state a claim under the Texas recreational use statute, Kirwan had to allege sufficient facts to show that the City of Waco was grossly negligent. The pleadings need only provide a plain and concise statement of the cause of action sufficient to give the defendant fair notice of the claim involved. In her pleading, Kirwan alleged that the City was actually aware of the dangerous condition on the cliff, that other park patrons had died or been seriously injured by the condition of the cliffs, that the City received a report from its own expert warning of dangerous rock falls and advising the City to post signs warning of potentially fatal rock falls, and the City’s failure to do so, in fact, to warn or guard against this danger at all amounted to gross negligence.
The court agreed that Kirwan plainly alleged the City’s conduct amounted to gross negligence. The City’s complaint that the pleading didn’t allege that the City had created the condition was meritless: where a claim is based on hidden natural conditions, such as the structurally unstable cliff rock in this case, a plaintiff need not plead that the City was grossly negligent in creating a condition.
Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 8, 2015
WHEN THE GAS COMPANY COMES A CUTTIN’
So sad to see Labor Day and summer’s end … But, melancholy or not, we have work to do.
We’ve told you before to beware of what lurks in the dark and malevolent corners of your deed. Today, we’re going to look at a cautionary tale.
No one really thinks about the wording of easements when the power company or the gas folks come by with some standard form clipped to a dollar bill. The utility reps tell you that it’s no big deal, because the language is standard, no one can change it, and anyway, all your neighbors have signed off on the same form, so what’s the big deal?
We’re not a public utility, so we’ll tell you what the big deal is. Or, better yet, show you.
Consider New Jersey. Please. Just for right now. In East Brunswick, New Jersey (motto: “We’re located at Turnpike Exit 9”), a gas transmission company had acquired an easement for a 3-1/2 foot wide natural gas transmission pipe through some unimproved land back in 1967. The property, once used for only for mob hits and toxic waste dumping (just kidding), was sold sometime after the easement was granted. At some point, a housing development was over a 42” high-pressure gas line the company had buried inside the easement.
The utility had always patrolled its pipeline, and it was well aware of the 19 oak trees growing along the street 40 inches above the pipe. But when new evidence showed that tree roots could cause catastrophic pipeline failures, the gas utility announced it intended to cut down the trees.
The property owners, who probably had never bothered to read all of the boring stuff in their deeds that followed the “Know all Men by These Presents …” part, were outraged. They complained that the gas utility shouldn’t be allowed to cut the trees now, because it hadn’t ever bothered to before. This argument is called “laches,” based in the old legal maxim that “equity aids the vigilant.” Or, as some like to say, “Don’t sit on your rights.” The owners argued that the gas company had ever tried to remove the trees before, and – 40 years after obtaining the easement – it should not be allowed to do so now.
What’s more, the owners contended, the gas company couldn’t really prove the 19 trees were hurting anything.
Horrors! Imagine buying land subject to an easement, only to have the easement holder actually try to exercise the easement rights! As they say in New Jersey, “Oh, the humanity!” The gas utility carefully showed how new techniques had determined that tree roots could weaken high-pressure supply lines and in fact had caused some spectacular failures. The property owners could only muster an expert who opined that the tree roots in question probably wouldn’t grow that deep.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge. The gas company didn’t have to show that the tree roots were damaging the line, only that it had a reasonable basis for keeping roots away from its pipe. The evidence easily did that. As for the laches argument, the Court agreed that nonuse of an easement in New Jersey didn’t lead to loss of the right. Plus, the Court said, the gas company had a good reason for not seeking to remove the trees until it did, as science had only recently determined that tree roots and gas pipelines didn’t mix.
Township of East Brunswick v. Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Corp., Not Reported in A.2d, 2008 WL 2627688 (N.J.Super.A.D., July 7, 2008). Transcontinental (“Transco”) operates an interstate natural gas transmission system that runs from the southern Atlantic seaboard to New York City. One of its main lines, the Lower Bay Line, runs across East Brunswick and along Timber Road. This 42” high-pressure gas line was built in 1967.
Transco holds a 100’ wide easement for the pipeline pursuant to a right-of-way agreement “for the purposes of laying, constructing, maintaining, operating, repairing, altering, replacing and removing from time to time one or more pipelines … together with such other rights as may be necessary or convenient for the full enjoyment or use of the rights herein granted [including] the right to enter upon the right of way and easement … at such times as Grantee may elect … and the right from time to time to keep said right of way free from trees, undergrowth and all other obstructions that may endanger or interfere with the construction, operation and maintenance of Grantee’s pipe lines[.]”
The owner sold the property subject to the easement, and in the 1980s it was developed into a residential community of single family homes. The width of the easement covers the width of Timber Road, the sidewalks and portions of the residents’ front yards. The pipeline is buried 40” deep and runs along one side of the street in the public space between the sidewalk and the curb.
Nineteen shade trees were planted some time during the 1980s between the sidewalk and the curb, so that they are growing directly above the pipeline. Transco knew of the existence of these shade trees because it regularly inspected and monitored the pipeline. Natural gas pipelines must be properly maintained and monitored because any rupture can cause serious damage. Transco monitors the pipeline and has an extensive program for on-site inspection of the Lower Bay Line pipeline right of way. An inspector walks directly over the pipeline at least once a year to perform ground tests to determine if natural gas is leaking. The right of way is patrolled almost daily by vehicle and it is inspected once a week by air to determine if any unauthorized excavation is occurring in the area and to detect early signs of leakage.
Concerned about damage to the pipeline’s protective coating by tree roots, maintaining a clear line of sight along the pipeline, and preventing any delays in reaching the pipeline in an emergency, Transco tried to remove the 19 trees above the pipeline as part of a larger effort to remove trees above all of its pipelines in the area. The residents sued for a temporary restraining order enjoining Transco from removing the trees. Transco argued it had an absolute legal right to remove the trees under the right-of-way easement. Plaintiffs argued there was a genuine issue of material fact whether the trees endangered the pipeline, and whether their removal was reasonably necessary for Transco’s enjoyment of its easement right. No evidence was adduced that the tree roots were currently damaging the pipeline but there was evidence of potential harm.
A 2004 investigation revealed metal losses in the pope walls ranging from 6% to 15% at various locations along Timber Road. Additional testing in 2005 uncovered pipeline coating defects or interruptions at some of the same locations where the metal anomalies were discovered, but neither inspection definitively determined that tree roots were the cause of the damage. Finding that Transco need not wait for actual damage to its pipeline before exercising its express easement rights, the judge concluded, “the record indicates that tree roots may damage the protective coating of the pipeline …. [and][f]urther, efforts to keep the protective coating of the pipe intact [are] part of the necessary maintenance program for a pipeline.” The judge also reasoned that while the pipeline’s path is marked with yellow markers, the presence of the trees detracts from the area’s appearance as a right of way and may lead to third party interference with the pipeline, one of the biggest causes of pipeline accidents. The court granted summary judgment for Transco and the plaintiffs appealed.
Held: Transco had the right to remove the trees. The Court said the primary rule of construction is that the intent of the conveyor is normally determined by the language of the conveyance read as an entirety and in the light of the surrounding circumstances. Here, the easement plainly and expressly gave Transco the right to remove trees when they may endanger or interfere with the construction, operation or maintenance of the pipeline. The language specifically stated the grantee had “the right from time to time to keep said right of way free from trees, undergrowth and all other obstructions that may endanger or interfere with the construction, operation and maintenance of Grantee’s pipe lines….” The easement also clearly gave Transco the right to remove trees if they interfere with Transco’s immediate access to the right of way. The plain language of the easement gave Transco the express right to remove trees and did not require actual damage to or interference with pipeline operations before the trees get cut. The easement permitted preventive action to avoid potential harm, disruption or interference with the operator’s pipeline.
The uncontroverted evidence showed that the pipeline and pipeline coating along Timber Road has been damaged, and although there was no proof the damage has been caused by tree roots, other sections of Transco pipelines and pipeline coating in New Jersey had been damaged by tree roots. The Plaintiff had no proof to the contrary, but instead their expert only posited that “the roots are not likely to interfere in any way with the pipeline;” the root systems are “generally non-invasive;” and root growth is “typically ” confined to the upper two to two-and-one-half feet beneath the ground surface. The proof didn’t foreclose the possibility that the tree roots may grow deep enough to interfere with the pipeline, as they had in other sections of Transco’s pipeline.
Plaintiffs also contended Transco was barred from taking affirmative action by the equitable doctrine of laches, because it waited so long to exercise its easement rights. But the mere non-use of an easement cannot destroy the rights granted by it. Rather, clear and convincing evidence of the intent to abandon the easement rights must be shown. In this case, there was no evidence that Transco intended to abandon its easement rights; therefore, any reliance placed by plaintiffs on Transco’s inaction was unreasonable. Also, there was reasonable justification for Transco’s inaction over the years, having been unaware of the potential danger of the tree roots at time of planting. The evidence showed that since the trees were planted, there have been three accidents nationwide related to the rupture of natural gas pipelines and three incidents in this State where Transco has discovered that tree roots have damaged pipelines. The Court said that the fact that action had not been taken earlier did not preclude preventive action now, nor require waiting for actual damage to occur.
Plaintiffs simply did not demonstrate how their interest in preventing the removal of the trees outweighed Transco’s taking preventive measures in the public interest.
Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 9, 2015
For all of the Latin phrases, hidebound traditions and libraries full of precedent, the law at its essence is nothing more than a codification of policies generally accepted by society. The law doesn’t always get it right – some laws aren’t carefully drafted, others do exactly what the legislature intended but pursue foolish or even repugnant policies – but by and large, the law tries to lay out rules for conduct based on policies generally accepted to be important.
Keeping an eye on the prize – the societal goals to be achieved – often helps courts from going overboard. It’s how the camel’s nose can be allowed into the tent without getting the whole camel in the process.
A good example of this is the “wrongful life” lawsuit. States all allow a “wrongful death” action, in which the survivors of someone killed, say, in a car accident or from medical malpractice sue for damages. This makes good sense. But in the last decade or so, some “wrongful life” suits have been brought, where – for example – a physician misdiagnoses, and tells prospective parent that their fetus is healthy, but the doctor is wrong. The child is born with severe birth defects. The “wrongful life” suit claims that but for the physician’s negligence, the child would have been aborted.
Very few courts have permitted such a lawsuit, for several very good public policy reasons. The first is that society does not recognizes, as a matter of policy, that anyone is better off not having been born, no matter how severe the burdens of congenital disability. Second, the whole idea of tort law is to place the injured party in the same position as he or she would have been in had the negligence not occurred. But for the negligence, the injured party wouldn’t have been born. What can be done to put a living plaintiff in that position, or for that matter, to compensate for having been born instead of never being?
All right, that’s pretty heady stuff, but what does that have to do with tree law? Simply this: in today’s case, the plaintiff, Ms. Lewis, suffered having neighbors Gary and Nancy Krussel’s tree fall on her house. Her suit simply claim this: the tree fell on her house, the neighbors knew that they had a tree, therefore, the tree was a nuisance, and the neighbors were negligent in not keeping the tree from falling on the house. There was no evidence the Krussels had any inkling this particular hemlock was going to fall. There was no evidence any reasonable person would have had such an inkling. In fact, there was no evidence the tree was diseased or damaged. Reduced to its essence, Lewis’s claim was that the tree existed and the tree later fell, and those facts made it a nuisance. The tree was alive, the argument seems to say, and that fact wronged Ms. Lewis.
Fortunately, the Washington state courts made short work of this claim. Ms. Lewis was trying to advance a negligence claim as a nuisance claim, probably because she had no evidence of negligence. But, the courts ruled, public policy was not ready to declare a tree a nuisance merely because it was growing, nor was it prepared to hold that property owners were liable for what became of any naturally-growing, healthy trees on their land.
Without keeping one eye on public policy, the courts’ development of the law might go like this: First, landowners are responsible for damage caused by trees on their property that are diseased or damaged, and about which condition they are actually aware or reasonably ought to be aware. The next step would be courts ruling that owners must inspect their trees to avoid liability. Finally, landowners would be strictly liable for any damage caused by their trees, whether they were aware of a problem or not.
Largely, the law has stopped short of such a draconian rule, because the courts recognize that public policy favors the natural growth of trees, and eschews requiring property owners to devote substantial time and money to inspect trees, where there is no concomitant benefit to the public. By and large, courts have enough policy sense to let the camel’s nose into the tent while keeping the rest of the dromedary outside.
It is this kind of analysis that is illustrated in today’s case.
Lewis v. Krussel, 101 Wash.App. 178, 2 P.3d 486 (Ct.App. Wash. 2000). During a windstorm, two large healthy hemlock trees fell on Dawn Lewis’s house. She sued Gary and Nancy Krussel, who owned the property on which the trees had been growing.
Krussel acknowledged that windstorms had knocked down other trees on his property and other property nearby in previous years. About a week after the windstorm at issue here, another windstorm knocked a tree onto his mother’s mobile home. But the trees that damaged the Lewis house were natural growth, and Krussel had no reason to believe that they were any more dangerous than any other trees on his property under normal conditions. After the damage to the Lewis house, Krussel cut down other hemlock trees located near his house upon the recommendation of the local utility district.
After Lewis sued for nuisance and negligence, Krussel moved for summary judgment. He supported the motion with evidence from a professional forester who inspected the stump of one of the fallen trees and found no evidence of rot. The forester concluded the tree that fell on the Lewis house was no more dangerous than any other tree standing on the Krussels’ property, and there was no way for the Krussels to determine beforehand whether any one of their trees would fall over. The trial court dismissed the Lewis claim, and Lewis appealed.
Held: The appeals court upheld the dismissal of Lewis’s claim.
A homeowner is not obligated to remove healthy trees because they might topple in a storm. The Court of Appeals said just because a negligence claim was disguised as a nuisance suit didn’t mean that the trial court had to consider it as such. Instead, in situations where the alleged nuisance is a result of what is claimed to be negligent conduct, the rules of negligence are applied.
The elements of a negligence cause of action, of course, are (1) the existence of a duty to the plaintiff, (2) a breach of the duty, and (3) injury to plaintiff flowing from the breach of duty. An owner of property located in an urban or residential area who has actual or constructive knowledge of defects affecting his or her trees has a duty to take corrective action. However, the same is not the case when the tree is healthy. In that case, the owner does not have a duty to remove healthy trees merely because the wind might knock them down.
In this case, the Court agreed, there was no evidence that Krussel had any reason to believe that the hemlock trees posed a hazard, and a professional forester who had inspected the stump of the fallen tree had found that the tree was free of defects. The mere possibility of harm does not mean probability of harm.
Case of the Day – Thursday, September 10, 2015
“On and on, reckless abandon, something’s wrong, this is gonna shock them …” The velvet tones of Blink-182, so reminiscent of the Kingston Trio!
OK, not velvet tones, just teenage angst and a little toilet humor. But today’s protagonist might have had the punk rockers on his iPod while he was wielding his chainsaw with … well, with reckless abandon.
One day last winter, complains loyal reader Jeff of Maple Falls, Ohio, he went to work as usual. In the middle of the day, his neighbor called him to report that some tree cutters had cut the top 60 feet off his prize 75-foot tall silver maple tree. His neighbor, the kind of nice old lady who every kid in the ‘hood can’t stand, had carefully noted the name of the tree trimming service in a little spiral notebook. She gave the name to Jeff, and So Jeff called them.
“Ha, ha,” the owner exclaimed, “what a gaffe! Boy, is our face red! We had an order to cut down a silver maple, and we went to the wrong house! Isn’t that just the funniest thing?”
Jeff didn’t think so. The owner sent a representative over to look at the forlorn 15-foot trunk still standing, admitted the crew had come to the wrong address, and offered $1,000 to forget the whole thing. But Jeff loved that tree, which shaded the house, nested squirrels and birds and provide a canopy for family picnics. Jeff’s arborist figured that replacement of the tree with the most comparable silver maple available would cost somewhere around $25,000.
Section 901.51 of the Ohio Revised Code lets an injured party collect treble damages from a party who “recklessly cut down, girdle, or otherwise injure a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree or crop growing on the land of another.” Jeff wondered whether the tree trimming service reckless, and whether his $25,000 might be tripled to $75,000. If it did, he might even afford a quick shopping trip through Whole Foods … that is, if he only buys 12 items or fewer.
A person acts recklessly when, with heedless indifference to the consequences, he perversely disregards a known risk that his conduct is likely to cause a certain result or is likely to be of a certain nature. A person is reckless with respect to circumstances when, with heedless indifference to the consequences, he perversely disregards a known risk that such circumstances are likely to exist.
In Collins v. Messer, a woman hired a tree trimmer to clear some of her land. She told the trimmer to only clear to a fencerow, which she later said she believed was the property line. It was not, and the other property owner was unhappy. Mrs. Messer tried to settle with him, but things broke down and he sued.
The trial court found Mrs. Messer’s testimony about her mistaken belief that the fence marked the boundaries credible, as well as her statement that she told the trimmers not to go beyond the fence. Based upon those findings, the trial court determined that Messer’s actions were not reckless and she was not liable in treble damages under the statute. In assessing damages for the trespass, the court held that the measure of damage is the cost of reasonable restoration of property to the pre-existing condition or to a condition as close as reasonably feasible without requiring grossly disproportionate expenditures and with allowance for the natural processes of regeneration within a reasonable period of time.
What does this mean for Jeff? Whether the tree trimmer was reckless depends on what led him to the wrong house, and what steps he might have taken to verify the address. Cutting down a healthy 75-foot tall hardwood shade tree is a pretty final act, and industry standard is for the tree trimming employee who performed the estimate and pre-work inspection to be on-site when the work is begun. The irrevocability of cutting down a large tree on a residential lot in the city is such that the trimming company had to have understood the known risk that if the work was performed at the wrong house, the consequences would not be pretty.
One might think that the tree trimming company would want to settle this one for the cost of restoration, rather than roll the dice on whether it will have to pay treble that amount. It is pretty clearly liable for the blunder. When its best hope is to convince a jury that the blunder was just negligence, there isn’t much up-side in litigation. As Ronald Reagan once said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
Collins v. Messer (2004), Case No. CA 2003-06-149 (Ct.App. Butler Co., June 14 2004) unpublished, 2004 WL 1301393 – Collins sued his neighbor, Messer, for having trees and vegetation removed from Collins’ residential property.
The rear of Collins’ home abuts the rear of Messer’s property in a residential subdivision. Mrs. Messer hired Wilson Garden Center to clear vegetation to an old farm fence, which she thought was a property line. She was not present when the Garden Center employees cleared the vegetation. Mrs. Messer had never met Mr. Collins, and she didn’t speak to him before the Garden Center performed the work. The vegetation, with the exception of a few trees, was cleared up to and beyond the farm fence at a time when neither party was at home. It turned out that Messer’s property line did not extend to the old farm fence and that most of the vegetation cleared was on Collins’ property. Mr. Collins testified that he was “devastated” when he learned of the destruction of the vegetation.
Collins and Messer split the $1,647.91 cost of hiring a landscaper to plant some pine trees in the area between the properties, but the relationship between the parties deteriorated during the year that followed. Finally, Collins sued Messer in trespass, seeking treble damages under O.R.C. §901.51.
Held: The Court found that the evidence was sufficient to support finding that Mrs. Messer’s actions were not reckless, and thus Mr. Collins was not entitled to treble damages. She testified that she was mistaken that the fence constituted the boundary, and she never told the Garden Center workers to go beyond it. Mr. Collins had no evidence to rebut Messer’s claim of mistake, and the trial court may have been swayed by Mrs. Messer’s willingness to share the cost of the mistake before things deteriorated into a lawsuit.
Also, because the parties already had agreed on splitting the costs of planting replacement trees, Mr. Collins wasn’t entitled to additional trespass damages for loss of vegetation. In assessing damages for the trespass, the trial court held that the measure of damage is the cost of reasonable restoration of property to the pre-existing condition or to a condition as close as reasonably feasible without requiring grossly disproportionate expenditures and with allowance for the natural processes of regeneration within a reasonable period of time.
The appeals court agreed with the trial court that Mrs. Messer compensated Mr. Collins for his damages by paying $823.00 for the pines planted on Mr. Collins’ land.
Case of the Day – Friday, September 11, 2015
WHY WRITTEN CONTRACTS CONTINUE TO BE SUCH A GOOD IDEA
We’ve preached it until we’re blue in the face. As movie impresario Samuel Goldwyn put it, “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
In today’s case, landowner Whatley hired a tree cutter to take down two trees in his yard. Whatley knew from nuthin’ about tree cutting, so he told the guy to do it any way he saw fit. Of course, these two being good ol’ boys, they didn’t bother with a written agreement (which could have been as simple as an estimate with some terms printed on the back).
And what kind of terms did they need? Well, maybe one that said that the tree cutter was an independent contractor of Whatley would have been nice. As it turned out, the cutter and his able assistant dropped one the first without a problem. When they considered the second tree, which stood on a slope hard against the neighbors’ place, the cutter figured he could drop it in one piece safely. Whatley, whom (as we said) knew from nuthin’ about tree cutting, said “if you can do it, do it.”
But the cutters couldn’t do it. The tree toppled onto the Sharmas’ place, breaking trees and smashing their fountain. And here’s where it got messy. The Sharmas, of course, sued the tree cutter. But they sued Whatley, too, arguing it was his fault as the employer of the cutters.
The law is well established that a landowner isn’t responsible for the negligence of an independent contractor, because the independent contractor has full authority to decide how to do the job himself. But without that written agreement, everyone had to pack the courtroom to explain how the relationship was an independent contract and not an employer-employee relationship.
The Sharmas seized on the offhand statement Whatley made about ‘doing it if you can do it, ‘ and tried to conflate it into Whatley guiding the work. The court sorted things out, but a nice written agreement spelling out the relationship probably would kept Whatley out of court to begin with.
Whatley v. Sharma, 291 Ga.App. 228, 661 S.E.2d 590 (Ga.App. 2008). Whatley hired a tree-cutting contractor to remove two trees from his yard for $1,100 to be paid on completion. The oral contract didn’t specify how the trees should be removed. The contractor arrived a week later with a “tree climber,” whom the contractor had hired in case they needed to fell the trees by cutting them into sections (also known as “topping off” the trees) as opposed to dropping the trees as an entire unit. They felled the first tree in one piece, and based on the tree climber’s recommendation, the contractor told Whatley that they intended to also cut down the second tree as an entire unit. Whatley responded, “[I]f you can do it, do it.”
But the second tree, located on a hill on Whatley’s property that sloped toward the nearby property line, twisted as it fell and toppled into the Sharmas’ yard, damaging their trees and outdoor fountain. The Sharmas argued that there was no way the second tree could have been cut down in one piece without damaging their property.
The Sharmas sued the contractor, arguing he was negligent in felling the tree as an entire unit rather than “topping off” the tree. The Sharmas also included Whatley as a defendant. Whatley moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was not responsible for the actions of the tree cutter, who was an independent contractor. His motion for summary judgment was denied, and he appealed.
Held: The summary judgment was granted, and Whatley was dismissed from the suit. The Court started with the observation that under Georgia law, a person who engages an independent contractor is generally not responsible for any torts committed by the independent contractor. The reason for the rule is that since the employer has no right of control over the manner in which the work is to be done, it is regarded as the contractor’s own enterprise, and he, rather than the employer, is the proper party to be charged with the responsibility for preventing the risk, and administering and distributing it.
The Court said that the true test whether a person employed is a servant or an independent contractor is whether the employer, under the contract has the right to direct the time, the manner, the methods, and the means of execution of the work, or whether the contractor in the performance of the work contracted for is free from any control by the employer in the time, manner, and method in the performance of the work.
Here, the Court held, the unrefuted evidence shows that Whatley engaged a professional tree-cutting contractor for a clearly defined job: to remove two trees for a set price. As a homeowner inexperienced in such matters, Whatley provided no equipment or tools for the job and gave no instructions on how to take down the trees but rather (in the words of the contractor) gave him “freelance” to cut down the trees as he saw best. The contractor and his “tree climber” made the decision to cut down the second tree as an entire unit, based on the contractor’s belief that he could cause the tree to fall into Whatley’s yard alone.
The Sharmas argued that a single conversation between the contractor and Whatley showed that Whatley controlled the contractor’s actions. They claimed that Whatley’s statement, “if you can do it, do it,” in response to the contractor’s decision to take the tree down as an entire unit showed that Whatley was controlling the contractor’s actions. But the Court said this response merely proved that the contractor was free to cut down the tree as he saw fit: “Whatley was expanding, not contracting, the options available to the contractor to remove the tree, to whom was committed the discretion as to the final decision of the method of removal. At most, this was a suggestion or recommendation, and that it is not enough ….”
The Sharmas also contended that an exception to the “independent contractor” rule places liability on Whatley, because “[a]n employer is liable for the negligence of a contractor … [w]hen the work is wrongful in itself….” The Sharmas maintained that the felling of the second tree in one piece so close to their yard necessarily required trespass onto their yard and therefore was wrongful in itself. However, the Court said, the competent evidence showed that Whatley never told the contractor he could go onto the Sharmas’ property and that the contractor believed he could fell the tree without going onto their yard. Anyway, a landowner’s hiring someone to cut down a tree from his land is not wrongful in itself, even though the contractor ends up trespassing onto a neighbor’s yard.
Case of the Day – Monday, September 14, 2015
A “READILY APPARENT” THUMP
A great philosopher perhaps put it best: a very long journey can sometimes end suddenly, and rather badly.
Howie Conine should have had the Despair, Inc., “Ambition” poster on his wall, where he could have contemplated its message. He surely could empathize with the hapless salmon. He and his wife had their journey end one rainy day on Washington State Route 524 – suddenly and very, very badly. A redwood tree on County of Snohomish land, the hazardousness of which was “readily apparent,” fell on their car with a readily apparent thump.
The law of the jungle gives the poor king salmon no right of appeal, no habeas corpus, no forum for damages suffered when her trip upstream ends so precipitously in the jaws of an ursus arctus horribilis . Fortunately for the Conines, the law of Washington State was more hospitable after the tree fell onto their passing car (with them in it). If anything, it was a perfect storm for them: they possessed evidence that the dangerous condition of the tree was “readily apparent,” they were in a notoriously friendly plaintiff-friendly, and they had two defendants to choose from, both of which were governments and thus “deep pockets.”
But who to collect from? The State of Washington, the government that, the Conines argued, had a duty to keep the highways safe from falling trees? Or perhaps the County of Snohomish, the government that, the Conines averred, had a duty to protect passers-by from dangers arising from trees on its land?
This is America – land of the free and home of the litigious! Why not sue both?
That is exactly what the Conines did.
Unfortunately, they ran into an uncooperative trial court, one which held that neither Washington State nor Snohomish County had any obligation to inspect the trees along the road, even one with “this readily apparent hazard.” The trial judge threw the Conines out of court. They had more luck with the Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court decision and sent the matter back for trial on the merits. There was enough evidence – chiefly from the Conines’ hired-gun expert – that the tree was obviously dangerous, that the case should go to trial.
The lesson: when you need a good expert, there’s just nothing else that will do.
Conine v. County of Snohomish, Not Reported in P.3d, 2007 WL 1398846 (Ct.App. Wash., May 14, 2007). Howard and Karen Conine were driving on State Route 524 when a red alder tree standing on an embankment on the west side of the road fell on their car. The tree had been located about 10 feet outside the State’s right of way on land owned by Snohomish County. The Conines sued the State of Washington for failure to maintain the state highways in a safe condition and the County for failure to remove an obvious hazard from its property.
The Conines’ arborist testified that during the 6-12 months immediately preceding the tree’s failure, the appearance of the tree should have given anyone looking at it notice that it was dead and decaying. The arborist said the tree was probably leaning 10 to 15 degrees downhill toward the road, and would have been in the highest risk category because of its condition and proximity to the road. The DOT’s maintenance technician who removed the tree after the accident said the tree “had been a live tree and that its root ball had come loose from the soil owing to the very wet conditions we had in January 2003.”
The trial court held that neither the State nor the County had a “duty to look for this readily apparent hazard.” The Conines appealed.
Held: The summary judgment was reversed. The State’s liability to users of a road is predicated upon its having notice, either actual or constructive, of the dangerous condition which caused injury, unless the danger was one it should have foreseen and guarded against. The Conines conceded that the State did not have actual notice, but they argued that the tree’s visibly dangerous condition created constructive notice. The Court found that the question to be answered was whether, for constructive notice, the State had a duty to look for a readily apparent hazard. Although the Washington Supreme Court had held in another case that where the tree was on a remote, mountainous, sporadically traveled road, a high threshold for constructive notice of danger was needed to trigger a duty to inspect and remove a dangerous tree. But here, the road was a state highway in a populated area, and the risk to the traveling public shifted the risk analysis. What’s more, in the other case, the Supreme Court found that the tree that fell was no more dangerous than any one of the thousands of trees that lined mountain roads. By contrast, the Conines’ expert testified that the tree that fell was obviously a hazard. The differences, the Court said, precluded a finding that the State lacked constructive notice as a matter of law. Constructive notice that a tree was dangerous gives rise to a duty to inspect. Thus, summary judgment was improperly granted on the basis of no duty to inspect.
The Conines also contended that Snohomish County faced liability as the landowner of the property upon which the tree stood, because the owner of land located in or adjacent to an urban or residential area has a duty of reasonable care to prevent defective trees from posing a hazard to others on the adjacent land. The County argued that it had no such duty, because the tree was a “natural condition of the land.”
The Court held that when the land is located in or adjacent to an urban or residential area and when the landowner has actual or constructive knowledge of defects affecting his trees, he has a duty to take corrective action. The area in question was next to the City of Lynnwood and zoned urban residential. Thus, it was urban in character. The Conines produced expert evidence that the subject tree was obviously dead or dying and leaning for two years, that it looked like a forked snag and that it lacked fine or scaffold branches. This evidence, the Court said, created an issue of material fact as to whether the tree was in a defective condition and the condition was of sufficient visibility and duration to give the County constructive notice of a potential hazard.
Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 15, 2015
SOMEONE’S GOTTA DO SOMETHING ABOUT ALL THESE ASH HOLES
We read a lot of newspapers here. Some are truly excellent. Some are pretty good. A few are so-so.
Then there’s the Norwalk, Ohio, Reflector, which we read for reasons too complex to explore here. Yesterday, Reflector columnist Jim Busek complained about the city’s plan to axe 62 trees that are accused of wreaking havoc with sidewalks. Jim bemoaned the fact the City had removed a number of ash trees eight years ago (which he admits was a “smart ash policy”). Now, Jim is pleading for the 62 targeted trees, publicly and plaintively asking Norwalk Safety Director Josh Snyder whether there isn’t an alternative to cutting down these old trees. Surely, Jim hypothesizes, these at-risk trees are so mature that if the offending roots were cut, no new ones would dare grow, and the sidewalks would thus remain in place. Right?
While Norwalk arborists are busy looking for the anti-root pixie dust Jim figures will prevent new growth, we thought we’d consider the strange legal limbo in which property owners find themselves when tussling with municipalities over trees located on tree lawns.
It turns out that Norwalk – known as the Maple City – didn’t rid itself of all of its ash trees. A few still stand on city streets, and ash borers haven’t overlooked them. So who’s responsible for those dead trees? Ironically, we’ve seen the issue arise before, as cities – operating under tight budgets – lean on homeowners to pay for the removal of tree lawn trees. So exactly whose problem is it?
An interesting question, and one we’ll consider for the next two days. Actually, there are two questions, and we’ll pick on Jim in order to answer them. Let’s say for example, that the dead ash on Jim Busek’s tree lawn falls on a motorist. Is Jim’s ash in a sling? And might the Maple City be liable as well?
So someone’s gotta do something about the tree. But who – Jim or the Mayor?
Today, we’ll consider Jim’s liability. There’s no doubt that the tree lawn is Jim’s property, despite the fact it is subject to the City’s highway dedication. There’s a lot an owner can’t do with a tree lawn because of the City’s highway rights, but it’s still his or her property. Generally, the owner can plant and take down trees. And the fact that an owner has the right to add or remove trees suggests that he or she has a duty to as well.
Let’s consider that duty. In Wertz v. Cooper, one of Cooper’s trees fell onto Wertz’s fence during a storm. When Wertz sued her, she countered that she had no idea the tree was diseased, and that the tree’s falling over was an act of God. The Court agreed. It held that in order for a landowner to have a duty, the evidence must establish that he or she had actual or constructive notice of a patent danger that the tree would fall.
There is an exception. Where the tree overhangs the street in an urban area, an owner may be held liable on negligence principles under certain circumstances for injuries or damages resulting from the tree or a limb falling onto the highway. Generally, an urban owner has a duty of reasonable care relative to his or her trees, including inspection to make sure that they are safe.
So Jim may have a problem, beyond the fact that he’ll find no tree root pixie dust at the nearby Home Depot. The duty to inspect isn’t an issue here. If Jim owns that dead ash tree, he already has notice the tree’s dead. The bare branches in mid summer, the sloughing bark, and the borer tracks looking like spaghetti done in bas relief, is more than enough constructive notice anyone ever had. Whether the City does something about the dead tree or not, Jim would do well to hire an arborist to inspect the tree. If the tree should go for safety’s sake, Jim shouldn’t wait for the City to do it.
Would the same apply if tree roots damaged the sidewalk, making pedestrian passage dangerous? Absent any municipal code relieving property owners of liability for condition of the sidewalks, it would hardly be a stretch for an unfortunate passerby suing under the law of nuisance. Need an illustration? Look no further than Fancher v. Fagella.
Tomorrow: Would the Maple City be liable to remove the tree, independent of Jim’s obligation as a landowner?
Wertz v. Cooper, Case No. 06CA3077 (Ct.App. Scioto Co., Dec. 13, 2006), 2006 WL 3759831. Following heavy rains, a tree that sat on Cooper’s property tore loose from its roots, and leaned into Wertz’s fence and into a Shriner Colorado Blue Spruce tree that sat upon Wertz’s property. Wertz sued Cooper, complaining that Cooper failed to timely remove her tree. Wertz sought damages, including the cost of removing the fallen tree, the expenses to replace the damaged Blue Spruce, and other incidental damages.
Cooper argued that she had no knowledge of a defective condition of the tree, that she could not have been negligent in failing to maintain the tree, and that she could not be liable for the damage when an “act of God” caused the tree to uproot. The trial court agreed that there was no evidence that the tree was deteriorating, and that Cooper was not liable for an Act of God.
Held: Judgment for Cooper was upheld. A negligence action in Ohio requires a plaintiff to establish that: (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; (2) the defendant breached the duty of care; and (3) as a direct and proximate result of the defendant’s breach, the plaintiff suffered injury. In order for a plaintiff to establish the duty element in a negligence action arising from a fallen tree, the evidence must establish that the landowner had actual or constructive notice of a patent danger that the tree would fall.
There is an exception to the general rule, however, concerning the duty of a property owner relating to growing trees with limbs overhanging a public street or highway. An owner of land abutting a highway may be held liable on negligence principles under certain circumstances for injuries or damages resulting from a tree or limb falling onto the highway from such property. In addition, there appears to have developed a distinction throughout the United States that there is a lesser standard of care with reference to rural, farm, timber, or little used land as opposed to strictly urban property. Generally, an urban owner has a duty of reasonable care relative to the tree, including inspection to make sure that it is safe. The duty placed upon the urban landowner, who has only a few trees, is not a heavy burden. This is in contrast to the rural landowner who may have a forest full of trees, which would impose a duty of immense proportions, and constitute an onerous burden on the owner.
Despite the heightened standard to be applied to an urban tree, Wertz had no evidence in this record to establish that Cooper had either actual or constructive notice of a defective condition of the tree. While Wertz advanced her belief that the tree was dead or dying, her allegation was conclusory. She presented no evidence to support her claim. What’s more, even if Wertz were right that she believed that the tree was dead or dying hardly establishes that Cooper knew or should have known that the tree was dead or dying.
Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 16, 2015
DANGER TREES AND PIXIE DUST
Yesterday, we took up the question of trees on tree lawns, an issue that arose because Jim Busek, a Norwalk, Ohio Reflector columnist, was up in arms over that city’s plans to cut down 62 boulevard trees that were interfering with the sidewalks.
Instead of removing the trees, Jim proposed that the offending roots be chopped out, and the trees encouraged not to grow any back to replace them. His plan is surprisingly close to the current Administration’s Iran nuclear agreement, where a country that flouted international will by secretly trying to build nuclear weapons has been asked to stop, and to inspect itself from time to time so it can assure us that indeed isn’t building such weapons anymore. (If you’re among the 21 percent of the public that likes the Iran deal, let us say right now that it’s an awesome deal, and, if you like the accord,you can keep the accord).
While Jim was whispering to trees, we were wondering whether he might be liable if a dead ash tree standing on his tree lawn fell onto a passing motorist. Now, mind you, we don’t know whether Jim even has any trees on his tree lawn, but you know how it is when you hold yourself to the public as a famous columnist. You become a lightning rod. Sorry, Jim … you’re fair game.
In our discussion of Wertz v. Cooper, we delivered the bad news that Jim, as owner of the strip of grass between the public sidewalk and street, may well be liable. As an urban property owner, he has a duty to inspect and remove trees that may reasonably pose a danger to third parties passing on public streets. So Jim’s hanging out there a country mile (or maybe a city mile, because he is an urban landowner, and Wertz tells us they’re different).
But is he hanging out there alone? Although Jim owns the tree lawn, it lies within in the 60-foot wide right-of-way of the street. The Ohio Supreme Court has pointedly said that the “roadway, the space immediately above the roadway, the shoulder, the berm, and the right-of-way are all under the control of the political subdivision … [which] has a duty to keep the areas within its control free from nuisance, i.e., conditions that directly jeopardize the safety of traffic on the highway. Where the [subdivision] fails in its duty, it may be liable for injuries proximately caused by the nuisance.” Manufacturer’s Nat’l Bank of Detroit v. Erie County Road Comm (1992), 63 Ohio St.3d 318, 322-23.
So the City has Jim’s back (or is on the hook, depending on your viewpoint) in case the pixie dust dosen’t work on the tree roots. Of course, the City has to have actual or constructive notice of the defect, just like the landowner in yesterday’s case. However, the City has already noted that 62 trees should be removed, and – if the homeowners balk enough to convince the City otherwise – the City’s previous decision that the trees should go would cut against any denial by the powers-that-be that they were blissfully unaware.
All of which brings us to today’s case. This lawsuit relates to an unfortunate man who was killed when a dead tree fell onto his car one stormy November night. The tree was on private property out in the country, but it had been dead for so long that the landowner may have had liability. We can’t tell, because this case — in the Ohio Court of Claims — was solely against the Department of Transportation. The Court held that ODOT would be liable, notwithstanding the fact that the tree was on private land, if it had breached its duty to inspect the tree.
ODOT had a “drive-by” inspection program, reminiscent of one we considered recently in Maiden v. Commonwealth of Kentucky. The victim’s heirs argued that if ODOT had gone around behind the tree (away from the road), they would have seen the decay. Well, yes, the Court said, but that’s beside the point. ODOT has over 40,000 miles of road to inspect, and to inspect every tree in the manner suggested by the plaintiff would be economically infeasible.
Still, the principle we take away from this decision is that just because the tree is on private land, the City of Norwalkl would not get off the hook. That doesn’t mean that Jim’s going to feel that much better in the defendant’s dock if the mayor has to stand next to him.
Our sad conclusion: Jim may not be the only one liable here. He knows the City has identified the trees as a hazard, and that alone places him on actual notice. If his 98-cent remedy of cutting some roots and hoping for the best doesn’t work, both his homeowners’ insurance and the City’s pocketbook could get a workout.
What a pain in the ash that would turn out to be!
Blausey v. Ohio Dept. of Transp., Not Reported in N.E.2d, 2005 WL 894878 (Ohio Ct.Cl.), 2005 -Ohio- 1807. Dale Blausey was killed during a windstorm when the car he was driving was struck by a falling Norway spruce tree on a U.S. highway in Erie County, Ohio. The tree had been growing on a roadside right-of-way obtained by defendant on land that was owned by Joe Henry but occupied by a tenant. The primary proximate cause of the fall was the severe deterioration of the roots on the east side of the tree and the high wind that blew the tree onto the highway. The tree had been struck by lightning in 1973, and the damage from that strike led to interior rotting and an infestation of carpenter ants, the combination of which destroyed much of the root system. The deterioration had existed for as long as ten years, gradually weakening the tree to the extent that it became a hazard.
Before it fell, the east side of tree that faced the highway showed little, if any, evidence of decay. Dead limbs were not clearly visible from the highway. Limbs had been removed from the lower part of the tree, which was not uncommon as landowners sought to mow, decorate, or otherwise use the land. Additionally, the lower part of the tree was obscured by bushes and vegetation. The upper growth of both the healthy and the diseased spruce trees was green and quite similar, although on close inspection, the growth on the healthy spruce appeared to be slightly more dense. Cone growth was normal on both trees. Although the 1973 lightning strike had caused the tree to lose its “Christmas tree” shape at the top, the loss was not very noticeable. However, an inspection of the west side of the tree would have revealed evidence of deterioration and of a potential hazard. The State had not inspected the tree except from the highway, and that inspection did not reveal any defect.
Blausey’s executor sued the State for negligence in not identifying and removing the danger tree prior to the accident, and accused it of maintaining a nuisance.
Held: The State was not negligent. In order to prevail upon a claims of negligence, a plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant a duty, that it breached the duty, and that the breach proximately caused the injury. The State has a duty to maintain its highways in a reasonably safe condition for the motoring public, but it doesn’t have to become an insurer of the safety of state highways.
To constitute a nuisance, the thing or act complained of must either cause injury to the property of another, obstruct the reasonable use or enjoyment of such property, or cause physical discomfort to such person. In a suit for nuisance, the action for damages is predicated upon carelessly or negligently allowing such condition to exist. But in order for liability to attach to a defendant for damages caused by hazards upon the roadway, a plaintiff must show the defendant had actual or constructive notice of the existence of such hazard. The distinction between actual and constructive notice is in the manner in which notice is obtained or assumed to have been obtained rather than in the amount of information obtained. Wherever from competent evidence the trier of fact is entitled to hold as a conclusion of fact and not as a presumption of law that information was personally communicated to or received by a party, the notice is actual. Constructive notice is that which the law regards as sufficient to give notice and is regarded as a substitute for actual notice. To establish that defendant had constructive notice of a nuisance or defect in the highway, the hazard “must have existed for such length of time as to impute knowledge or notice.
The court found that there was insufficient discernible evidence available to defendant’s inspectors to warrant further investigation of the damaged tree or to determine that it was hazardous prior to the accident. While a close inspection of tree would have revealed that tree was a hazard, the deteriorated condition of tree was not apparent through Department’s routine visual inspections from roadway, and with over 40,000 miles of road to inspect, the Department was not — as a matter of social and economic policy —expected to individually inspect the trees.
Case of the Day – Thursday, September 17, 2015
The solid rock on which the many decisions on landowner liability for trees that fall on neighbors’ land, houses, cars and sundry possessions is the unremarkable notion that a landowner is not responsible for damage caused by the natural condition of the land. In other words, if it’s just a tree growing naturally on the property – and not some exotic species you saw on your last safari, and just had to plant in your backyard in scenic Bugscuffle, Tennessee – any damage it might cause by shedding its limbs or invading with its roots is pretty much an Act of God.
Or such was the case in 1946, when the Gibraltar Fire & Marine Insurance Co., tried to collect money from Mr. Griefield for damage his tree had done to its insured. Mr. Griefield told Gibraltar that it had rocks in its head if it thought he was liable for damage caused by a falling limb. But Gibraltar wasn’t monkeying around. It sued, claiming in essence that a landowner was liable whenever one of his or her trees caused harm to a neighbor.
The case didn’t involve questions of whether the tree was diseased, whether Mr. Griefield had a duty to inspect his trees, or whether any defects in the tree were readily apparent. Decisions refining a landowner’s duty – even where the tree is a natural condition of the land – were years in the future. Rather, today’s case established as rock-solid the principle that a landowner has no obligation to trim or take other steps to limit the damages that a tree growing as a natural condition of the land might otherwise cause to a neighbor.
The Mississippi Supreme Court pondered the issue in 1946. Because the decision – although written with some of the ruffles and flourishes typical of decisions of that era – is fairly short, we set it out in full:
Griefield v. Gibraltar Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 199 Miss. 175, 24 So.2d 356 (Sup.Ct. Miss. 1946). This action was begun by the appellee in a County Court and was there tried by agreement by the Judge without a jury, resulting in a judgment for the appellant, but which was reversed by the Circuit Court and a judgment was there rendered for the appellee. The case was tried in the County Court on an agreed statement of facts, which the Reporter will set out in full.
The test of the appellant’s liability vel non is whether the tree from which this limb overhung the land of the appellee’s assignors was of natural growth or had been planted by the appellant or a former possessor of her land. If the latter is the case, liability appears, 4 Restatement, Torts, § 839; Buckingham v. Elliott, 62 Miss. 296, 52 Am.Rep. 188; but if the former is the case the appellant is not liable, 4 Restatement, Torts, § 840, Comment (a). The former is the case here, for there is nothing in the agreed statement of facts to indicate that the oak tree was not of natural growth.
The broad language of the opinion in Buckingham v. Elliott, supra, if given effect, would sustain the judgment of the Circuit Court, but when the authority of that opinion is limited, as it should be, to the issue then before the court, it will be seen that the judgment there rendered is not in conflict with the rule announced in 4 Restatement (Torts), § 840, for the trees there, the roots of which caused the plaintiff’s damage, were not of natural growth but had been planted of the defendant’s land. The appellant was under no obligation to the appellee’s assignors to remove the limb of the tree which overhung their land, and her gratuitous promise so to do was not binding on her, but the appellee’s assignors had the right at all times to themselves remove so much of the limb as overhung their land. 1 American Jurisprudence., Adjoining Landowners, § 56.
The judgment of the Circuit Court will be reversed and the judgment of the County Court will be affirmed.
Case of the Day – Friday, September 18, 2015
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
Have you ever known someone who had a wacko theory he just couldn’t let go of? You know, the grassy knoll, 9/11 conspiracy, born-in-Kenya, Browns winning the Super Bowl kind of theory? And nothing — no reason, no logic, no gentle persuasion — would dissuade the tin hatter?
Today’s protagonists are something like that. The Cantins had a theory, something about one of their lots being 50% wider than depicted on the map. They sued their neighbors over the boundary line, because, after all, if your lot is bigger, that necessarily must mean your neighbor’s lot is smaller. And, of course, the Cantins hired a surveyor to prove their point.
Hilarity ensued. It seems the first surveyor they hired studied the premises and told them they were wrong. Unfortunately for the Cantins, the second surveyor they hired reached the same conclusion. But the gamely kept hiring surveyors until they found one who could sharpen his pencil sufficiently. And that was Mr. Towne.
The Enron accountants, the GM safety engineers, the Obamacare economists – these guys had nothing on Mr. Towne. He learned from his clients what they needed his answer to be, and he then performed a survey that was tortured enough to arrive at the Cantins’ destination. But the trial court wasn’t ridin’ that train. Instead, it found the survey not credible (sort of a first cousin to ‘incredible’), and later awarded the neighbors their legal fees, holding that the Towne survey was based on false evidence.
Fast forward. Another neighbor, the redoubtable Nature Conservancy, found it had to sue everyone in order to clean up the boundaries of its property. The neighbors who had been sued by the Cantins — and had been compelled to deconstruct the uber-surveyor Mr. Towne’s work — settled with the Nature Conservancy. After all, facts are facts. In fact, Mr. Towne settled with the Nature Conservancy by agreeing to withdraw his bogus survey, acknowledging it was wrong. But Cantins, true believers to the end, decide to fight.
The Conservancy asked for summary judgment, filing a survey by Mr. Blais that showed the proper boundaries. The Cantins opposed it, filing — what else? — the Towne survey as their defense. The court granted summary judgment to the Nature Conservancy. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Vermont agreed with the Nature Conservancy. It held that the fact that in a prior litigation, the Towne survey had been rejected, meant that the Cantins were precluded from using it in this litigation. Under the doctrine of issue preclusion, the matter had been settled.
The Cantins were obligated to directly attack the Blais survey with facts, not rely on a survey that they had already lost on (and one which its own author had renounced).
Recycling may be green and praiseworthy, but not in the courts. Having been used once, the Towne survey should have had a PK nailset driven through its description, and buried.
Nature Conservancy v. Cantin, Not Reported in A.2d, 2008 WL 2781547 (Vt., 2008). The Cantins previously sued their neighbors, the Bouchers, over a boundary line dispute in 1992. In that litigation, the Cantins’ theory was that their Lot 12 was about 50% wider than the neighboring lots. Therefore, the Cantins contended that the boundary of the adjoining lots had to be shifted half a lot to the west. The trial court in that case found that the Cantins had hired several surveyors to support their theory, but none of them except one, named Towne, who found the Cantins’ theory credible. The trial court found that that Towne’s survey wasn’t credible evidence, and in fact was based “on falsely manufactured evidence.”
In the current litigation, the Conservancy and defendants Taylor, Ames and Towne entered a settlement agreement pursuant to which the questioned Towne survey was withdrawn. The other defendants all agreed that the correct boundaries of the Conservancy’s property was depicted in a survey done by Norbert Blais. The Cantins didn’t give in, however.
The Conservancy sought partial summary judgment on the issue of the location of the boundary between its lot and the Cantins’ lot. In support of its motion, the Conservancy submitted the Blais survey. In response, the Cantins relied on the old Towne survey to support their position of the proper boundary line.
The trial court granted the Conservancy’s partial summary judgment, holding that the Cantins had the burden of presenting expert opinion to support their position on the boundary line. The trial judge concluded that the Cantins were precluded from relying on the Towne survey, because in the first litigation the court “directly and unambiguously discredited” it. What’s more, the court found the Towne survey unreliable because even its author had disclaimed the accuracy of the work as part of his settlement with the Conservancy.
The Cantins appealed.
Held: The Conservancy was entitled to summary judgment. The Vermont Supreme Court found that there were no genuine issues of material fact, and that the trial court appropriately granted summary judgment.
The Conservancy relied on the Blais survey. The Cantins alleged that the Blais plan was invalid, and instead relied on the Towne survey. But for their assertion, the Cantins did not otherwise respond to the Blais affidavit. The Court concluded that the Cantins could not rely on the Towne survey because the validity of this survey has been discredited in previous litigation, and the Cantins were barred by issue preclusion from relitigating the issue.
The doctrine of issue preclusion bars relitigation of an issue that was actually litigated and decided in a prior case where that issue was necessary to resolution of the dispute. For preclusion to apply, the issue must be asserted against one who was a party in the prior action, the same issue must have been raised in the prior action, the issue must have been resolved by a final judgment on the merits in the prior action, and there must have been a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue.
Without the Towne survey, the Court said, the Cantins lacked evidence to rebut the location of the boundary line depicted in the Blais survey and to create a triable issue of fact. Time and again, the Court held, it has said that the opponent to a summary judgment motion may not rest on mere allegations in the pleadings, but rather must produce credible documentary evidence or affidavits to rebut the showings of its opponent.
Case of the Day – Monday, September 21, 2015
When we were kids, we watched Broderick Crawford in that black-and-white police classic “Highway Patrol.” Every week, the full-figured, squinty-eyed Crawford — as highway patrol chief Dan Matthews — would pursue the bad guys in his finned Plymouth police coupe interceptor, usually catching the malefactors after setting up roadblocks all over California and barking “10-4” into his mic several times.
We loved that show. But Dan Matthews and his troopers had nothing on the political subdivisions in today’s case. When Mr. Bright’s car was crushed by a tree limb while he was driving down a road in the Village of Great Neck Estates, he got himself a lawyer and sued the Town and the County. They immediately starting setting up roadblocks worthy the best 50s-era cop show.
The case seemed fairly straightforward. The plaintiffs argued that the County and Village had had notice that the tree was defective. That hardly matters, the defendants retorted, because you, Mr. Bright, never gave us written notice that the tree was defective. And the Administrative Code of Nassau County required that you do so. As for your passenger, who also sued, she had not shown that she had suffered serious injury, as required by the state’s insurance law. Not very bright, Mr. Bright, the defendants argued smarmily.
Fortunately, the plaintiff was Bright enough. The appellate court made short work of the county’s motion. The county’s prior-notice requirement, it ruled, related to physical deficiencies in roads and bridges, obvious problems that nonetheless might not be known to county officials. If such a requirement were applied to the trees alongside the road, there may as well be no duty imposed on an owner to inspect trees to begin with. Motorists would have had to pick the tree likely to fall on them, and write to the county about it before it fell. Lots of luck with that.
Besides that, while a gaping pothole in the road is obvious to passing motorists, the same can’t be said for a diseased tree, which is not especially susceptible to drive-by inspections.
As for the state insurance law, the requirement that a passenger prove serious injuries is intended to cut down on suits against other drivers. This case wasn’t about a county employee being reckless behind the wheel, but instead the case was a simple one of premises liability. The County owned the highway and the tree next to it, the tree was defective. Voila, a lawsuit.
So the Court cleared the first set of roadblocks for Plaintiff Bright. So, this is Broderick Crawford, saying “See you in court.”
Bright v. Village of Great Neck Estates, 863 N.Y.S.2d 752, 54 A.D.3d 704 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept., 2008). Mr. Bright suffered personal injuries when a tree limb fell on the car in which he was traveling in the Village of Great Neck Estates. Bright and his passenger sued, alleging that the accident was proximately caused by Nassau County’s negligence in failing to remove a dead or diseased tree.
The County moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the grounds that Bright had not complied with the prior written notice requirement set forth in § 12-4.0(e) of the Administrative Code of Nassau County, and that the County lacked both actual and constructive notice of the purported hazard. The County also sought to dismiss the complaint by Bright’s passenger on the ground that she did not sustain a serious injury within the meaning of Insurance Law §5102(d). The trial court denied the County’s motion for summary judgment.
Held: Denial of the summary judgment motion was proper. The Court observed that prior written notice statutes are intended to apply to actual physical defects in the surface of a street, highway or bridge of a kind that do not immediately come to the attention of the municipal officials unless they are given actual notice. Here, the Court held, the defect was no more obvious to the motorist than it was to the county, and probably much less so. The prior written notice statute was held not to apply to trees.
Furthermore, the Court said, the County failed to establish that it lacked actual and constructive notice of the hazard tree alleged to exist in this case.
Finally, the Court said, Mr. Bright’s passenger was not required to establish that she suffered a serious injury, because she did not allege the County was negligent in the use or operation of the car (which is what the statute addresses). Instead, the allegations against the County related to premises liability. The County doesn’t qualify as a covered person within the meaning of the Insurance Law, which was written to stop the flood of staged car accident lawsuits clogging New York courts.
Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 22, 2015
CAREFREE MOBILE HOME LIVING
Texas is a pretty big place. So when Scott, who was selling a little 175-acre spread to Bill and Julie Coales, reserved to himself the right of ingress and egress — basically, a license to used a road through the land — we’re not talking a jungle trail. We’re talkin’ big. And we’re talking about moving a lot of mobile homes.
At least, that’s what the defendants said in today’s case. After they bought the place, the Coales decided move in Julie’s parents, and to do it in style. So they hauled in some house trailers, no doubt in order to let the old folks live in luxury. But by doing that, they constricted the 100-foot wide path, making it harder for the Scotts to haul through … well, whatever big stuff the Scotts had to haul through.
The Scotts sued, claiming that they couldn’t get their own trailers in, drive through with their 18-wheelers, and turn off the road wherever they wanted to with their 4 x 4s. The Coales disagreed, contending that no one needed more than the small path down the center to get to their properties. Even in Texas.
The trial court disagreed with the Coales, and the Court of Appeals explained with some care why the unambiguous grant of the right of ingress and egress — coupled with the evidence that the Scotts needed the whole width of the former airstrip for moving in their own 18-wheelers, garbage trucks, and, yes, even their own mobile homes — meant that the neighbors’ use of the 100-foot wide, 31⁄2-acre right was “reasonably necessary and convenient.”
Everything’s big in Texas. Even 100-foot wide driveways.
Coale v. Scott, Not Reported in S.W.3d, 2007 WL 2428631 (Tex.App. Aug. 28, 2007). A 175-acre tract of Texas land was conveyed to Bill and Julie Coale in 2004, reserving to some other landowners “the right of ingress and egress on the part of all landowners” a roadway, which happened to be a 100-foot wide abandoned airstrip. After the Coales bought the property, they started placing two mobile homes on the north side of a trail that runs down the middle of the airstrip. They also installed a storage unit on the south side of the trail, as well as fencing, a ranch gate, and a septic system.
The Coales planned to move their parents into the trailer homes. They contended that “neither of these structures prevented the [other owners] from using the old trail that they and others before them had always used to get to their properties.” The property owners who had the right of ingress sued the Coales. The case went to the trial court jury on the issue as to the width and location of the “passageway” across the land. The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, deciding they had the right to use the entire 100 foot-wide tract for ingress and egress to their adjoining properties.
The Coales filed a rambling appeal, arguing that the plaintiffs were only entitled to a way across the Coales’ property that was reasonable and necessary for them to have passage to and from their property and imposes the least burden on the Coales’ property.
The jury’s finding was upheld. The Court noted that under Texas law, the terms ingress and egress indicate rights inherent in the owners of the dominant estate to pass through the servient estate. They do not imply the right to linger for recreational purposes. The owners of the dominant estate are entitled to the rights granted by the instrument, and no more.
A grant or reservation of an easement in general terms implies a grant of unlimited reasonable use such as is reasonably necessary and convenient and as little burdensome as possible to the servient owner. As for the extent of the right, the case of an unambiguous writing, courts will give effect to the intention of the parties as expressed by or as apparent from the writing.
Here, the Court said, the grant expressly provided “[t]his roadway is subject to the right of ingress and egress on the part of all landowners in the above described 173.45 acres tract.” No mention was made of any other rights of use, and none may be implied. The Court saw no reason to go outside of the clear language of the express grant. There was no dispute that the 3.629 acre tract was 100 feet wide. Instead, the dispute centered around what the Coales believed the plaintiffs actually needed to use for their rights of ingress and egress. The Coales argued the plaintiffs were only entitled to a way across the Coales’ property that was reasonable and necessary for them to have passage to and from their property, and that the dirt or gravel road that ran down the middle of the airstrip.
The Court, however, held that the plaintiffs entitled to the rights granted by the instrument, and no more or less. A grant or reservation of an easement in general terms implies a grant of unlimited reasonable use such as is reasonably necessary and convenient and as minimally burdensome as possible to the servient owner.
Here, the jury considered the language in the deed, a survey depicting the properties, the legal description of the properties in the tax records, photographs, and testimony. One witness testified that for the past 20 years, he had turned into his property from any point on the airstrip. There were no gates or fences. He said the trailers the Coales placed on the airstrip impeded his access to his land, and if he were still driving his 18-wheeler, he would possibly drive over the Coales’ plumbing lines. Another witness testified she had used the whole width of the airstrip to bring her trailer into her land. Another witness testified that because of the Coales’ trailers, “you can only go one way. And if you want to pass two ways, you can forget it.”
Previously, cars going in the opposite direction could travel simultaneously by using the entire width of the airstrip. Now, one has to pull over to let the other one pass. Based on the evidence, the Court said, there was legally sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that use of the entire 100 feet of the airstrip was reasonably necessary for the plaintiffs’ right of ingress and egress.
Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Judges make mistakes. If that weren’t so, there’d hardly be a need for courts of appeal or even the Supreme Court.
In today’s case, an electric utility sued back in the 1960s to force a landowner to give it an easement for building and maintaining power lines. The court granted the easement — which consisted of four separate rights — but somehow left out the part where it got an easement of 25 feet on either side of a right-of-way to keep trees trimmed. Some 45 years later, the utility wanted to assign its right to the City of Jackson, Missouri, so the City could build its own power line.
The case ended up in court, where the utility argued that just because the 1969 court forgot to mention the 25-foot easement, that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. After all, the utility asked for it and the court never said it couldn’t have it. And when the damages were assessed so the landowner could get fair compensation for the condemnation, the commissioner charged with assessing the cost included the 25-foot easement. Just an oversight, the utility argued.
There’s an old adage in the law that a court speaks through its record. And in this case, while the 1969 Order probably did omit the 25-foot easement through oversight, that didn’t matter. The Order was clear and unambiguous in how it described the easement. Where the language is clear, a reviewing court won’t second-guess.
The 25-foot wide strips were not covered by the prior easement, no matter what the parties may have meant at the time. Like the Dramatics’ old song went, “Whatcha see is whatcha get.”
City of Jackson v. Bettilee Emmendorfer Revocable Trust, 260 S.W.3d 913 (Mo.App., 2008). The Bettilee Emmendorfer Revocable Trust owned land in Jackson, Missouri, which had been subject of a condemnation action 40 years before when the property was owned by others. Back then, Union Electric petitioned for rights over four portions of the land: a 100-foot easement, for the purpose of installing electric transmission lines, 25-foot sections on either side of the 100-foot easement for maintaining trees, overhanging branches and obstructions, two smaller for use in connection with the transmission lines, and an easement for ingress and egress.
The court’s order in that prior case granted Union Electric the 100-foot easement, easements to the two separate parcels, and an easement for ingress and egress. However, the court failed to mention Union Electric’s request for an easement on the 25-foot strips on either side of the 100-foot easement. A report of commissioners filed in the case indicated the commissioners viewed the 25-foot sections on either side of the 100-foot easement as well as the 100-foot portion itself to be within the easement, and it set damages at $22,224.
In October 2006, Union Electric entered into an agreement with the City of Jackson to allow Jackson to build a new electric line on the eastern edge of the 100-foot easement. Jackson and Union Electric entered into a partial assignment of the easement in accordance with that agreement. But noticing the old trial court order had a hole in it, the City sought a declaration of rights as to whether the 1969 condemnation action awarded Union Electric the 25-foot sections on either side of the 100-foot easement, whether Union Electric has the right to assign to Respondent the right to construct an electric transmission line on the 100-foot easement, and whether the construction of an additional electric transmission line amounts to an additional taking of property from the Trust. The Trust asserted the 1969 Order made no mention of an easement or other rights condemned or established on either side of the 100-foot easement. The Trust also argued that construction of an additional electric transmission line would increase the burden on the property “beyond the scope of the intended and authorized use of the easement,” the grant of the easement would be “inconsistent with the original use of the easement,” and the additional utility poles and electric transmission lines would interfere with reasonable use and enjoyment of the property.
The trial court held that Union Electric’s easement included the right, permission and authority to trim, cut and remove trees, overhanging branches and obstructions on 25 feet on each side of the 100 feet right of way which may endanger the safety of or interfere with the transmission lines, and it had the power to assign the right to the City. The Trust appealed.
Held: The 25-foot strips are not covered by the easement. The 1969 order establishing the easements made no mention of and contained no reference to the 25-foot sections on either side of the 100-foot easement, and thus, those portions are not part of the easement. When interpreting easements, courts ascertain the intention of the grantor from the instrument itself. Only when the language of the deed is “unclear and ambiguous” should a court resort to the rules of construction and consider extrinsic evidence. A contract is not ambiguous simply because parties disagree about its meaning. Rather, an ambiguity arises only “when the terms are susceptible of more than one meaning so that reasonable persons may fairly and honestly differ in their construction of the terms.
Here, the Court said, nothing in the lower court language was unclear or ambiguous in the documents creating the easement, thus leaving a court to judge the easement only by the plain language of those documents without the need to refer to extrinsic evidence. The report of the commissioners, while it apparently valued the 25-foot sections in determining damages, does not supersede the court’s unambiguous order.
As for the right to assign, the Court held, it was equally clear and unambiguous that the order granted the easement holder the ability to construct a “line or lines,” permitted the holder to “add to and relocate” the electric transmission lines, and referenced “successors and assigns,” thus indicating that assignments are permitted.
Case of the Day – Thursday, September 24, 2015
A few months ago, we looked at a case in which a squirrel frightened a resident depositing her garbage in Massachusetts. Today, it’s deep fried southern squirrel … or at least that’s what the plaintiff had on her hands.
Mrs. Pardue was talking on her cordless phone when a squirrel jumped onto a power company transformer and closed the circuit. The squirrel got zapped (it happens, you know) when it jumped from an untrimmed tree to the transformer. The power went out, and an “acoustical shock” — which the plaintiff called an explosion — came from the cordless phone and injured Ms. Pardue.
She of course sued the power company for not trimming the trees. That was a little too much for the trial court, which threw out the case. The Court of Appeals agreed. Remember that Louisiana civil law is a little different: down in bayou country, the standard is “ease of association,” the likelihood that the complained-of conduct could have been foreseen to cause the damage. It bears a resemblance to Palsgrafian causation.
A reasonable person can imagine lot of bad things happening as a result of power companies not trimming trees, but the Court held that loud noises coming out of cordless phones wasn’t one of them. Rube Goldberg would have been proud.
Pardue v. AT&T Telephone Co., 799 So.2d 710, 2001-0762 (La.App., 2001). Louise Pardue was at her cordless phone at home when there was a sudden explosion in the handset and, simultaneously, the electricity went out at her home. After Central Louisiana Electric Company (CLECO) was notified of the outage, its personnel fixed the problem, later reporting Ms. Pardue that a dead squirrel was found on the line.
According to Ms. Pardue’s expert, the squirrel’s presence on the lines caused an electrical surge into the ground system that was shared by the telephone line. Although the expert admitted it would have been “a very difficult thing” to get an electrical shock from a cordless telephone, he opined that the electrical surge created an acoustical shock, that is, a loud noise. As a result of the incident, Ms. Pardue immediately developed a headache and experienced ringing in her ear, followed by problems in her neck, shoulder, arm, and foot.
She sued the phone manufacturer (who was dismissed) and CLECO, seeking damages related to the alleged injuries, claiming that the power company was negligent in failing to adequately trim the trees around the line so as to prevent the squirrel’s interference with the transformer. CLECO filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted.
The court held that “we don’t know that the squirrel came from the tree, or whether it climbed the pole that the transformer was on, or it climbed another tree, or another pole. I think that when you do the first analysis, the ‘but for’, you can’t answer that; and when you can’t answer it, under the jurisprudence, then the plaintiff’s action fails and a motion for summary judgment in this instance is warranted.”
Disagreeing with this sage analysis, Ms. Pardue appealed.
Held: Ms. Pardue’s suit was dismissed. The Court of Appeals observed that negligence cases require consideration of the duty/risk analysis. A plaintiff must prove the defendant had a duty to conform his conduct to a specific standard, the defendant failed to conform to the appropriate standard, the substandard conduct was a cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injuries, the defendant’s substandard conduct was a legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, and plaintiff’s actual damages. For the purposes of negligence analysis, the risk cannot be held to be within the scope of a duty where the circumstances of that particular injury or of the plaintiff could not reasonably be foreseen or anticipated, because there was no “ease of association” between that risk and the legal duty.
Cause-in-fact determinations are factual in nature, while the legal cause or scope of the duty determination is a legal one. Here, the Court ruled, CLECO — the electric utility — did not owe a duty to protect Ms. Pardue a duty. Even assuming CLECO had a duty to maintain the trees surrounding its lines, the Court said, the scope of that duty did not extend to protect Ms. Pardue under the particular facts of this situation.
Ms. Pardue was at home talking on a cordless telephone (and the Court emphasized the word “cordless”). Not only did an animal gain access to the transformer, but the resulting outage caused an “acoustic” shock — not an electric shock — sufficient to result in serious injury. In the least, the Court held, under the particular facts and circumstances of this case, there is no “ease of association” between that risk and the legal duty.
Case of the Day – Friday, September 25, 2015
THE ODD COUPLE
What is it with some neighbors? These folks — an “odd couple” of neighbors if ever there were such — lived next to each other in a pretty good Iowa City neighborhood for over 20 years. And they were always at each other’s throats.
Ironically, it was the Felix Ungar neighbors who were the victims. Apparently the Oscar Madisons were unhappy with two trees that stood entirely in the Felix property, but had branches overhanging the Oscars. So what, you wonder, and for good reason. The Oscar property was such a mess that a couple leaves and twigs hardly mattered. However, all of you loyal readers know the answer: under the Massachusetts rule, the Oscars can trim the trees’ branches back to their property line. In fact, borrowing from Virginia and Hawaii, maybe the Oscars could sue the Felixes, alleging that the trees were a nuisance.
Nothing that subtle for our heroes. Instead, the Oscars came onto the Felix property and simply cut the trees down. There. That settled that!
Well, not really.
The Felixes sued. The trial court was clearly appalled at the brazenness of the Oscars. It observed with some amazement that in order to cut down the trees, the Oscars “had to intentionally trespass on [Felixes’] property to cut down the trees and that is exactly what they did.”
The Court rendered its opinion accordingly. What the Oscars did was a trespass, pure and simple, and the damages in a trespass are the costs to restore the property. Those costs were the cost to replant trees about as mature as the two 50-foot tall trees that were removed. On top of that, the Court imposed treble damages under Iowa Statute 658.4 for “willfully injuring any timber, tree, or shrub on the land of another.” The Court held it applied because the Oscars “willfully trespassed” in order to cut down the trees.
We don’t want to be critical, because the Oscars clearly were bad actors here and deserved what befell them. However, courts need to be careful not to get out in front of their statutes. The trial court, in its ire, focused on the wrong “willfully.” Treble damages applied when the Oscars “willfully injured” the trees, not when they “willfully” trespassed. Under the court’s mangled standard, the treble damage statute would have applied if the Oscars willfully sneaked onto the Felixes’ property to smash a jack-o-lantern, but accidentally trampled on Mrs. Felix’s prize rose bushes in their haste to run home. It’s not the willful trespass, it’s the willful chain saw that matters.
Luckily for the Felixes, the error made no difference. Any way you apply the “willfully” here, the Oscars are liable. They willfully trespassed, willfully fired up their chainsaws, and willfully undertook arboreal mayhem. Game, set, match.
Wunder v Jorgensen, Not Reported in N.W.2d, 2004 WL 3569694 (Iowa Dist., 2004) (unpublished). The Wunders and the Jorgensens lived next to each other in a wooded neighborhood on Iowa City’s west side for over 20 years. During this period, their relationship was acrimonious, with the Wunders continually upset about the debris, both natural and manufactured, which the Jorgensens allowed to build up on or over their common boundary. Among other complaints, the Wunders complained that the Jorgensens erected a lean-to next to an outbuilding, essentially on the property line, which the Jorgensens used to keep garden tools.
Two trees stood on the Wunders’ property, scotch pines or Canadian hemlocks, with branches that extended over the Jorgensen property. The Jorgensens knew the trees were on Wunders’ lot because they had built the lean-to roof around one of the trees. The trees disappeared one day, setting the Wunders to wondering. Suspecting the Jorgensens, the Wunders sued. And small wonder.
Held: The Jorgensens were liable. The Court found that the Jorgensens had knowingly and willfully cut down two mature trees which they knew to be on Wunders’ property. The Court found the conduct to be inexcusable, noting that the “Jorgensens had to intentionally trespass on Wunders’ property to cut down the trees and that is exactly what they did.”
The Court found that the replacement cost for the trees was $4,061.40. The measure of damages for trespass is replacement cost, and treble damages — awarded if trees are willfully cut down on another’s property — apply in this case, the Court said, because, Jorgensen willfully trespassed on Wunders’ property to cut down the Wunders’ trees.
The Court threw in an observation for the Jorgensens: if trees are replanted, the Jorgensens ought to be informed that the general rule is that an adjoining landowner may cut off growth which intrudes on his or her property … but not more.
Case of the Day – Monday, September 28, 2015
THE GRASSHOPPER AND THE ANT
Today, we consider the Vermont case of Stanley v. Stanley, a modern take on the grasshopper and the ant. It seems that 50 years ago, two brothers partnered up to buy some woodland. But only industrious brother George, a busy little worker ant, ponied up the cash for the place, paid the taxes, paid the rent, and managed the affairs of the woodland. Grasshopper John was too busy doing whatever grasshoppers do.
After about 45 years of this, ant George started getting tired of grasshopper John never paying his fair share. Ant George was out a lot of investment, and he decided it was time to pay it back. So he sold the timber on the land for about $46,000.
Suddenly, grasshopper John was very interested in the goings-on, and he sued ant George. But he didn’t just want half of the proceeds. Surely that would be unfair. Instead grasshopper John hires three wise old owls as expert witnesses, and they opine that the timber was really worth anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000. Plus, he retained the services of a foxy old lawyer, who told him he could get treble damages for ant George’s wrongful cutting of the timber (plus a legal fee for the fox).
The trial court suspected that John was more snake than grasshopper, but it nevertheless didn’t have much choice but award him half the value of the timber. The court selected the lowest of the various estimates given by the several owls who testified as experts, still awarding the grasshopper one half of the $61,785 value of the timber. The court refused treble damages.
The grasshopper was furious! He had been denied what was fair, namely all of it! He wanted the timber valued at $80,000, with his one-half share trebled to $120,000. Fortunately, the wise Supreme Court upheld the trial court, finding that treble damages for wrongful cutting don’t apply where one owner of the land — even if he’s an industrious ant — gives permission. Still, the ant lost $31,000 of his $46,000 to his brother, the grasshopper, whose investment had never amounted to a farthing.
The moral, boys and girls, is that a slothful existence and a good lawyer beats hard work and careful investment any day.
Stanley v. Stanley, 928 A.2d 1194 (Sup.Ct. Vt., 2007). Some 50 years ago, brothers John and George Stanley bought a perpetual lease of a 100 acre wooded lot in Victory, Vermont. Defendant George paid the entire purchase price, but the brothers owned the lot as tenants-in-common. From the beginning of their ownership, George paid the annual rent as well as property taxes when they were assessed.
In 1965, he received money from Portland Pipe Company for the right to lay pipe across the property. In the spring of 2002, he hired a logging contractor to harvest and sell the trees from the lot. The logging operations were completed that summer. George didn’t discuss the logging operation with plaintiff John until after it was completed. George figured that “since he had been paying all the expenses relating to the property, he should be able to make the decisions relating to the land.” George got $45,803.32 for the timber removed from the lot. When John learned that timber was being cut, he took pictures of the operation and tried to reach George — who had neither an iPhone nor broadband — without success.
John didn’t try to stop the logging, but after it was over, he sued his brother, seeking an accounting, partition, treble damages under 13 V.S.A. §3606, costs of the action and attorney’s fees. While he couldn’t afford to share the expense of the land with his brother, John apparently found his checkbook when it came time to hire expert witnesses. He presented testimony from three experts on the value of the timber cut. Thomas Hahn, a private consulting forester, presented two different methods of determining the value of the timber cut from the property, the prevailing market price of a unit of wood in the summer of 2002 based on trade publications (using which he concluded that the value of the timber was $61,785.79), and the “timber cruising” or “sampling” method that would support a finding that the fair market value of the timber was $82,000. Stanley Robinson reviewed the logging contractor’s summary of mill slips and trip tickets, and Alan Bouthelier on his observations from visiting the property prior to the logging. The testimony of these two experts supported a finding that the fair market value of the timber cut was approximately $80,000.
The trial court refused to rely on Hahn’s “sampling” method, dismissing it as too speculative. Instead, it found that the fair market value of the timber cut was $61,785.79, and that plaintiff was entitled to half of this amount. It also ruled that the treble damage statute does not apply to actions between tenants-in-common for the sale of common property, and granted a request for partition. Following the hearing, George gave John $22,901.66, half of what he had been paid for the timber.
None of this was good enough for the rapacious John. So he appealed.
Held: The trial court was affirmed. The Supreme Court held that Vermont’s timber trespass statute — which reads in part that if a person cuts down trees belonging to another person “without leave from the owner,” the injured party can recover treble damages — is plain and unambiguous. The Court said that the statute’s language presupposed that the injured party had ownership rights to the exclusion of the party from whom treble damages are being sought.
The statute is a punitive one, intending to deter intentional trespass and wrongful taking of another’s timber. Because George had an undivided ownership interest in the trees at the time of the logging, the treble damages statute simply does not apply. He simply was not among the intended targets of the statute, those “‘tree pirates’ and ‘arboreal rustlers’ who trespass on another’s property and remove timber to which they have no right.”
John also argued that the trial court erred when it held that the “timber cruising” or “sampling” method of determining the quality and quantity was too speculative. The Supreme Court held that because the trial court, after evaluating several different methods, relied on testimony of the expert as to one of the methods to determine the fair market value of the timber cut and sold, the Supreme Court would not second-guess it on whether it could have used an alternative method.
Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 29, 2015
THINGS ARE SELDOM WHAT THEY SEEM
Buttercup: Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers.
Captain: Very true,
So they do.
Things are Seldom What They Seem
(duet with Buttercup and Capt. Corcoran)
Gilbert & Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore
So property rights are as dry as toast? Well, maybe, depending on whether it’s your ox that’s getting gored or not. Consider Marvin Brandt. This hard-working son of a hard-working lumberman is a Wyoming rancher. His father, who started in the 1930s as a lowly sawmill worker, ended up owning the place. Marvin worked at his Dad’s mill as a youth, and he ended up running the mill himself.
The year of our Lord 1976 was an important year. It was the America’s Bicentennial. Marvin bought the sawmill from his father. Congress repealed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. And Marvin bought a nice chunk of land for his sawmill – not to mention plenty of standing timber – from the U.S. Forest Service. He obtained it through a procedure known as a land patent, in which the Government deeds its rights in land to private property holders.
It was a pretty good deal, sold to Marvin without many restrictions. There was an easement for the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad, but that wasn’t much of a problem for him. Easements weren’t such an impediment, he thought. But then, things are seldom what they seem …
Buttercup: Black sheep dwell in every fold;
All that glitters is not gold;
Storks turn out to be but logs;
Bulls are but inflated frogs.
Captain: So they be,
The Union Pacific had tracks running through the property that Marvin bought. He wasn’t alone in this: some 30 other people bought Government land subject to the UP’s railroad right-of-way. The right of way originally was obtained by LHP&P in 1908, pursuant to the 1875 Act. The 200-foot wide right of way meanders south from Laramie, Wyoming, through the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, to the Wyoming-Colorado border.
After the railroad line was abandoned, the Government claimed that the land underlying the old track bed had reverted to Uncle Sam. The Washington bureaucrats had plans to turn the route into a hiking trail. When the Government sued to quiet title on the right-of-way, it named all 31 landowners as defendants. None of them owned more than 3 acres affected by the right-of-way, and none of them mounted a defense. They all threw up their hands, folded quietly, and let the U.S. of A> have its way.
Marvin may be one of your rugged Wyoming individualists. He may be ornery. But one thing was for sure – unlike the others, Marvin had over 85 acres affected by the old roadbed. Nearly a half-mile stretch of the right of way crossed Marvin’s land, covering ten acres of his parcel and affected 75 more. In other words, this wasn’t chump change.
The Government, as administrations of either political party are wont to do, tried to steamroll Marvin. The Feds claimed that the LHP&P had owned the land under its rails, subject only to a reversionary interest in the Government if it ever abandoned the line. Therefore, Uncle Sam claimed, when the tracks came out, ownership of the property reverted to the U.S. Forest Service.
The District Court agreed that the 1875 Act and the land patent were not models of clarity, but the Government won anyway. The Court of Appeals reversed. The Government, seeing its Golden Goose about to be slaughtered, appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supremes, by a resounding 8-1 decision, held that “things are seldom what they seem.” The right-of-way granted to the railroad might seem like a transfer of the land in fee simple, subject only to being returned to the Government if the rail line was abandoned. But it really was only an easement, meaning that the land patent to Marvin had transferred all of the ownership to him, subject only to the easement. When the easement vanished, the land was all his.
The Government’s insurmountable hurdle was its own cuteness. Back in the 1920s, the railroad had planned to drill for oil along the right-of-way (remember Teapot Dome?). The Government had opposed it, claiming that it owned the oil. The railroad, Uncle Sam claimed, only owned an easement. The land (and the wealth under it) belonged to the Feds. The case ended up in the Supreme Court, where the Government won.
But now, the Government argued that things aren’t what they seem to be, and – for that matter – what they seemed to be back in 1942. The Forest Service never owned the land under the railroad when it gave Marvin the land patent. Instead, the railroad did, and the Government didn’t get it back until well after it had sold the rest to Marvin. The 1942 decision must be wrong, to the extent it applied to anything other than oil rights. Thus, the railroad right-of-way reverted to the U.S. Forest Service in 1988, 12 years after the rest of the land was sold to Marvin.
The Supreme Court was not amused. Applying the ancient legal principle that “you dance with the one that brung ya,” the Justices ruled that the Government persuaded the Court in 1942 that the railroad right-of-way was just an easement, and it wasn’t going let the Government change its position now just because it suited it to do so. Alas, the Justice Department (and this is a fault that has belonged to predecessor administrations, Republican or Democrat) all too often has no compunction about changing its arguments for convenience when it should adhere to them for principle. This time, it didn’t work.
Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in an opinion that seemed peculiarly strained. Anxious to serve the back-to-nature folks who enjoyed Federally-funded hiking and biking trails, she argued that the 1942 case was only about subsurface rights – which seems to us to be a distinction without a difference – and, anyway, the Brandt decision would hurt the rails-to-trails movement and result in a lot of litigation as private landholders sought to get what was rightfully theirs. This may be so, but cost and inconvenience shouldn’t drive Supreme Court opinions. The law should.
So the right-of-way that the Government once said was an easement but now seemed be something else, really was just an easement … as it had been all along.
Buttercup: Drops the wind and stops the mill;
Turbot is ambitious brill;
Gild the farthing if you will,
Yet it is a farthing still.
Captain: Yes, I know.
That is so.
Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, Case No. 12–1173. (March 10, 2014): The General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 provides railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States,” 43 U.S.C. § 934. One such right of way, created in 1908, crosses land that the Government conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent stated that the land was granted subject to the right of way, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad relinquished those rights.
A successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. The Government sought a declaration of abandonment and an order quieting its title to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch across the Brandt patent. Brandt argued that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished upon abandonment.
The district court quieted title in the government. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed.
It held that right of way was an easement that was terminated by abandonment, leaving Brandt’s land unburdened. The Court noted that that in Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 315 U. S. 262 (1942), the Government had argued a position – that the right-of-way was an easement, not a grant of ownership in fee simple subject to a reversionary interest – that was exactly opposite to its position in this case. In that decision, the Court found the 1875 Act’s text “wholly inconsistent” with the grant of a fee interest.
Now, the Government was asking the Court to limit Great Northern’s characterization of 1875 Act rights-of-way as easements to the question of who owns the oil and minerals beneath a right of way. But nothing in the 1875 Act’s text supports that reading, and the Government’s argument directly contravenes the very premise of Great Northern: that the 1875 Act granted a fundamentally different interest than did its predecessor statutes. Nor do the Court’s decisions in other cases support the Government’s position, and – to the extent that they could be read that way – the Court said clearly that any such implication did not survive its unequivocal statement to the contrary in Great Northern. Later enacted statutes, such 43 U. S. C. §§ 912 and 940, and 16 U. S. C. § 1248(c), do not define or shed light on the nature of the interest Congress granted to railroads in their rights-of-way in 1875. Instead, those statutes purport only to dispose of interests the United States already possesses.
The land patent Marvin Brandt obtained in 1976 included ownership of the land under the railroad company easement. When that easement was abandoned, Mr. Brandt obtained the exclusive right of possession to the land he already owned.
Case of the Day – Wednesday, September 30, 2015
SMILE WHEN YOU SAY THAT
“I’ve been slandered, libeled, I’ve heard words I never heard in the Bible …”
Oh, thank heaven for nosy, nasty neighbors. A trespass to trees problem escalated into some general unpleasantness between neighbors Joe Bouler and Linda McKeever Bullard. At one point, Joe was sure Linda was taking pictures of his wife – of the horror of it all! – and he complained to the cops. For good measure, he told the officer that Linda also had an anti-9/11 sign in the window.
The sign allegedly said, “9/11 F*** You.” Pretty caustic stuff, huh?
If the report was something Joe made up in order to inflame the passions of the police officer, it fell short. It was hard for a police officer to be too fired up when he couldn’t really tell what the sign meant.
Not literally. The literal meaning of the Queen Mother word was clear enough. But not the context, a distinction that Ms. Bullard belatedly appreciated when she sued her big-mouthed neighbor for slandering her to the police by accusing her of posting such a sign.
The court was puzzled, too. Did the sign indicate that Ms. Bullard was one of those conspiracy types? Maybe she figured America deserved to suffer 9/11. But maybe she meant to flip the bird (figuratively speaking) to Osama bin Laden. If so, she would hardly be the first person to use both the term “9/11” and the f-bomb together.
That was a problem, the Court said. You can’t be slandered unless you’ve been damaged. Some slander is so bad that damages are presumed. That is called “slander per se” under Georgia law (a term fairly common among the states). But slander per se must meet a strict definition, and one element is that it must be clear without resorting to extrinsic facts.
The problem, the Court said, is that the “9/11 F— you” sign wasn’t clearly pro-American, pro-Al Qaeda, pro-religious right, pro-wacko conspiracy, or pro-anything. Without more information, the sign didn’t suggest what — if anything — Ms. Bullard believed or was trying to convey. And because that information wasn’t a part of the sign she had allegedly put up, she had no case against her neighbor.
Bullard v. Bouler, 286 Ga.App. 218, 649 S.E.2d 311 (Ga.App. 2007). Linda McKeever Bullard and her neighbor, Joe Bouler, had quarreled previously in a trespass action in which she claimed Joe had caused trees to be cut down on her land. Bullard took pictures of the trees that had been cut down as evidence for the trespass suit.
Shortly thereafter, a Fulton County Police officer came to her door and asked to speak to her. The officer said Bouler had complained that she was taking pictures of Bouler’s wife in the Bouler’s backyard, and that he also had said Bullard had been posting signs in her window that said, “9/11, F- – – You.” Bullard testified that the police officer reported these allegations “with a look of utter contempt.” Bullard vehemently denied she had posted such signs.
The police officer confirmed that Bouler had made the allegation about the signs, and that she had denied it. Bullard sued, alleging that Bouler’s statement damaged her by accusing her “of a debasing act that may exclude her from all of American society,” an allegation which tracked OCGA §51-5-4(a)(2).
Following discovery, the trial court granted Bouler’s motion for summary judgment. It held that the words spoken were not slanderous because they were “an expression of pure opinion, which is neither provable as true nor as false.”
Held: The allegation Boulder made to the policeman was not slander. Bullard alleged a claim of slander or oral defamation under OCGA §51-5-4(a)(2), which defines one form of defamation as “charging a person … with being guilty of some debasing act which may exclude him from society.” For this form of defamation, damage is inferred, making this type of slander “slander per se.” In other words, malice is inferred from the character of the charge. In order to constitute slander per se, the words must be injurious on their face, extrinsic facts may not be considered, and the court may not rely on innuendo.
When words are defamatory per se, innuendo — which merely explains ambiguity where the precise meaning of terms used in the allegedly slanderous statement may require elucidation — is not needed. Here, the Court said, any slanderous meaning applicable to Bullard from a statement that she had posted a sign with the words “9-11 F— You” is not apparent in the plain meaning of Bouler’s statement. At most, the Court said, Bouler’s words mean that Linda Bullard was the type of person who would say to the public, “Nine-eleven, F— You.” But what the sign meant was ambiguous.
Bullard thought it meant Bouler was saying that she was the type of person who would disparage America’s loss on September 11, 2001 and that Bouler intended to inflame the police officer, a “first responder,” who might have taken offense at that thought. If that was what the words meant, Bouler’s words might very well constitute slander. But, the Court said, the words do not constitute slander per se here because what they really mean is not apparent from the plain meaning of the words.
In order to find the meaning, the viewer would have to rely on some extrinsic fact, and that takes the words out of the “slander per se” category.