THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES – PART 2
I had a secretary once, a delightful country girl who careered from being sharp as a tack to dumb as a stump. One of her expressions, when she would be nattering on about something for what seemed to be hours on end, was, “Never mind me. I’m just talking out loud.”
Courts are constantly getting trouble for “talking out loud,” saying more than is necessary in a decision. When an opinion, aside, observation or frolic unnecessary to the decision are included in an opinion, it is known as obiter dictum, Latin for “by the way.” Obiter dictum is a concept derived from English common law, wherein a judgment is comprised of only two elements: ratio decidendi and obiter dicta.
One of the early lessons law students learn in their first year is that for the purposes of judicial precedent, ratio decidendi (which means the rule of law on which a decision is based) is the only part of the decision that is binding. Any statement that is obiter dictum is persuasive only.
By the way, lawyers usually call obiter dictum “dictum” for short. If there is more than one piece of dictum in a case, they are pluralized as “dicta.” (That previous “by the way” – in itself a perfect example of dictum – comes to you courtesy of my late and beloved Latin instructor, the incomparable Emily Bernges of Sturgis, MIchigan. I had her a half century ago, but in the firmament of unforgettable teachers, she is the brightest star).
Now to brush up on a little law: if I trespass on your land, you can sue to have me ejected. If you do nothing, and suffer my trespass and bad manners for long enough (usually 21 continuous years, but this can vary by state), I can sue you to quiet title, and the land becomes mine by adverse possession.
Now instead of squatting on your place, I string a power line across a corner of it. You don’t give me permission, but again you suffer in silence. It is not adverse possession, because you could continue to use the land under the power line. It’s just that I have taken the right to use your property without your permission, but in a way which is not inconsistent with your rights. If I keep my power line there for 21 continuous years (at least in Pennsylvania, but different states specify different terms of years), I have not acquired ownership of the land, but I have acquired a prescriptive easement. A prescriptive easement, once acquired, may not be restricted unreasonably by the possessor of the land subject to the easement.
So that’s the progression. If I use your real estate without permission, I am a trespasser. If I remain a trespasser openly and continuously for long enough, I either wrest ownership of the land from you or at least obtain the right to an easement that you cannot take back.
As we saw in Friday’s case, Jones v. Wagner, a Pennsylvania court addressed encroaching tree branches and roots. This is unsurprising. Forty-nine other states have done the same. But where everyone else is content with the Massachusetts Rule or the Hawaii Rule, the Virginia Rule or some amalgam of the three, the Pennsylvania court boldly went where no court had gone before. It decided that the owner of the encroaching trees became a trespasser when the branches overhung or the roots entered the subsurface. Such a holding was as contrary to common sense as it was unnecessary: trees grow, their owner does not control the growth, and simple rules allocating cost and responsibility work for everyone else with the need to resort to pounding the round peg of trespass into the square hole of encroachment.
But the Pennsylvania court did just that. And the holding begs the question: if a tree can trespass (or more to the point, if the owner of a tree is a trespasser because of how the tree grows), might the owner also acquire a prescriptive easement if the encroachment goes on long enough?
And here came the dictum. After foolishly applying trespass to tree encroachment, the Jones v. Wagner court decided to speculate in the opinion whether prescriptive easements could be acquired by tree trespass. That was not an issue in the case. It was pure dictum, talking out loud. But it did not take too long for another party to take the Jones v. Wagner idle musings, and run with them.
Koresko v. Farley, 844 A.2d 607 (Commonwealth Ct. Pa. 2004). John and Bonnie Koresko bought a piece of property in Tredyffrin Township in 1986. Several trees over 21 years in age (which is important) grew on their property very near one property line. Branches hang over the boundary with the neighboring property.
That land was owned by Ollie Bower, who sold it to a developer in 1999. The developer wanted to subdivide the property into two lots, and build two houses. The subdivision plan proposed the installation of a water line and the construction of a driveway near the boundary trees. Upon learning of the proposal, the Koreskos sued, seeking injunctive relief and money damages. The Koreskos claimed unreasonable interference with an easement. Specifically, they alleged that because their trees’ roots and branches encroached on the subdivided property for over 21 years, a prescriptive easement existed for the tree roots and branches. They assert development of the property would unreasonably interfere with that easement.
The trial court turned the Koreskos down, holding that “Pennsylvania does not and will not recognize an easement for tree roots or overhanging branches.”
The Koreskos appealed.
Held: Encroaching branches and roots cannot create a prescriptive easement.
A prescriptive easement is a right to use another person’s property which is not inconsistent with the owner’s rights and which is acquired by a use that is open, notorious, and uninterrupted for at least 21 years. A prescriptive easement, once acquired, may not be restricted unreasonably by the possessor of the land subject to the easement.
In Jones v. Wagner, a Pennsylvania Superior Court held that overhanging tree branches constitute a trespass. A landowner has the right to compel his or her neighbor to remove of overhanging branches, or the landowner may use self-help to cut the branches back himself or herself.
In discussing the appropriateness of self-help, the Wagner Court mused in a note:
An adverse possession action can often devolve into a pissing contest …
The Restatement notes that a continuing trespass is not a trespass at all if the actor causing the trespass has obtained an easement by adverse possession. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 161, comment d. We cannot help but wonder whether the continued presence of encroaching tree branches, held openly, notoriously, hostilely, and continually for 21 years would create a prescriptive easement in the airspace which they hang. If this would be the case, and we can find no Pennsylvania law which would indicate that a prescriptive easement is not available in this situation, a landowner who suffers actual harm for the first time during the tree owner’s twenty-second year of hostile ownership, might very well be precluded from seeking a judicial, or even self-help, remedy. This result, while not entirely unforeseeable, is anomalous. However, if an action is available without a showing of damage, the landowner has no reason to complain if a neighbor’s tree causes damage after the prescriptive period has run.
Citing this language, the Koreskis argued that their amended complaint sufficiently pleads a cause of action for unreasonable interference with a prescriptive easement. In contrast, the developer argued he Koreskis had not shown that such an easement existed. Specifically, the developer claimed. the encroachment of the tree roots and branches is not “open and notorious” conduct sufficient to create an easement.
The Commonwealth Court ruled that the Koreskis had failed to state a claim for prescriptive easement as a matter of law, for several reasons. First, encroaching tree roots and limbs by themselves cannot notify a landowner of a claim to use the ground. Second, Pennsylvania has never recognized the existence of such an easement. Third, the Court said, “well-reasoned authority from another jurisdiction persuades us that such easements should not be recognized.” Finally, the potential of widespread uncertainty such easements would cause “convinces us that they should not be recognized as a matter of public policy.”
“The requirement that, to be adverse, a use must be open and notorious is for the protection of those against whom it is claimed to be adverse,” according to Restatement of Property, Servitudes § 458, comment h. The requirement enables owners to protect themselves against the effect of the use by preventing its continuance.” To prove an adverse use is “open and notorious,” a claimant may show that either the landowner against whom the use is claimed has actual knowledge of the use or has had a reasonable opportunity to learn of its existence.
But encroaching tree parts, by themselves, do not establish “open and notorious” use of the land. Neither roots below ground nor branches above ground fairly notify an owner of a claim for use at the surface, the Court said. In the absence of additional circumstances, such as use of the ground for maintenance or collection of leaves or fruit, roots and branches alone do not alert an owner that his exclusive dominion of the ground is challenged.
The philosophy of the law is simply that whenever neighbors cannot agree, the law will protect each owner’s rights insofar as that is possible. Any other result would cause landowners to seek self-help or to litigate each time a piece of vegetation starts to overhang their property for fear of losing the use or partial use of their property as the vegetation grows.
Finally, the Court said, “we consider the consequences of the holding urged by the Koreskis here. Judicial notice can be taken that trees growing over property boundaries and streets, around utility lines, and under [sidewalks are common in Pennsylvania]. A decision suggesting that the prolonged presence of these tree parts assures their unreduced continuation could cause uncertainty. Both the extent of the prescriptive easement and its effect on public and private use are problematic. As a matter of sound public policy, we decline to recognize a new estate which offers uncertainty and invites clarification through litigation.
– Tom Root