Disputes Between Neighbors Can Be Costly
On June 3, 2020, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling affirming the trial court's decision in a trespass case. The court found that any errors in the jury instructions were harmless and that the trial court did not err in refusing additional damages and in failing to grant a permanent injunction prohibiting trespass. This case demonstrates that a successful trespass action does not necessarily mean that the plaintiff is entitled to damages and that costly litigation is likely not the best approach for such matters.
This case involves an “un-neighborly” dispute between neighbors. The plaintiff moved into her current home in 2006. In 2013, the defendants, a couple, moved into the house north of the plaintiff’s property. In 2015, the plaintiff demanded that the defendants stay off her property. The plaintiff sent an email to the defendants describing several instances where their children used her backyard as a short-cut. Noting that the defendants were a “wonderful addition to the neighborhood,” the plaintiff was adamant that her yard was off limits. Despite the email, the defendants and their children continued to enter the property for various purposes—including some without good intentions. They placed a “garage sale” sign on the boundary fence between the properties and hung paper plates with eye balls drawn on them in the tree as if they were watching the plaintiff. When the defendants attempted to improve their boundary fence, the plaintiff again emailed the defendants to contact the city for guidance on the fencing project and provided a second notice to the defendants to not use her property without her permission.
When tensions remained unresolved six months later, the plaintiff’s legal counsel sent a letter directing the defendants to seek permission to enter if they were repairing the fence and threatening criminal charges if that directive was not followed. The plaintiff’s attorney advised the defendants that “you and everyone in your household [must] refrain from any communication with [the plaintiff].” More letters followed with directives and descriptions of violations relating to trespass. At one point, the plaintiff’s grill cover blew into the defendants’ yard and communications about its return ended with “[i]f it is not returned, my client will have to pursue her legal remedies.”
In December of 2017, the plaintiff brought this lawsuit claiming trespass, invasion-of-privacy, conversion, and punitive damages. The defendants admitted to trespass, but denied the other claims. A jury found both defendants liable for trespass and the husband liable for conversion and invasion-of-privacy. Although the plaintiff was requesting actual damages in excess of $17,500, in addition to punitive damages, the jury awarded $100 for the conversion claim and $500 for the invasion-of-privacy claim. The jury found that the defendants’ trespass was not the cause of any damage and did not award anything for that claim. However, the judge awarded $1 against each defendant as nominal trespass damages. This brought the total award against the defendants to $602.
The plaintiff filed additional motions requesting a permanent injunction prohibiting future trespass and for additur or a new trial. The court denied these motions, and the plaintiff appealed.
Appellate Court Decision
On appeal, the court affirmed, finding that the trial court properly denied the motion for additional damages and did not abuse its discretion by failing to grant a permanent injunction.
Monetary Damage for Trespass (Motion for Additur)
Trespass occurs when an individual enters onto another’s property without express or implied consent. Damages are available for a direct invasion of property. Nichols v. City of Evansdale, 687 N.W.2d 562, 573 (Iowa 2004). A court may give nominal damages when trespass is committed, even when there is no specific injury. The jury found that the trespass caused no damages to the plaintiff. The district court awarded nominal damages of $1 against each defendant, but found that the “evidence did not support significantly greater damages.” On review, the court affirmed, explaining that the determination of damages is traditionally a jury function. The court noted that the district court, with the benefit of participating over the entire trial, denied the plaintiff’s motion for additur and new trial. The court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion, and, when considering the instructions as a whole, any error raised by the plaintiff was harmless.
Another remedy for trespass is an injunction. A permanent injunction is available if the proponent can show “(1) an invasion or threatened invasion of a right; (2) that substantial injury or damages will result unless the request for an injunction is granted; and (3) that there is [not another] adequate [means of protection] available.” Sear v. Clayton Cty. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 590 N.W.2d 512, 515 (Iowa 1999). This is an extraordinary remedy that should only be awarded if there is risk of substantial injury.
The court affirmed that the alleged actions in this case did not rise to the level of injury necessary to grant an injunction. The court relied on the trial court’s observation that the defendants promised not to trespass anymore and that their testimony was credible. Additionally, the court found that civil litigation had a substantial deterrent effect upon the defendants.
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