They Spoke for the Trees, But Damages Were Too High

April 24, 2015
Kristine A. Tidgren

The Iowa Court of Appeals Wednesday reduced a damages award granted to a couple who claimed their neighbor intentionally removed trees along their fence line. The plaintiffs, were self-described “tree people” who lived on a five and one-half acre rural land parcel. Their property adjoined that of the defendant, who was a farmer. The plaintiffs’ land was covered with timber and the property abutting the farmer’s crop ground was covered by an assortment of overgrown volunteer trees. The farmer, who bought his farm in 2008, hired a contractor to “clean up” the fenceline between his land and the acreage. The trees were shading his field. The farmer incorrectly assumed that the property line was a creek bed on the other side of the fence line. The actual property line was the crop line. The contractor used a track hoe and front end loader to remove trees from the creek bed. The plaintiffs did not immediately spot the activity because that portion of property is not visible from their home.

The plaintiffs filed an action against the farmer, seeking damages for the removal of 50 small trees and six mature trees. They also sought treble damages under Iowa Code §658.4, alleging that the removal of the trees was willfully in disregard of their rights. Finally, the plaintiffs sought recovery of the cost of a survey they conducted to prove the actual property line and their attorney fees.

The district court awarded the plaintiffs $30,450, which included $369 each to replace the 50 small trees, $2,000 each to replace the six mature trees, $4,125 in attorney fees, and $350 for the survey. The district court refused to award treble damages.

On appeal, the farmer argued that the damages were too high and that the plaintiffs were not entitled to attorney fees or the cost of the survey.  The plaintiffs argued that they should have received their triple damages award.

The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the damages award with respect to the small trees, but eliminated the remainder of the damages. The court also refused to award triple damages to the plaintiffs. The court determined that the plaintiffs were entitled to $18,450.

Apparently inspired by Earth Day, the court’s opinion was fun. In a footnote, it compared the plaintiffs to the Lorax, who “spoke for the trees.” It also laced the opinion with tree puns, “pruning” back the damage award, being “stumped” by the lack of case law on whether to award the cost of the survey, and noting that a finding “sprouted” from witness testimony.

The court found that the damage award for the mature trees was not properly supported by any evidence and that the cost of the survey was not a natural result of the wrongdoing. The court also found that the plaintiffs had no statutory or contractual grounds to recover their attorney fees. As for the requested treble damages, the court ruled that the farmer’s actions were merely careless, not willful.

This case illustrates that landowners must act carefully with respect to property boundary lines. What was “worthless” volunteer overgrowth to the farmer was, according to testimony, “priceless” to the plaintiffs. Had the farmer discussed with the neighbors his planned “clean up,” he’d most likely have avoided the litigation. But sometimes we fail to see the forest for the trees.

Okay scratch that, I’ll leave attempts at word fun to the Court of Appeals.

Lackman v. Muff, No. 14-1150 (Iowa Ct. App. April 22, 2015)

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