What happens when a property owner removes a fence along its property line and allegedly damages the trees of the other property owner as well as their crops? The Minnesota Court of Appeals case of Moon v. Schultz illustrates how a court can properly examine the issue of damages in such cases.[i]
In Moon v. Schultz, a property owner in Chippewa County, Minnesota replaced a fence along a neighbor’s property line.[ii] However, during the replacement of the fence, the property owner entered upon the other party’s property and cut down several elm trees.[iii] In addition, trees fell onto the neighbor’s adjacent soybean field, allegedly damaging the growing crops.[iv]
During a bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the neighbor who lost several elm trees and allegedly suffered crop damage.[v] The neighbor testified during the trial that he felt that the trees had special value but did not testify as to any loss of property value as a result of the loss of the trees.[vi] In addition, an owner of a nursery and landscaping business testified on behalf of the neighbor that the loss of 19 elm trees could be replaced for a cost between $9,500 and $12,500.[vii] The property owner moved to disqualify the expert, but the trial court denied the motion.[viii]
On the crop loss claim, the neighbor testified that two acres of soybean crops were damaged and utilizing yields and price information from his crop insurance, calculated damages in the amount of $1,182.04.[ix]
The trial court ruled in favor of the neighbor and awarded $9,500 for the fallen elm trees, $1,182.04 for the soybean crop loss, and found treble damages[x] applicable under Minnesota law (for a total amount of $32,046.12).[xi]The property owner appealed.[xii]
The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, finding the district court should not have awarded any damages in the case.[xiii] On the tree loss claim, the Court noted[xiv] that prior caselaw in Minnesota holds that the measure of damages for loss of trees is generally the difference in the value of land before and after the trees are removed.[xv] There is an exception to this rule for cases in which the trees have substantial value for shade or other ornamental purposes, have aesthetic value, or are used as a sound barrier or traffic screen.[xvi] The Minnesota Court of Appeals held that no evidence was presented by the neighbor that the trees had substantial value for shade or ornamental purposes, had aesthetic value, or were utilized as a sound barrier or traffic screen.[xvii] The Court also noted testimony in the case that the elm trees were “bushy,” “weed-like” trees, and if anything, may possibly have a “negative” value.[xviii] Thus, the proper measure of damages is loss of property value, and since the neighbor did not allege any loss in property value, the neighbor did not incur any recoverable damages for the loss of the elm trees.[xix]
The Minnesota Court of Appeals also held the trial court’s awarding of crop damages and treble damages to be in error.[xx] The Court mentioned that the proper “measure of damages for destruction or injury to growing crops is the value of the crops as they were standing at the time and place of their destruction.”[xxi] In rejecting the neighbor’s crop damage claim, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court did not engage in any legal analysis to arrive at its calculation of damages.[xxii]
Overall, Moon v. Schultz exemplifies the importance of a plaintiff in establishing proper damages in a fallen tree case.
[i] See Moon v. Schultz, No. A22-0903, 2023 WL 193682 (Minn. Ct. App. Jan. 17, 2023).
[ii] Id. at *1.
[x] “Treble damages” are damages awarded by a court when that court awards triple damages. The statute that was applied by the trial court was the following: “Whoever shall carry away, use or destroy wood, timber, lumber, hay, grass, or other personal property of another person without lawful authority, shall be liable to the owner thereof for treble the amount of damages assessed therefor in an action to recover such damages. If upon trial, the defendant proves having probable cause to believe that such property was the defendant’s own, or was owned by the person for whom the defendant acted, judgment shall be given for the actual damages only, and for costs.” See Minn. Stat. Ann. § 548.05 (2023).
[xi] See Moon v. Schultz, 2003 WL 193682 at *2.
[xiii] Id. at *4.
[xiv] Id. at *2.
[xv] See Baillon v. Carl Bolander & Sons Co., 235 N.W.2d 613, 614 (Minn. 1975).
[xvi] See Moon v. Schultz, 2003 WL 193682 at *2.
[xviii] Id. at *3.
[xx] Id. at *3-4.
[xxi] Id. at *3.
Photo by Mike Bird: https://www.pexels.com/photo/uprooted-tree-cut-in-pieces-5351109/