Court of Appeals affirms rulings in lawsuit over trees cut down along property line
A Michigan Court of Appeals panel has affirmed a Lenawee County judge’s rulings in a lawsuit between Hudson Township neighbors over felled trees.
Both the plaintiffs and the defendants in the lawsuit appealed rulings by Lenawee County Circuit Judge Anna Marie Anzalone, who denied a motion from the defendants to dismiss the lawsuit then found in favor of the plaintiffs, but not for as much in damages as the plaintiffs had sought, according to an opinion issued last month by appeals Judges Mark T. Boonstra, Amy Ronayne Krause and Thomas C. Cameron.
The lawsuit was filed in August 2018 by plaintiffs Kevin and Wendy Vanderpool against Chad Hart and Hart Brothers LLC. The Vanderpools sold a parcel of land to Hart Brothers in 2015. The parcel adjoined the Vanderpools’ property and had a row of trees along the property line. In 2016, Chad Hart cut down the trees, believing they were on Hart Brothers’ property, according to the appeals court's opinion. The Vanderpools disagreed and hired an arborist to determine the value of the trees. The arborist determined it would cost $149,310.57 to replace the 20 large, healthy trees that were cut down.
A bench trial took place in 2020. A surveyor who the Vanderpools hired in 2014 to determine the property line testified the tree line “mostly straddled” the property line, but he could not remember how many trees were on each side of the line, the court’s opinion said. Kevin Vanderpool could only recall that a “big,” “old hickory tree” was on their property. A logger testified that all of the trees were on Hart Brothers’ property and removing the trees increased the value of the property.
The defendants sought a dismissal, arguing that the plaintiffs had not met their burden of establishing how many and what types of trees were on the property in 2016. They also argued the correct measure of damages was any loss of property value and that no evidence had been presented that the Vanderpools’ property had lost value.
Anzalone denied the motion, finding that the Vanderpools had brought forth sufficient evidence of damages and that the replacement cost of the trees was the correct measure of damages.
Anzalone issued her ruling in favor of the Vanderpools in March 2021. She found that the surveyor’s testimony was most credible and showed that trees on both sides of the property line had been cut down. However, she found there was “virtually no evidence of which trees were on either side of the property line, and which trees were directly on top of the dividing line,” the appeals court said, quoting Anzalone’s ruling. The only evidence supporting damages was Kevin Vaderpool’s testimony about the hickory tree. Anzalone awarded damages of $13,501.98 for that tree and said she could not determine other damages without evidence about which trees belonged to the Vanderpools.
Regarding the Vanderpools’ appeal of the damages award, the appeals court rejected their arguments that they were entitled to a larger amount.
Under Michigan law, the appeals court said, property owners could be due triple damages if someone intentionally trespasses on their property and cuts down trees. However, if someone has an honest belief that they are on their own property or they have permission to cut down the trees, then only single damages are due.
"In this case, the trial court found that plaintiffs were not entitled to treble damages because defendants’ trespass was based on 'a good faith and honest belief that they owned the entire tree line which they removed,’” the appeals court said. “Plaintiffs do not challenge these findings. Instead, plaintiffs argue that the trial court should have awarded additional damages given its finding that 'multiple trees' were located either on plaintiffs’ property 'or on the boundary that separated the property of the parties.’”
The appeals court said Anzalone did not err in finding she could award damages for only the hickory tree.
"Because plaintiffs failed to prove additional 'damages with reasonable certainty' and because 'damages predicated on speculation and conjecture are not recoverable,' … the trial court did not clearly err by only awarding damages with respect to the hickory tree,” the appeals court said, citing case law.
Regarding Hart and Hart Brothers’ appeal of Anzalone’s denial of their motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the appeals court also rejected their arguments.
Citing Michigan Supreme Court and Court of Appeals precedents, the appeals judges found the replacement value of the trees was an appropriate measure of damages.
“Contrary to defendants’ arguments on cross-appeal, plaintiffs presented evidence that the trees had a unique or aesthetic value,” the court said. “Plaintiffs testified that they had enjoyed the trees for many years and that the trees had sentimental value. …
“Because the trial court clearly found plaintiffs’ testimony to be credible, the trial court did not err by determining that the replacement value of the trees was the appropriate measure of damages. Consequently, the trial court did not err by denying defendants’ motion for dismissal.”
This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegram: Michigan Court of Appeals affirms rulings in treeline lawsuit