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Belle Terre Ranch, Inc. v. Wilson (2015) 14 C.D.O.S. 371
The dispute in this case involved the interpretation of a law providing that when someone brings suit for trespass on agricultural, ranching or farming land and wins, the plaintiff is entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs. (Code Civ. Proc. § 1021.9.) This law, passed in 1986, was intended to allow ranchers and agricultural landowners a way to recover for damage caused by trespassers breaking through fences to take motor vehicles onto private property.
The issue in this case was whether a pathway, or “avenue” between two neighboring properties in Sonoma belonged to one neighbor—a winery, owned by the Wilsons—or the other—a vineyard, Belle Terre. Both neighbors used the avenue, with the Wilsons using it for wine deliveries and to allow access for heavy equipment during renovation. A dispute arose over the Wilsons’ use of the avenue, with Belle Terre complaining that the trucks were kicking up too much dust and damaging the grapes. Belle Terre sued the Wilsons to quiet title to the disputed strip of land and for trespass, for a permanent injunction to prevent the Wilsons from using the avenue, and for attorneys’ fees and costs for bringing the lawsuit. Belle Terre did not allege any actual injury to the property arising out of the trespass, nor did it present proof of the same.
After testimony by surveyors hired by each party, the trial court quieted title of the avenue in favor of Belle Terre, granted the permanent injunction, awarded $1 in nominal damages for the trespass, and awarded Belle Terre $117,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs. The appellate court considered whether an award of a nominal amount for trespass entitled Belle Terre to attorneys’ fees and costs, when there was no proof of actual injury to Belle Terre’s property.
The appellate court reversed the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees and costs. This dispute was primarily one over property lines, upon which the trespass claim depended, not truly “an action to recover damages to personal or real property resulting from [trespass],” for which the law was intended. Therefore, although the Wilsons technically trespassed onto Belle Terre’s property which justified nominal damages, there was no evidence of any actual damage; thus, an award of attorneys’ fees was not proper.
Belle Terre won, in the sense that the Wilsons are no longer permitted to use the avenue, but it could not recover the money they spent litigating the dispute. Landowners of property used or intended for cultivation or livestock should take this into consideration when pursuing a boundary dispute which has incidental trespass claims, especially in rural areas where the boundary lines aren’t so clear.
 The court explained that nominal damages are merely symbolic, and are often awarded when there is no actual damage, but there was technically still a violation of the law. Such was the case here.