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Interfere With Your Neighbor’s Trees, Be Prepared to Restore Them And Pay Money Damages Times Three

The Salazar family (“plaintiffs”) lived in San Francisco but owned, since 1982, a 10-acre parcel of rural property in Mendocino County that they visited frequently over the years.  The property, which included many large trees and a spring, was completely undeveloped except for a small cabin, and the family enjoyed it as a respite from city life.  Plaintiffs valued the property and the trees in their undisturbed natural state for aesthetics, recreation and privacy.

 

Defendant Matejcek purchased the adjacent 20-acre parcel in 2007.  Without first conducting a survey, defendant cleared numerous trees on plaintiffs’ property, and added a road, fence, gate, plastic water tanks and a pool, all of which encroached on plaintiffs’ property.  He also apparently moved markers placed by plaintiffs’ surveyor.

 

The court awarded money damages for encroachment, treble damages for removal of timber, and an injunction requiring defendant to restore plaintiffs’ land.  Defendant appealed.

 

The measure of damages for wrongdoing that injures property, including trees, is the amount that will compensate for all the detriment proximately caused thereby.  (Civ. Code § 3333.)  Typically, this is measured by the monetary value of the property before and after the damage.  However, this measure may be insufficient where the aesthetic and personal value of the trees to the owner exceeds their monetary value.  In that case, the court may devise an alternative measure based on a more appropriate formula, such as the cost of restoring the property to its former condition even if the cost exceeds diminution in value.  Plaintiffs here relied on this “personal reason” exception to the standard measure of damages, and their expert estimated a cost of $67,500 to remediate the trees.  The court thus found that a damage award of $67,500 was reasonable even if the entire 10-acre parcel was worth only $75,000.

 

The court then trebled the restoration damages to $202,500 based on a finding of willful and malicious conduct.  (Civ. Code § 3346; CCP § 733.)  The evidence showed that defendant had pulled records and harassed plaintiffs to sell him their property for years before he purchased the neighboring parcel, did not obtain a survey prior to the work, may have moved or ignored survey markers, and failed to advise plaintiffs of his construction plans.

 

Defendant also argued that plaintiffs elected to recover money damages and could not also obtain equitable relief.  An injunction provides an equitable remedy as opposed to money damages.  In order to obtain such equitable relief, where the court orders that defendant take or refrain from some action, plaintiff must prove that there is no other adequate remedy.  The court can then fashion the remedy that is most appropriate under the circumstances.

 

Here, plaintiffs alleged irreparable injury to their property rights because continuance of the encroachments could ripen into a prescriptive easement and give defendant legal rights to use it.  This could not be compensated by an ordinary damage award.  The court thus ordered a permanent injunction compelling defendant to remove the encroachments, return the roadway to its original grade, and to otherwise restore the property, after which plaintiffs could replant the trees for their use and enjoyment.  Had the encroachment been innocently made and not caused irreparable injury, and if cost of removal outweighed inconvenience to plaintiff, the court could have denied the injunction and awarded only money damages, but here both the legal and the monetary remedy were fully warranted.

 

Salazar v. Matejcek (2016) 16 C.D.O.S 2682

 

(03/16)