Iowa Court of Appeals quotes Dr. Seuss in Earth Day opinion

Mollie Pawlosky Iowa Real Estate & Land Use Iowa Commercial Litigation Law Dickinson Law Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 06/29/2015 at 07:04 AM by Mollie Pawlosky

First celebrated in 1970, Earth Day events are held worldwide to show support for environmental protection. The Iowa Court of Appeals joined the 2015 Earth Day festivities by releasing Lackman v. Miff, an opinion addressing a topic appropriate for Earth Day: the value of trees. Iowa, a state known for its valuable farmland, has developed three main theories of recovery for loss of trees:  if the trees served a special purpose, the damages are the difference between the value of the realty before and after the destruction of the trees. Where the trees serve no special use, the damages are measured by the commercial market value of the trees as lumber or other wood products. 

Finally, where the trees can be replaced, or when the trees have a special value to the landowner, damages may be measured by replacement costs. Moreover, the Iowa Code includes section 658.4, awarding treble damages for willfully injuring any timber, tree or shrub on the land of another. The Lackman court considered all of these authorities. The Lackmans brought suit against a neighboring farmer, Miff, who removed trees that were shading his cropland. The Lackmans were self-described “tree people.” Miff, in attempting to “clean up” the fence line with the Lackmans, removed 50 small trees and damaged six mature trees that were later found to be on the Lackmans’ property. The Lackmans sued Miff, seeking treble damages. In assessing the value of the trees, Miff testified that the trees that were removed had no value, and the Lackmans testified that the trees were priceless. 

The Lackman's expert valued each of the 50 small trees destroyed at $369. For each of the six mature trees, the Lackmans requested $2000, providing no support for the amount. The trial court awarded $30,450:  $369 for each of the 50 small trees, and $2000 for each of the six mature trees. The trial court also awarded survey costs and common law attorney’s fees. The trial court declined to treble the damages, finding Miff’s conduct was not willful. On appeal, the Iowa Court of Appeals measured damages of the small trees by replacement costs of $369 each, awarding $18,450, because the plaintiffs had not ruled out replacing the trees, and because the trees had a special intrinsic value to the Lackmans. However, the Court of Appeals refused to award damages for the mature trees, because the record did not show that the large trees needed to be replaced. The appellate court also refused to treble the damages, because the evidence showed that Miff did not know where the property line was and lacked malicious intent. The Court of Appeals also disallowed the survey costs, holding that the costs were not a natural result of Miff's wrongdoing, and disallowed attorney’s fees, because Miff had not acted in bad faith or oppressively. So, what is to be learned from Lackman v. Miff? The case illustrates that, although Iowa has many wide open spaces for growing crops, Iowans also value timber and forests. Our legal system gives Iowa landowners numerous legal theories to protect their woodland resources. These values are illustrated by the sentiment expressed by the Court of Appeals' first footnote in Lackman: I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (1971). For questions regarding the theories applied in Lackman v. Miff or other issues arising in disputes regarding real or personal property, contact Mollie Pawlosky.

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