Excessive tree harvesting results in treble damages; while cross-claim for libel is overturned
Barbara Barker sued Douglas and Jeffrey Marshall after they grossly exceeded their contracual right to harvest three truckloads of trees from Marshall's property in Benzie County. Ultimately, they allowed an independent contractor whom they hired, to harvest 210 large trees, 44 smaller trees, and even the exempted tree which Marshall agreed was to be spared (and which had been identified by Barker with paint). The left tree tops and severed saplings on the property, creating a "war zone" appearance, having knocked down many small trees "for their own safety."
After a bench trial, the judge issued a decision awarding $67,000.00 on Barker's property damage claim, which included an award of $15,000.00 for mental anguish. The judge also granted the Marshalls an award of $85,000.00 against Barker, deeming it libel for her to have told the local paper that "I'm not trying to be vindictive or anything, I just feel like [the defendant] took advantage of me." Both sides raised procedural issues, and the trial judge modified his decision to reflect a net judgment of $2800.00 to the Defendant tree-cutter.The Plaintiff appealed and the Court of Appeals unanimously overturned this lop-sided abuse of justice. It applied the statutory treble damage clause to the damage resulting from the removal of the specially identified tree and the unharvested small trees, and affirmed the remainder of her damage claims with the exception of the mental anguish claim. It pointed out that under the Michigan Supreme Court's interpretation of the common law, mental anguish cannot be awarded to a party who suffers property damage--or trespass.
The higher court also wiped out the contractor's judgment for libel, however, noting that the landowner's comment to the paper merely reflected her "feeling" or "opinion" and therefore could not be libelous. The Court's final opinion resulted in a judgment of $88,000.00 against the tree contractor, thereby also wiping out his claim for attorneys' fees based on the Plaintiff's rejection of a $60,000.00 Case Evaluation.