Defendant needed to deliver a mobile home, but the easiest route was through Plaintiff’s property. Defendant concluded that the only other route of delivery was on another private road that was covered in seven feet of snow with a turn that would require rollers. Defendant went ahead with the delivery through the property despite protests from Plaintiff, using a bobcat to cut a path through the snow covered property. Plaintiff sued for intentional trespass. At trial, Defendant admitted to the trespass but argued that no damages were awardable. The jury disagreed and awarded Plaintiff $1 in nominal damages and $100K in punitive damages; however, the judge set aside the award. The court of appeals affirmed the decision to set aside the award because “it could not reinstate the punitive damages because it was bound by precedent establishing that an award of nominal damages will not sustain a punitive damage award.
Whether, “when nominal damages are awarded for an intentional trespass to land, punitive damages may, in the discretion of the jury, be awarded.”
Yes, reversed and remanded. “When nominal damages are awarded for an intentional trespass to land, punitive damages may, in the discretion of the jury, be awarded.” The rationale supporting the compensatory damage award requirement that nominal damages cannot open the gate to punitive damages should not apply when the trespass is intentional, as it was in this case. There is precedent establishing awarding damages to make an example. The court has recognized “… the actual harm is not in the damage done to the land, which may be minimal, but in the loss of the individual’s right to exclude others form his or her property.” The individual and society have a great interest in deterring others from intentional trespass.
The Supreme Court has stated that the right of exclusion is “one of the most essential sticks in the bundle of rights that are commonly characterized as property.” The right to exclude has no practical meaning unless it has any impact on behavior. The $30 fine established by the prosecutor is insufficient and is not proportionate to the loss felt by the Plaintiff in this case. Such a fine would not deter Defendant from future trespass either.
Normally, “the rationale for the compensatory damage requirement is that if the individual cannot show actual harm, he or she has but a nominal interest, hence, society has little interest in having the unlawful, but otherwise harmless, conduct deterred, therefore punitive damages are inappropriate.”