On April 15, 2011, the Fourth District of the Court of Appeal issued a decision reversing the San Diego Superior Court in a spite fence case. Vanderpol v. Starr, filed April 15, 2011, Fourth District, Div. One, Cite as D056599. The case involved a classic variation of the neighbor vs. neighbor dispute regarding a row of trees that the downhill neighbor refused to trim, which obstructed the uphill neighbor’s ocean view.
The plaintiffs sued under Civil Code section 841.14, which provides you can sue your neighbor for blocking your view or causing a nuisance because of a “spite fence.” The statute says: “Any fence or other structure in the nature of a fence unnecessarily exceeding 10 feet in height maliciously erected or maintained for the purpose of annoying the owner or occupant of adjoining property is a private nuisance. Any owner or occupant of adjoining property injured either in his comfort or the enjoyment of his estate by such nuisance may enforce the remedies against its continuance prescribed in Title 3, Part 3, Division 4 of this code.”
In Wilson v. Handley (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 1301, 1309, concluded a “row of trees planted on or near the boundary line between adjoining parcels of land can be a ‘fence or other structure in the nature of a fence ‘ ” for purposes of Civil Code section 841.4.
The court in Vanderpol had no trouble in concluding that the trees the defendants had planted were a spite fence in violation of Civil Code section 841.4. The plaintiffs won their claim for a permanent injunction at the trial court level, but that was reversed on appeal because the court concluded that the special verdict questions failed to establish that the plaintiffs suffered injury in their “comfort or the enjoyment of [their] estate by such nuisance” as required by the plain language of Civil Code section 841.4.
Apparently the plaintiffs here argued that this question established that they suffered injury in their injury in the “comfort or the enjoyment” of their property because of the trees that the defendants had planted: whether the defendants’ conduct was a “substantial factor in causing harm” to the plaintiffs. The court held that question went to the issue of causation, not damages.
The case is a lesson in the use of special verdicts. The court said: “The requirement that the jury must resolve every controverted issue is one of the recognized pitfalls of special verdicts.” The court reversed and remanded the matter back to the trial court for a new trial.
Based on the identity of the defendants’ counsel, probably their homeowner’s insurer was providing a defense. The plaintiffs’ case is not over but defendants’ seemingly ridiculous conduct towards their neighbor will continue to be defended by insurance.
Look for more articles about how some insurance companies sometimes prolongs disputes and increases the costs of dispute resolution for no apparent purpose.