Landowner May Recover Greater Loss Than Market Will Bear For Lost Trees

Thursday, August 30, 2018 8:01 am
September 2018 - Volume 46 Number 9

Determining the value of destroyed historic stone walls and clear cut forestland was within the jury’s purview as finders of fact--in part because the science of historic stone walls is not novel.

Facts: In 1991, plaintiff George E. Morabit bought 53 acres in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. The property abutted property owned by defendant Dennis Hoag. Most of Morabit’s property was undeveloped woodland, and a stone wall marked the boundary between his land and Hoag’s. In the early 2000s, Morabit discovered that a large portion of the stone wall had been destroyed and the trees near the missing portion of wall were gone. Hoag had been using heavy machinery to clear the trees from his land, including the part of the land abutting the missing stone wall.

Morabit sued Hoag. He sought damages under a state law that allows landowners to recover twice the value of trees and three times the value of wood from a person who has cut or destroyed trees without authorization. Morabit also sought damages for the destruction of his stone wall. In Rhode Island, it is a crime to steal any portion of a historic stone wall, and a person convicted of stealing such a wall must pay the stones’ replacement cost and “any other compensable damages.”

At the jury trial, Morabit sought to introduce expert testimony about the value of his historic stone wall. His expert was, by all accounts, one of the leading scholars on historic stone walls. (At the time of the trial, his book on the subject was in its twelfth edition.) T[..]