Most people probably don’t spend much time thinking about trespass. But when most people think about trespass, they tend to think of driving, walking, or going onto somebody else’s property without an invitation.
But trespass can be much more than simply cutting across somebody’s lot.
A trespass can occur anytime there is an unauthorized entry onto the property of another. Such an entry can consist of throwing, dropping, or depositing something onto land that belongs to someone else, even if the person who throws, drops, or deposits the item never sets foot onto the other person’s land. A trespass can also occur when small items such as cement dust or even invisible particles of flouride compound are deposited onto land belonging to someone else.
A trespass can even occur when a fire damages a neighboring property. In one case, a landowner intentionally set fire to piles of grass and sagebrush on its property so that the landowner could reduce the risk of fire to other building on its property. This landowner apparently recognized that unburned grass and brush presented a fire hazard. By intentionally burning this material in a controlled manner, this landowner apparently hoped to avoid any uncontrolled fire that could spread to the landowner’s buildings.
Unfortunately, this landowner failed to take the necessary precautions for containing the fire, and the fire escaped to a neighbor’s property and damaged it. The neighbor sued for the cost of repairing the fire damage to its property. This case is reported as Elton v. Annheuser-Busch Beverage Group, Inc. (1996) 50 Cal. App. 4th 1301.
The Court held that the fire constituted a trespass, and that the landowner who set the fire and allowed it to escape was responsible for the damage it caused to the neighbor’s property. Moreover, because the damaged property was used for the raising of livestock, the landowner who set the first was also liable for the attorneys fees of the owner whose property was damaged.
A dramatic example of trespass liability occurred in Southern California in 2002. A contractor was constructing a municipal water tank. Sparks ignited a large brush fire known as the Copper Canyon fire. The fire spread over 20,000 acres, and caused considerable damage to a ranch located 15 miles away. The fire damaged hillside vegetation and a large number of trees on the ranch. The fire negatively affected the flow of water across the ranch. As a result, heavy rains resulted in mudslides that created a large gully and destroyed a house. The mudslide was caused by the vegetation changes which resulted from the fire.
The owner of the Ranch filed suit against the contractor for trespass. A jury found that the cost of restoring the Ranch to its condition before the fire would cost millions of dollars, and the Court eventually entered a judgment in favor of the ranch owner and against the contractor for over four million dollars. The case is reported as Kelly v. CB&I Constructors, Inc. (2009) DJDAR 16339.
That’s a lot of trespass. Since a fire can constitute a trespass, this single fire resulted in a trespass to over 20,000 acres of land, along with liability for all of the resultant damage. That’s a really, really bad day for the contractor.