Tree Cutter Pays Treble Damages

Overview:  In Salazar v. Ross Matejcek the Court of Appeal threw the book at an aggressive property owner who intentionally cut 225 trees off of his neighbor’s property to facilitate his pot growing operation in Mendocino County, assessing treble damages as the Civil Code authorizes for willful and malicious tree cutting.  Read all about it in the Law Review.

If there ever was a case with an obvious “white hat” plaintiff and ill-tempered “black hat” defendant, it is Salazar v. Ross Matejcek.  Black Hat paid the price – as it should be.

Mendocino (Pot Country)

The Salazar family owned 10 acres of rustic, rural land near Covelo in Mendocino County.  It included a small cabin that the family frequented as a remote vacation destination.  They never cut down trees, cleared vegetation or even had roads built.  The property included a spring uphill from the cabin which itself was on level land.  If you’re thinking that’s perfect property for growing pot, you’re not too far off.

Ross Matejcek owned the neighboring property, 20 acres, somewhat downhill from the Salazars’.  Matejcek grew pot.  Pot is a leafy green substance often used as a stimulant, becoming increasingly available and popular in recent years.  (See Colorado or Mendocino.)

Oops, I Cut Down Your Trees

In late spring 2010, Ernesto Salazar discovered that someone had done excavation work near the common boundary line of the family property and Matejcek’s property.  Matejcek had cut hundreds of trees, installed a gate and fence, and constructed a 424-foot-long road — all on the Salazar property.  Although he denied it in court, he installed water pipes connecting the well on the Salazar property to his property.

Matejcek had the gall to install “No Trespassing” signs on the fence, the same fence he built on the Salazar property.  At one point Matejcek admitted he knowingly constructed the road over the property line because it was “more convenient.”

Suit for Trespass, Cutting Trees

The Salazars finally had enough and sued Matejcek — but only after he threatened Ms. Salazar.  The trial court ruled in the Salazars’ favor issuing a judgment in the amount $262,987, including encroachment damages, rental damages for use of their land, and treble damages for cutting 225 trees.  The trial judge also ordered Matejcek to restore the roadway to its original condition.  The court did not award punitive damages to the Salazars.  Both sides appealed.

Compound Damages

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court on all counts.

The Court allowed the tree-cutting damages to be treble the cost of restoring the cut trees, finding Matejcek’s conduct was willful and malicious.  Willful or malicious includes an intent to vex, harass, annoy or injure a party.  That he did.

In unilaterally taking over a portion of the Salazar’s property, the Court of Appeal found it was appropriate to require Matejcek to return the road he built to its original condition — at considerable expense.

The Salazars were not entitled to emotional distress damages because they failed to plead emotional distress damages in their lawsuit.  Oops.  Lawyers aren’t always perfect.

Every once in awhile the bad guy loses badly.  A good thing.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada.  Jim’s practice areas include:  real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters.  He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or www.portersimon.com.  

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