Adverse Possession and Punitive Damages
The Fourth Department recently handed down an opinion that appears to be the first New York appellate case to hold that a trespass to land held by adverse possession can trigger an award of punitive damages: West, et al. vs. Hogan, et al., 2011 NY Slip Op 07086 (Oct. 7, 2011).
In the memorandum decision, the Court gives an abbreviated version of a complicated set of facts. It rapidly concludes that title to the disputed area ripened in the plaintiffs through adverse possession decades before the defendant neighbor moved in and commenced his trespass. The neighbor’s conduct, which included desecrating a memorial erected to a plaintiff’s father,
rendering their toilet unusable” and apparently plugging plaintiffs' vent pipe, continued despite the fact that he was aware of the claim of title through adverse possession.
Relying on precedent where punitive damages have been awarded for trespass to land acquired by deed, the Court concluded that the neighbor’s conduct "amounted to a wanton, willful or reckless disregard of plaintiffs' rights,” despite his possession of a survey that appeared to support his own claim of record title!
It should be pointed out that the majority opinion states that the “defendant was aware that there was a dispute over the property line, and he granted plaintiffs permission to continue to use [the disputed area]” before he commenced his trespass. The dissent, however, states that “once plaintiffs commenced this action and placed defendants on notice that they were asserting title to the disputed area by adverse possession, there were no further incidents of trespass by defendant,” implying that he was unaware of the claim until the action was commenced. As a result, the dissent finds no basis for a punitive damages award.
Landowners frequently believe that a deed or a survey gives them the authority to remove or destroy any encroachment on “their land.” As this case so vividly illustrates, taking such action before understanding all the facts involved in a boundary dispute can lead to liability far in excess of the value of the offending encroachments. Clients should be encouraged to contact counsel or their title insurer instead of resorting to self-help in this type of situation.