Good fences sometimes make bad neighbors

On October 9, 2013, the Oregon Court of Appeals decided Minihan v. Stiglich, a boundary dispute case that has festered between two West Linn neighbors for nearly a decade.  The dispute involved a communal strip of land that provided access to the Willamette River, and one neighbor’s (Stiglich) ongoing insistence—in the face of a number of surveys all to the contrary—that he owned a significant part of the the access strip (or at least the part that allowed access to the river).  As neighbor disputes tend to do, the situation got ugly on several occasions, until Mr. Stiglich finally put in a fence to stop his neighbor from accessing the river to watch July 4 fireworks in 2007.  The fence was in fact on the communal lot, but stayed up until after litigation had commenced and a final survey showed again, what all the other surveys before had shown: that the boundary of the lot matched the plaintiff’s claim.  Finally, the fence came down in 2009 following that defense expert’s conclusion.

The interesting part of this case is just how many surveys were conducted, including one by the county and recorded thereafter, and yet the defendant continued to insist that his property line was where he wanted it to be.  By my count, at least three separate surveys were conducted before the lawsuit got filed, and they all confirmed the same boundary.  The defendant, according to the Court, never offered a concrete reason for insisting that the boundary line lay elsewhere,  So not only did the jury aware $10,000 for trespass, it imposed a whopping punitive damages award of $40,000 for a boundary dispute that really existed only in one person’s opinion.

The judge’s ruling following the bench trial confirmed that the judge thought the defendant’s conduct was unreasonable.  In awarding the upper limit of punitive damages for economic harm, the judge had this to say:

I think this is one of those cases that — to send a message to yourself and to someone else who might be inclined to engage in this kind of self-help, that it’s not appropriate.

From outside the fence looking in, it sure does seem that way to me.

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