Steenberg sold mobile homes
and needed to deliver one to Jacque's neighbor. The quickest route was
across Jacque's property. Steenberg repeatedly asked Jacque for permission
to cross the property, and even offered to pay, but Jacque refused.
Jacque was mad at his
neighbors due to a separate issue.
It was possible for
Steenberg to get around Jacque's property, but it involved a potentially
dangerous and expensive route over a mountain.
Steenberg moved the house
across Jacque's land without his permission. Jacques called the police who
issued a $30 citation to Steenberg for trespassing. Jacques sued Steenberg
The Trial Court found for
Jacques. Steenberg appealed.
The Trial Court awarded
Jacques $1 nominal damages and $100k in punitive damages.
Steenberg admitted to intentional
trespass, but suggested that there
were no compensatory damages, and so it was unfair to award punitive
Compensatory damages reimburse the plaintiff for actual loses, but
Jacque's property wasn't damaged, so he had no losses.
Punitive damages are awarded to deter the defendant from doing
Nominal damages are very small damages awarded to show that
the loss or harm suffered was technical rather than actual.
Steenberg argued that under
Wisconsin law, trespassing is a
crime, but the maximum fine for trespass is $1k. So how can the Court approve an award
that's 100x as much? Especially since there were no actual damages?
The Appellate Court set aside
the punitive damage award. Jacque
The Appellate Court found
that, under Wisconsin law, no punitive damages can be given unless the
jury also awards compensatory damages.
Since Jacque had suffered
no actual loses, he couldn't get compensatory or punitive damages.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court
reversed and awarded Jacque the $100k.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court
found that the compensatory damages
requirement is inappropriate when the wrongful act is intentional
trespass to land.
The actual harm was not the
damage to the land, but the loss of the individual's right to exclude
others from his property.
Since trespassers rarely
cause damage when they trespass, unless punitive damages are awarded, what's to stop people from doing
Considering that Jacque's
refusal might have resulted in Steenberg's driver being hurt in an
accident, and it would have substantially increased the delivery costs and
injured commerce, was it reasonable for Jacque to be so intransigent?
If Steenberg had respected
Jacque's refusal and used the dangerous road and the truck crashed and
people were hurt, would Steenberg have a tort claim against Jacque for
Probably not, but in some
For example, in a storm,
you can tie your boat to any nearby dock, and the dock owner cannot
legally refuse you.
How would this case be
different if instead there was a guy walking down the street and just
stepped on Jacque's lawn to get around a large puddle?
Would it matter that
Steenberg was doing it for business and not for dry feet?
Does society want Jacque to
force people to get their feet wet? Is that a value that society feels
needs to be protected?