Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, Inc
209 Wis.2d 605, 563 N.W.2d 154 (1997)

  • 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 for trespass.
  • 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 damages.
      • 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 it again.
      • 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 appealed.
    • 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 it?
  • 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 being unreasonable?
      • Probably not, but in some cases, maybe.
      • 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?