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Haider v. Moen

Supreme Court of North Dakota

July 11, 2018

Jason Haider, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Jeff Moen, Defendant and Appellant

          Appeal from the District Court of Ward County, North Central Judicial District, the Honorable Todd L. Cresap, Judge.

          Seth A. Thompson (argued) and Briana L. Rummel (appeared), Bismarck, ND, for plaintiff and appellee.

          David A. Owens (argued) and Daniel M. Traynor (appeared), Devils Lake, ND, for defendant and appellant.

          OPINION

          Jensen, Justice.

         [¶ 1] Jeff Moen appeals from a judgment awarding Jason Haider damages for wrongful injury to timber. Moen argues the district court abused its discretion in excluding a jury instruction on treble damages and erred in admitting an expert's testimony. We affirm the district court's admission of expert testimony, reverse the district court's exclusion of a jury instruction on treble damages, and remand this case for a new trial.

         I

         [¶ 2] Haider owns seven acres of rural property near Foxholm, North Dakota, of which four acres are homestead and three acres are farmland. Trees border the homestead on north, west, and south sides. The Des Lacs River runs nearby, and Haider's homestead has an earthen dike on the south side for flood protection. Moen is a farmer who lives approximately two miles from Haider's property. Before Haider purchased the property in 2010, Moen farmed the three acres of farmland. Haider allowed Moen to continue farming the land and did not charge rent.

         [¶ 3] In September 2012, Haider left the property for over a week. During Haider's absence, Moen removed eighteen mature cottonwood trees from the homestead's southern border. Moen did not contact Haider before removing the trees. When Haider returned, he discovered the felled trees, tire tracks in his yard, and damage to the earthen dike. Haider observed Moen removing other trees on nearby property and confronted Moen. Moen admitted to removing the trees as part of a "farming operation." In July 2014, Haider sued Moen for wrongful injury to timber, civil trespass, and negligence in a complaint sent to Moen.

         [¶ 4] Haider took only his wrongful injury to timber claim to trial. At the pretrial conference, Moen sought to exclude testimony from Haider's tree expert, Paul Beck. Moen argued Beck was not qualified and his testimony would not assist the jury. Specifically, Moen argued Beck adjusted a tree valuation formula without expertise in economics. The district court denied Moen's motion in limine. During trial, Moen sought to instruct the jury on treble damages for wrongful injury to timber under N.D.C.C. § 32-03-30. The district court denied Moen's requested instruction and forbade Moen from discussing the treble damages provision in closing arguments.

         [¶ 5] At the close of trial, Moen argued the damages were $10, 700.00. Haider argued his damages totaled $85, 441.14. In a special verdict, the jury found Moen wrongfully injured Haider's trees, Haider's actual damages were $40, 500.00, and Moen's destruction of Haider's trees was not committed under the reasonable belief the land belonged to Moen. The district court entered judgment on September 8, 2017 for three times the damages plus $4, 597.79 in costs for a total of $126, 097.79. Moen appeals.

         II

         [¶ 6] Moen argues the district court erred by excluding a jury instruction and preventing closing statements related to the treble damages provision in N.D.C.C. § 32-03-30. "The trial court has broad discretion over the nature and scope of written questions submitted to the jury, and appellate review is limited to determining whether there was an abuse of discretion." Victory Park Apartments, Inc. v. Axelson, 367 N.W.2d 155, 165 (N.D. 1985). "A trial court abuses its discretion when it acts arbitrarily, unconscionably, or unreasonably, when its decision is not the product of a rational mental process leading to a reasoned determination, or when it misapplies or misinterprets the law." Simpson v. Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co., 2003 ND 31, ¶ 10, 657 N.W.2d 261.

Jury instructions must correctly and adequately inform the jury of the applicable law and must not mislead or confuse the jury. When considering the correctness of jury instructions, we will view them as a whole. The instructions will be allowed if, as a whole, they fairly advise the jury of the law on the essential issues in the case. In evaluating whether the district court abused its discretion in instructing the jury, we will first determine whether the district court committed error in its instruction, and then, if so, whether that error was harmless. Rule 61, N.D.R.Civ.P., states our harmless-error standard in civil cases:
No error in either the admission or the exclusion of evidence and no error or defect in any ruling or order or in anything done or omitted by the court or by any of the parties is ground for granting a new trial or for setting aside a verdict or for vacating, modifying or otherwise disturbing a judgment or order, unless refusal to take such action appears to the court inconsistent with substantial justice. The court at every stage of the proceeding ...

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