PROPERTY – Treble damages, real property, removing trees: Nellie Meece, et al. v. Feldman Lumber Company (SC 5/21/2009)

Nellie Meece, et al. v. Feldman Lumber Company
2007-SC-000785-DG May 21, 2009
Opinion by Justice Schroder; Justice Abramson not sitting.

Feldman Lumber Co. purchased acreage in Pulaski County which included, in part, 18 acres of standing timber. The adjoining landowner, Meece, claimed ownership of the 18 acres and Feldman filed a quiet title action. During the pendency of the suit, Feldman cut down the trees on the property. The circuit court quieted title in Meece’s favor, and awarded $3,186.46 representing the “stump value” of the timber. Both parties appealed—with Meece claiming she was entitled to treble damages and attorney fees under KRS 364.130. The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court, holding treble damages were not appropriate since “Feldman had reason to believe the timber was his and thus possessed color of title.” Feldman based its color of title upon the deed to the property.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded to the circuit court to enter judgment for treble damages to Meece, holding that Feldman’s subjective belief of ownership was insufficient to create color of title. The Court noted that the legal description on Feldman’s deed did not describe the land with sufficient certainty to establish its borders—a condition precedent to a claim of color of title. The description on Meece’s deed, on the other hand, was “certain and ascertainable.” Chief Justice Minton (joined by Justice Cunningham) dissented, contending that under established case law, color of title is derived from any instrument purporting to convey the land “however defective or imperfect.” The dissent noted that questions as to the sufficiency of the description are issues of fact for a jury. Lastly, the minority claimed that the majority had “effectively abolishe[d] the color of title doctrine by making the standard to prove its existence impossibly high.”

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