Scholes v. Lambirth Trucking Co.

Decision Date20 February 2020
Docket NumberS241825
Citation258 Cal.Rptr.3d 812,458 P.3d 860,8 Cal.5th 1094
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties Vincent E. SCHOLES, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. LAMBIRTH TRUCKING COMPANY, Defendant and Respondent.

Vincent E. Scholes, in pro. per.; Singleton Law Firm, Gerald Singleton, San Diego; Law Offices of Martin N. Buchanan and Martin N. Buchanan, Oceanside, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

The Arkin Law Firm and Sharon J. Arkin for Consumer Attorneys of California as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.

Anwyl, Scoffield & Stepp, James T. Anwyl, Sacramento; Spinelli, Donald & Nott and Lynn A. Garcia, Sacramento, for Defendant and Respondent.

Horvitz & Levy, Robert H. Wright and Jeremy B. Rosen, Burbank, for Pacific Gas and Electric Company as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendant and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Cuéllar, J.

This case arises from a pair of entwined risks all too familiar to Californians: fire, and what happens when fire spreads. Civil Code section 3346 provides enhanced damages to plaintiffs suffering "wrongful injuries" (id. , subd. (a)) to timber, trees, or underwood.1 The statute generally provides for treble (triple) damages, but only double damages "where the trespass was casual or involuntary" and only actual damages in other specified factual scenarios. (Ibid .) The relevant statute of limitations where a plaintiff properly seeks such damages is five years (id. , subd. (c)). But can section 3346 be used at all to sue a person who inadvertently lets fire spread to someone else’s property?

Plaintiff Vincent Scholes alleges that defendant Lambirth Trucking Company (Lambirth) negligently allowed a fire to spread from Lambirth’s property to Scholes’s property, harming some of Scholes’s trees. This claim would be untimely under the three-year statute of limitations that applies to ordinary trespass, but Scholes contends that section 3346 ’s enhanced damages and five-year statute of limitations applies insofar as he seeks damages from injury to those trees. In contrast, Lambirth argues that section 3346 does not apply to property damage from a fire negligently allowed to escape from the defendant’s property. Instead, Lambirth asserts, the fire liability provisions found in Health and Safety Code sections 13007, 13008, and 13009 govern Scholes’s claim and only allow recovery of actual damages from an escaping fire. Those provisions state that a person responsible for the spread of fire is liable for "any damages" ( Health & Saf. Code, § 13007 ) and fire suppression costs, and do not provide an extended statute of limitations.

What we conclude is that the five-year statute of limitations and heightened damages provisions of section 3346 are inapplicable to damages to timber, trees, or underwood from negligently escaping fires. Section 3346, subdivision (a) does not apply to all "injuries" to trees or all "injuries" arising out of common law trespasses. Instead, section 3346 is best read as a statute targeting "timber trespass" — the kind of direct, intentional injury to trees on the property of another that would be perpetrated by actions such as cutting down a neighbor’s trees — and sets out a special scheme of graduated penalties aimed at deterring such trespass and any resulting misappropriation of timber. Harmful though the Lambirth fire is, this is not a punitive scheme that fits it. Because Scholes cannot rely on section 3346 ’s extended statute of limitations and his complaint was otherwise untimely, we affirm the Court of Appeal’s decision.

I.

In 2003, Lambirth began operating a company making wood chips, sawdust, and products from rice hulls on the land next to Scholes’s property. To make some of these soil enhancement products, Lambirth’s company grinds wood. Some of this wood, along with rice hulls, blew onto Scholes’s property over time. On May 12, 2007, there was a fire at Lambirth’s business. Scholes soon complained to Lambirth about the wood chips and rice hulls that had blown onto Scholes’s property. Local authorities also warned Lambirth about storing these wood products. Lambirth began removing the wood chips and rice hulls on Scholes’s property. But on May 21, 2007, another fire broke out on Lambirth’s property –– and in short order, it leapt onto Scholes’s property.

On May 21, 2010, Scholes filed suit against Lambirth and its insurer, Financial Pacific Insurance Company (Financial Pacific). The initial complaint alleged lost use of property as well as general damages and property damages. A few months later, on January 24, 2011, Scholes filed a first amended complaint alleging damages to property, loss of crops, and lost use of property. Lambirth and Financial Pacific filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings and argued that Scholes failed to allege sufficient facts to state a cause of action. The trial court granted the motion with leave to amend.

Scholes filed a second amended complaint on August 9, 2011. It alleged that Lambirth trespassed by allowing wood chips and rice hulls to enter Scholes’s property, which allowed the fire to spread to Scholes’s property. Lambirth also failed to supply any water source, the complaint alleged, to suppress a fire that might ignite these materials. In October 2011, Scholes agreed to dismiss with prejudice the case against Financial Pacific as well as its officers and directors, leaving Lambirth as the sole remaining defendant. Lambirth filed a demurrer and argued that the statute of limitations barred Scholes’s claim. The trial court granted the demurrer on statute of limitation grounds with leave to amend.

On November 15, 2011, Scholes filed a third amended complaint alleging three causes of action: general negligence (what the Court of Appeal characterized as "negligent trespass"), intentional trespass, and strict liability. Under the first cause of action, this complaint alleged that "wood chips, sawdust, rice hulls, and other combustible material" accumulated on Lambirth’s property, and that Lambirth "failed to either control or suppress" a fire, which "spread to the realty of [Scholes]" and "destroyed personal property, growing crops," motor vehicles, and other mechanical equipment. It also alleged damage to a walnut orchard and requested enhanced damages for the injury to the orchard under section 3346 and Code of Civil Procedure section 733. Section 3346, subdivision (a) provides treble or double damages for "wrongful injuries to timber, trees, or underwood upon the land of another, or removal thereof." Code of Civil Procedure section 733 similarly provides treble damages for malicious or willful cutting, carrying away, girdling, or "otherwise injur[ing]" timber or trees, but provides no special statute of limitations. Lambirth filed a demurrer and argued that Scholes’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations, and also that Scholes failed to state a claim for intentional trespass or strict liability. The trial court granted the demurrer without leave to amend. Scholes appealed.

Scholes argued before the Court of Appeal that his third amended complaint was timely because: (1) Code of Civil Procedure section 338, subdivision (b) applies a three-year statute of limitations to an action for trespass upon or injury to real property; and (2) the second complaint, where Scholes first alleged such an action, related back to the original timely complaint. The Court of Appeal agreed that the three-year statute of limitations applied but concluded Scholes’s amended complaint did not relate back. Alternatively, Scholes asserted his first cause of action was subject to section 3346 ’s extended five-year statute of limitations because it alleged damage to trees ( § 3346, subd. (c) ). The Court of Appeal rejected this argument too, holding that section 3346 does not apply where the cause of the harm is the negligent spread of fire. In doing so, the court relied on Gould v. Madonna (1970) 5 Cal.App.3d 404, 85 Cal.Rptr. 457 ( Gould ), which held that section 3346 does not apply to fire damage caused by negligence, and rejected the contrary decision in Kelly v. CB&I Constructors, Inc. (2009) 179 Cal.App.4th 442, 102 Cal.Rptr.3d 32 ( Kelly ). We granted review to decide whether section 3346 applies to fire damage.

II.

Section 3346, located in the "Penal Damages" article of the Civil Code, provides the following: "For wrongful injuries to timber, trees, or underwood upon the land of another, or removal thereof, the measure of damages is three times such sum as would compensate for the actual detriment, except that where the trespass was casual or involuntary, or that the defendant ... had probable cause to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own ..., the measure of damages shall be twice the sum as would compensate for the actual detriment ...." ( § 3346, subd. (a).) The statute limits recovery to actual damages "where the wood was taken by the authority of highway officers for the purpose of repairing a public highway or bridge upon the land or adjoining it." (Ibid. ) Subdivision (b) provides the same "for any trespass committed while acting in reliance upon a survey of boundary lines" by a licensed surveyor if "[t]he trespass was committed by a defendant who either himself procured, or whose principal, lessor, or immediate predecessor in title procured the survey to be made." (Id. , subd. (b).) The Legislature originally enacted section 3346 when it adopted the Civil Code in 1872, borrowing from a draft New York Civil Code. (Civ. Code, former § 3346, repealed by Stats. 1957, ch. 2346, § 2, p. 4076; see Fluor Corp. v. Superior Court (2015) 61 Cal.4th 1175, 1200, 191 Cal.Rptr.3d 498, 354 P.3d 302 ; see also Fulle v. Kanani (2017) 7 Cal.App.5th 1305, 1310, fn. 2, 212 Cal.Rptr.3d 920 ( Fulle ).)

To determine whether this provision encompasses negligent fire damage, we start with the statute’s language and structure in order to "ascertain and effectuate the law’s intended purpose." ( Weatherford v. City of...

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1 cases
  • Scholes v. Lambirth Trucking Co.
    • United States
    • California Supreme Court
    • 20 Febrero 2020
    ...8 Cal.5th 1094458 P.3d 860258 Cal.Rptr.3d 812Vincent E. SCHOLES, Plaintiff and Appellant,v.LAMBIRTH TRUCKING COMPANY, Defendant and Respondent.S241825Supreme Court of California.February 20, 2020Vincent E. Scholes, in pro. per.; Singleton Law Firm, Gerald Singleton, San Diego; Law Offices o......

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