reckless destruction of vegetation

Ohio farm and rural road
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, September 07th, 2022

Farm neighbor laws have been around nearly as long as there have been farm neighbors.  From trees to fences to drainage, farmers can impact and be impacted by their neighbors.  In the spirit of managing these impacts and helping everyone get along, our courts and legislatures have established a body of laws over the years that allocate rights and responsibilities among farm neighbors.  Explaining these laws is the goal of our new series on farm neighbor laws. 

Here’s a timely farm neighbor problem that we’ve heard before: Farmer’s soybeans are looking good and Farmer is anxious for harvest.  But some neighbors drive their ATV into the field and flatten a big section of Farmer’s beans.  What can Farmer do about the harm? 

Ohio’s “reckless destruction of vegetation law” might be the solution. The law, Ohio Revised Code Section 901.51, states that “no person, without privilege to do so, shall recklessly cut down, destroy, girdle, or otherwise injure a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree, or crop standing or growing on the land of another or upon public land.” This law could provide a remedy if its three components fit Farmer’s situation:

  1. Recklessness
  2. Destruction or injury to a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree, or crop on the land of another
  3. No privilege

A key requirement of the law is “recklessness.”  Under Ohio law, a person is “reckless” if the person acts with heedless indifference to the consequences or disregards the risk that the person's conduct is likely to cause a certain result.  For example, if the neighbors were out driving the ATV at night and simply didn’t care where they were and that their actions could be harming Farmer’s property, that behavior is likely to rise to the level of “recklessness.”  Alternatively, if another driver ran the neighbors off the road and the neighbors tried but could not avoid going into the bean field, their behavior isn’t likely to be deemed “reckless.”

A second requirement is destruction or injury to vegetation on another’s land.  In the unlikely event that Farmer’s soybeans aren’t actually injured or destroyed, the law wouldn’t apply.  Note that the law doesn’t just apply to a crop like soybeans, but also includes other vegetation such as vines, bushes, shrubs, and trees, recognizing that all of these types of vegetation have value for a landowner.

The final requirement is “without privilege to do so.”  Privilege in the context of this law means “permission.”  As long as Farmer didn’t tell the neighbors they could drive their ATV through his field, Farmer could prove that the neighbors did not have privilege or permission to cause the destruction and injuries to Farmer’s beans.

So what?  The law clearly prohibits the neighbors from recklessly destroying Farmer’s beans, but what happens if they do?  The law also addresses this question by stating that a violator of the law is liable “in treble damages.” Attorneys always take notice of treble damages language because it requires the damages award to be tripled after a judge or jury determines the amount of the actual harm. This tripling of damages is intended to punish the person for their “recklessness.”  So, if a jury decided that the value of Farmer’s lost beans is $1,000, the treble damages would result in a $3,000 award against the neighbors due to their reckless destruction of Farmer’s crop.

There is also a criminal element to the law.  The law states that a violator is also guilty of a fourth-degree misdemeanor. That would require a criminal proceeding by the local law enforcement, and the result could be no more than 30 days in jail and up to $250 in fines.

If the reckless destruction law doesn’t apply, Farmer would need to look to other mechanisms for resolving the harm.  If the neighbors were trespassing, trespass laws could provide a remedy but wouldn’t award treble damages.  Or the Farmer’s property insurance might address the harm. But if the neighbors destroyed Farmer’s beans by behaving recklessly, the reckless destruction of vegetation law can help resolve this farm neighbor issue.

Find the “reckless destruction of vegetation” law at Ohio Revised Code Section 901.51.

ATVs in field
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Friday, October 22nd, 2021

Fall often brings us questions about what a landowner can do when someone harms their crops, fields, and trees.  We’ve heard many stories of hunters, four-wheelers, snowmobilers, timber harvesters and others tearing up hayfields, causing corn and bean losses, harming trees, or taking timber.  Unfortunately, those incidents are not new to Ohio.  Back in 1953, the Ohio legislature enacted a law that addressed these types of problems.  In 1974, legislators revised the law to strengthen its penalty provisions, part of an effort to reform Ohio’s criminal laws.  That law still offers remedies that can help a landowner today.

The reckless destruction of vegetation law.  Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Section 901.51, the “reckless destruction of vegetation law,” is simple and straightforward.  It states that:

“No person, without privilege to do so, shall recklessly cut down, destroy, girdle, or otherwise injure a vine, bush, shrub, sapling, tree or crop standing and growing on the land of another or upon public land.”

Note the word “recklessly,” as that’s important to the statute.  Under Ohio law, a person  behaves recklessly if he disregards the risk that his actions are likely to cause certain results, such as harm or injury.  “Heedless indifference to the consequences” is another way to explain the term.  A person who flies through a hayfield on a four-wheeler, taking no precautions to avoid harming the crop, would likely fit this definition of behaving recklessly.  A timber harvester who ignores the marked property line and takes trees on the other side of it could also be behaving recklessly.

Criminal and civil options.  The recklessness element of a person’s behavior is why the law incorporates criminal charges.  A violation of ORC 901.51 is a fourth-degree criminal misdemeanor and could result in a fine of $250 and up to 30 days in jail.  What is useful to landowners, however, is that when legislators amended the law in 1974, they added “treble damages” to allow a harmed party to collect three times the value of the property destroyed.  If the value of hay lost to the four-wheeler was $500, for example, the treble damages provision allows the landowner to collect three times that amount, or $1,500.  Many court cases involve tree situations, and three times the value of a tree can result in a hefty award for the harmed landowner.

Another benefit of the reckless destruction of vegetation law is that a landowner doesn’t have to rely on a criminal charge being brought by local law enforcement.   While local law enforcement could bring a criminal charge against an offender and if successful, could request the treble damages for the landowner.  But if law enforcement does not bring a criminal charge, Ohio courts have held that a harmed party may bring a civil action against the offender and utilize the law’s treble damages provision.  Those treble damages can make it worthwhile to litigate the issue as a civil action.

The next time you’re frustrated by someone destroying your crops, trees and vegetation, the reckless destruction of vegetation law might be helpful.  If you can prove that the person was reckless and indifferent to causing the harm, consider using this powerful little law to remedy the situation.

 

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