Summary of Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, Inc. (1997), Supreme Court of WI, 563 N.W.2d 154
Procedural Posture: Jury awarded P $1 in nominal damages and $100K in punitive damages in trespass action. Circuit court set the punitive damages aside. P appealed, appellate court affirmed the judgment. P appealed again, and Sup. Ct. reversed judgment, and remanded for decision on amount of punitive damages.
Facts: Despite adamant protests by the property owners (P), D plowed a path through their snow-covered field and delivered a mobile home to their neighbor. P had recently lost possession of land in an adverse possession suit, and did not grant permission to D for use of their land. D cut across their land anyway and gloated afterwards. D was issued a citation for $30 for the trespass, which the Sup. Ct. found to be insufficient.
Issues: 1) Can an award of nominal damages for intentional trespass to land support a punitive damage award? >Yes.
2) Does law for punitive damages apply to Steenberg? >Yes.
3) Was jury award excessive? >No.
Holding: Appellate court reversed, judgment for P. Remanded for assignation of punitive damages.
Rationale: 1) The court held that when nominal damages were awarded for an intentional trespass to land, punitive damages may be awarded in the discretion of the jury.
2) Because the property owners’ legal right to exclude all others from their land was involved, the court noted that the law recognized that actual harm occurred in every trespass. In the case of intentional trespass to land, the nominal damage award represented the recognition that actual harm had occurred. The decision, which carved an exception to precedent, applied to the trespasser as a reward to the property owners who persevered in attacking an unsound rule.
3) The amount of punitive damages was not excessive because the trespasser’s conduct was egregious and deceitful.