Property I, Pages 11–18

Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, Inc.

Supreme Court of Wisconsin, 1997

Facts:

Steenberg Homes wanted to deliver a home across Jacque's snow-covered field because it was much easier than the alternative route. Despite his direct refusal, Steenberg plowed a path and delivered the home across the path.

Procedural History:

The trial jury awarded $1 in nominal damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The circuit court reversed the $100,000 punitive damages award.

Issues:

  • Can an award of nominal damages for intentional trespass to land support a punitive damage award?

  • Should the law apply to Steenberg or only prospectively?

  • Is the $100,000 punitive damage award excessive?

Plaintiff's Argument:

Punitive damages should be allowed with only nominal damages when the act is a trespass to land.

Defendant's Argument:

Punitive damages could not be awarded by the jury because punitive damages have to be supported by compensatory damages, while the jury only awarded nominal and punitive damages here.

Rule:

Nominal damages are enough for punitive damages whenever the tort in question is a trespass to land.

Reasoning:

This was a trespass to land, so punitive damages are allowed for a trespass to land. The cost to the trespasser must outweigh their benefit in order to stop them from doing it in the future, so such a value is allowed for the public interest.

Holding:

Yes, such an award is appropriate here and $100,000 is an appropriate amount. Original damages restored.

Takeaway:

When nominal damages are given in a trespass to land, punitive damages may also be given.

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