Property > Property Law Keyed to Cribbet > Improving Another's Property By Mistake (Accession)
Wetherbee v. Green
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Brief Fact Summary.
Wetherbee (Defendant) made hoops from timber cut from Plaintiff’s land. Wetherbee claimed he so did in good faith, being granted permission for the cutting by a party he thought had the authority to give such permission.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
In cases where one trespasses onto the land of another without any intent to trespass, and in good faith, and takes from the land chattels which are then transformed by the unintentional trespasser by his own labor and expenditures into a form which manifests a substantial change of identity of the chattel, the owner of the chattel so converted is only entitled to receive compensation for the trespass and is not entitled to replevy the chattel in its transformed form.
Defendant Wetherbee entered onto Plaintiff’s land and cut some timber which was then carried away and transformed by Defendant into hoops through an expenditure of effort by Defendant. Defendant mistakenly believed that he had been given permission to enter the Plaintiff’s land, but the permission was given by a third party without authorization. Thereafter, Plaintiff sued Defendant for replevin of the hoops. Defendant offered to show that the timber was worth only twenty five dollars while the hoops were worth near seven hundred dollars. Plaintiff prevailed in the trial court and Defendant appealed.
When a party unintentionally trespasses upon the land of another and converts chattels taken in the trespass into a new product, does the unintentional trespasser obtain a right to the transformed chattel such that the landowner may not replevy such chattel?
Yes. Judgment reversed and new trial ordered.
The Court notes the policy of compensation for the victim of private injuries, as opposed to the policy of punishment, which is reserved for those injuries inflicted recklessly, willfully, or maliciously and under circumstances presenting elements of aggravation. In this case the trespass was not done intentionally, and as such, the goal of the law should be to compensate the victim of the trespass rather than to punish the trespasser.
The general rule is that one whose property has been taken without authority by another has a right to follow the property and recover possession from anyone who receives it. If the property has increased in value, generally the victim is still permitted to take it back so long as there has not been a substantial destruction of the property’s identity. But there are limits where a process of manufacturing has occurred. The Court cites Blackstone for the proposition that when grapes are taken without authority and made into wine, the taker is only liable for the value of the grapes. 2 Bl.Com. 404. Thus, if the hoops represent a substantial destruction of the identity of the timber, then the Defendant should not be forced to return the hoops, but only to compensate the Plaintiff for the cost of the timber.
The Court then considers whether the making of the timber into hoops constitutes a substantial change in the identity of the timber. The court states that the question is not to be decided on the basis of tracing the identity of the hoops back to the timber, but rather on the question of the labor expended. For example, the Court notes that a musical instrument made from the wood of another without authority cannot be said to belong to the owner of the wood due to fact that the labor involved in the creation of the instrument has substantially increased the wood’s value.
The Court held that if the Defendant could show that he made the hoops in good faith and believed that he had the authority to do so, then he was entitled to a jury instruction that the title to the timber had changed due to its substantial change in identity. Thus, Plaintiff could only be compensated for the cost of the timber.
This case is illustrative of the law’s general effort to avoid unjust enrichment. If the Plaintiff could get the use of hoops worth seven hundred dollars while only losing twenty five dollars worth of wood, then the Plaintiff has made a great profit and the Defendant has been overly punished.