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THE MEANING OF “PROPERTY”

Despite [the various] protests by the Jacques, Steenberg plowed a path through the Jacques’ snow-covered field and via that path, delivered the mobile home. Consequently, and notwithstanding the $30 fine assessed against Steenberg by the local sheriff, the Jacques sued Steenberg Homes for intentional trespass. [At trial], the jury awarded the Jacques $1 nominal damages and $100,000 punitive damages. [On appeal], Steenberg argued that, as a matter of law, punitive damages could not be awarded by the jury because punitive damages must be supported by an award of compensatory damages and here the jury awarded only nominal and punitive damages. The Jacques contended that the rationale supporting the compensatory damage award requirement is inapposite when the wrongful act is an intentional trespass to land. The circuit court granted Steenberg’s motion to set aside the award. [It is from that decision that the Jacques appeal here].

[Steenberg does accurately state the general rule.] The rationale for the compensatory damage requirement is that if the individual cannot show actual harm, he or she has but a nominal interest, hence, society has little interest in having the unlawful, but otherwise harmless, conduct deterred, therefore, punitive damages are inappropriate.

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