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THE MEANING OF “PROPERTY”

However, whether nominal damages can support a punitive damage award in the case of an intentional trespass to land has never been squarely addressed by this court. Nonetheless, Wisconsin law is not without reference to this situation. In 1854 the court established punitive damages, allowing the assessment of “damages as a punishment to the defendant for the purpose of making an example.” The McWilliams court related the facts and an illustrative tale from the English case of Merest v. Harvey, 128 Eng.Rep. 761 (C.P.1814), to explain the rationale underlying punitive damages.

In Merest, a landowner was shooting birds in his field when he was approached by the local magistrate who wanted to hunt with him. Although the landowner refused, the magistrate proceeded to hunt. When the landowner continued to object, the magistrate threatened to have him jailed and dared him to file suit. Although little actual harm had been caused, the English court upheld damages of 500 pounds, explaining “in a case where a man disregards every principle which actuates the conduct of gentlemen, what is to restrain him except large damages?” To explain the need for punitive damages, even where actual harm is slight, McWilliams related the hypothetical tale from Merest of an intentional trespasser:

Suppose a gentleman has a paved walk in his paddock, before his window, and that a man intrudes and walks up and down before the window of his house, and looks in while the owner is at dinner, is the trespasser permitted to say “here is a halfpenny for you which is the full extent of the mischief I have done.” Would that be a compensation? I cannot say that it would be….

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