Law School Case Brief
Jacque v. Steenberg Homes - 209 Wis. 2d 605, 563 N.W.2d 154 (1997)
To determine whether, as a matter of law, the question of punitive damages should have been submitted to the jury, the reviewing court reviews the record de novo.
Defendant’s mobile home was delivered by passing through the land owned by his neighbor despite the latter’s refusal to allow such passage. Plaintiff filed an action for trespass and was awarded nominal and punitive damages. Defendant opposed the award of punitive damages due to prior jurisprudence ruling otherwise. Punitive damages may be awarded in the discretion of the jury. 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. The court also held that the amount of punitive damages was not excessive because the trespasser's conduct was egregious and deceitful.
Was the award of punitive damages proper?
The award of punitive damages is subject to the jury’s discretion and should not rely entirely on judicial precedent. Furthermore, the facts of each case involving claims for such damages should be reviewed de novo. Society has an interest in punishing and deterring intentional trespassers beyond that of protecting the interests of the individual landowner. Society has an interest in preserving the integrity of the legal system. Private landowners should feel confident that wrongdoers who trespass upon their land will be appropriately punished. The fact that the actor knows that his entry is without the consent of the possessor and without any other privilege to do so, while not necessary to make him liable, may affect the amount of damages recoverable against him, by showing such a complete disregard of the possessor's legally protected interest in the exclusive possession of his land as to justify the imposition of punitive in addition to nominal damages for even a harmless trespass, or in addition to compensatory damages for one which is harmful.
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