Where the appropriation of the property of another was accidental or through mistake of fact, and labor has in good faith been expended upon it which destroys its identity, or converts it into something substantially different, and the value of the original article is insignificant as compared with the value of the new product, the title of the property in its converted form must be held to pass to the person by whose labor in good faith the change has been wrought, the original owner being permitted, as his remedy, to recover the value of the article as it was before the conversion. This is a thoroughly equitable doctrine, and its aim is so to adjust the rights of the parties as to save both, if possible, or as nearly as possible, from any loss. But, where the identity of the original article is susceptible of being traced, the idea of a change in the property is never admitted, unless the value of that which has been expended upon it is sufficiently great, as compared with the original value, to render the injustice of permitting its appropriation by the original owner so gross and palpable as to be apparent at the first blush.
Plaintiffs, adjoining landowners, in consequence of a mistake respecting the actual location of their property lines, went upon the land of the defendant mining company during the winter and cut a quantity of cord wood and piled it on the banks of a lake. The next spring, the mining company took possession of the wood and disposed of it for its own purposes. The adjoining landowners then filed a trover and assumpsit action against the mining company, alleging conversion of the cut cord wood. At trial, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs. On appeal, the court reversed and ordered a new trial.
Are wood cutters entitled to recover from landowner the reasonable cost of cutting, hauling and piling of the wood, which wood the landowner did not request cut?
It could not be assumed that the mining company preferred its trees cut into cord wood, rather than left standing, and that the consequences of the adjoining landowners' mistake in cutting the trees had to fall upon the adjoining landowners themselves. The court noted that the difference in value between the trees, if left standing, and the cut cord wood was not so great, and that it was conceivable that the mining company would have chosen not to cut the trees in expectation of a considerable rise in value if they were allowed to grow.