To be liable for civil trespass in Tennessee, the alleged tortfeasor does not have to intend to enter the property of another; he or she can commit trespass while believing the property is his or her own and only needs to intentionally be on the land.
In Barrios v. Simpkins, No. M2021-01347-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 16846642 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 10, 2022), plaintiffs and defendants had been involved in extensive litigation related to a boundary line dispute running between their residential properties. In this case, plaintiffs had asserted property related claims as well as a claim for trespass.
After hearing the evidence, the trial court set a boundary line for the disputed property and denied plaintiffs’ claim for adverse possession of the disputed area. It also dismissed plaintiffs’ trespass claim, writing that “[s]ince there was a dispute as to the rightful owner of the property, there could not be a wrongful entry on another’s real property.” On appeal, dismissal of the trespass claim was vacated due to the trial court applying the wrong intent standard to the tort of trespass.
In its analysis, the Court of Appeals explained that a person can commit trespass even when they believe at the time that the property belongs to them. The Court reasoned:
[I]n a case involving trespass, the defendant’s intent to trespass or knowledge that he is trespassing is immaterial. …A trespass to real property requires the intentional entry onto the land of another. …In the context of a trespass, ‘intent’ refers to intent to be on the land. Trespass to real property does not require proof that a person entered property with the intent to commit trespass. …The only relevant intent is that of the actor to enter the real property, and the actor’s subjective intent or awareness of the property’s ownership is irrelevant. …Thus, an intent to be at the place where the trespass allegedly occurred is sufficient to show an intentional entry, even though the defendant acted in good faith, and under the mistaken belief, however reasonable, that he or she was not committing a wrong.
(internal citations and quotations omitted).
Based on this explanation of intent, the Court stated that “any instances of Defendants’ entering, without authorization, onto the land” between where they claimed the property line was and where the trial court ultimately ruled the property line was “constituted trespass despite any lack of intent to trespass on Defendants’ part.” Because the trial court applied the wrong intent standard to the issue, dismissal of the trespass claim was vacated. The Court also noted that if defendants were found liable for trespass on remand, “at least nominal damages” should be awarded. (internal citation omitted).
The intent element of trespass can be difficult to apply, and this opinion contains a good explanation about what is actually required to satisfy the element.
This opinion was released three months after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 104, Section 1 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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