When Kenneth Eyer decided to log part of his Sagle property to raise money for his wife’s chemotherapy bills, he never dreamed he’d end up owing more than $100,000 in legal fees.
“I made $6,500 on the logging,” said Eyer, 87, whose wife, Sally, died in January. “I’m destroyed – I’m financially destroyed over somebody else’s little mistake.”
The Idaho Supreme Court on Monday ordered Eyer to pay more than $95,000 in attorney fees for an unsuccessful counter-lawsuit over the 2009 logging job. That’s on top of the more than $37,000 he’s paid his own attorney, and a $50,000 settlement he signed with his neighbor.
Between legal costs, long delays and the intricacies of Idaho laws on “timber trespass” – 19 trees on a neighbor’s property were inadvertently cut down in the logging job – the outcome, according to the chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, was legally correct, but “most unfortunate for the Eyers.”
“It appears to me that the legal system catastrophically failed Kenneth and Sally Eyer,” Chief Justice Jim Jones wrote in a concurring opinion to the court’s unanimous ruling. “It is imperative that court procedures be reformed to expedite the process and reduce the cost of litigation to avert a repeat of this unfortunate story.”
Eyer said he was glad to hear of the chief justice’s comments. “I’m glad some guy in the court department is saying we’ve been shafted,” he said. However, he added, “It doesn’t do me a damn bit of good.”
Jones wrote, “It is a tragedy, and does not speak well for the legal system.”
Here’s what happened. Eyer contacted Idaho Forest Group in 2009 about the logging project. The company agreed to buy the logs and sent a forester, Jeff Berend, out to Eyer’s property to help his son-in-law, Tim Farrell, flag the boundaries and identify which trees should be cut. Berend recommended a logger from St. Maries.
“Jeff spent all day here hiking the hillside,” Eyer said.
But one of the property boundaries was incorrectly identified as a road, when it turned out the neighbor actually owned at least 20 feet beyond the road.
Nineteen of the trees the logger cut turned out to be on the neighbor’s property – scraggly ones high on a steep, rocky slope, with a value of $1,600. But they were trees the previous owner of the property had promised the new owner would be left in place to block the view. The neighbor sued.
And under Idaho’s timber trespass laws, he could ask for triple damages – three times the replacement cost of the trees. The neighbor sued for $268,000 to replace the 19 trees. The Eyers and their neighbor finally settled for $50,000, to be paid out of the couple’s estate after they die.
Eyer said he was taken completely by surprise when, after the logging job, his neighbor, Russ Stevens, “came barging into our kitchen demanding $7,000 for trees we had cut down on his property. … I suggested he get his facts straight before harassing people. I thought that was the end of it.”
A year later, Eyer said he received a letter from Stevens’ attorney accusing him of deliberately cutting trees on Stevens’ property, and demanding $82,640 within 15 days or “the sheriff would come out and auction off our home. I wasn’t too worried because this was clearly insane.”
That’s when Eyer discovered the misplaced boundary line, which was delineated on a map that Berend supplied to the logger.
Eyer said he would have “agreed in a minute” if Stevens had shown him the actual property line and asked him for the proceeds from the logging. “But by demanding a king’s ransom, we were being forced to spend thousands of dollars to keep from losing our home,” he said. “This is pure and simple legalized extortion, so I no longer felt obligated to give him anything. The logger didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong. IFG made the mistake. They are the ones who should pay to clear up this mess.”
Eyer said he talked with Berend once the mistake was discovered. “He apologized, said he was sorry he had screwed up and he’d make it right,” Eyer said.
The Eyers countersued Idaho Forest Group, and continued that countersuit after the settlement with the neighbors, but a jury rejected their lawyer’s arguments that IFG had a legal duty to properly mark the property lines. A unanimous Idaho Supreme Court agreed.
Eyer’s attorney, Arthur Bistline, could not be reached Monday for comment.
Peter J. Smith, attorney for Idaho Forest Group, said it was Bistline who requested a jury trial.
“I think the bottom line was the claim against IFG was very, very weak, and I think the jury saw right through it as trying to bring in a party that is perceived to have the deep pockets to pay them some money,” Smith said. “IFG took the position that we did nothing wrong and we’re not going to allow people to sue us and just write checks.”
He added, “Idaho Forest Group didn’t cut the trees, the logger cut the trees. … You’d have to ask Mr. Bistline why he didn’t sue the logger.”
Smith said the replacement value standard for timber trespass cases in Idaho is a long-standing court precedent, but it can lead to absurd outcomes. “When we heard of the claim, it’s completely ridiculous,” he said. “How can these people possibly be entitled to more than basically what their property’s worth for 19 trees?”
As the legal costs mounted, Eyer mortgaged his home for $200,000. Now he’s worried he’ll lose the North Idaho acreage that the family calls “the farm,” where they’ve raised horses and chickens, built a putting green and enclosed tennis court, and maintained a large apple orchard that used to yield “a couple hundred gallons of apple juice every year.”
The Eyers also held spiritual retreats and built a meeting hall on the property. It was blessed by Tibetan monks and has hosted weddings, meetings and other gatherings.
“It screws my kids,” said Eyer, a retired Seattle cardiologist who has lived on the Sagle property for nearly 30 years and has four children. “This farm was recently appraised at $470,000 and they were going to divide it when I died. Now it’s being eaten up by lawyers and all these other things.”
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