In Belle Terre Ranch Inc. v. Wilson, 2015 DJDAR 506, the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District decided an agricultural trespass action involving an attorney fees claim.
The defendant purchased the Soda Rock Winery. He intended to repair a winery building on the property. A portion of the winery building was adjacent to the Belle Terre Ranch Inc. (Belle Terre) vineyard. In between the winery building and the vineyard was a path.
A dispute arose when the defendant’s use of the path allegedly damaged the plaintiff’s grape vines. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit to quite title and for trespass, contending that the path was actually on its property. Ultimately, the trial court found in favor of the plaintiff, awarding nominal damages of $1. The court did award the plaintiff, however, $116,920.00 in attorney fees pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.9.
The defendant appealed, arguing that the plaintiff was not entitled to attorney fees, and the court of appeal agreed. The court noted that in an action to recover “damages to personal or real property” resulting from trespass onto agricultural land or a ranch, the prevailing plaintiff is entitled to attorney fees, under Section 1021.9. However, the statute requires some “actual injury” to the property. Because the plaintiff prevailed on the trespass claim, but was only awarded nominal damages, the court concluded that the plaintiff was not entitled to attorney fees under Section 1021.9.