In Veiseh v. Stapp, the Fifth District addressed a novel turn on an old rule – that the plaintiff in an action for trespass need not establish title, but is merely required to establish actual possession.
The plaintiff owned farmland, and though he used it for his own purposes, he attempted to transfer it to his ex-wife, for the benefit of their daughter, for estate planning purposes. However, the form of transfer implicated the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act, which required such assets to be held for the benefit of the transferee minor. Plaintiff’s transfer was defective, because he continued to use the property himself. The owner of the adjacent parcel leased to a cattle rancher, whose cattle grazed on plaintiff’s land, damaging it. Plaintiff sued for trespass.
The defendants moved for a bifurcated trial to first litigate the issue of standing. They argued that a trespass plaintiff was required to establish that he was in “lawful possession” of the trespassed land. Because the transfer violated the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act, the plaintiff was not the right plaintiff. The trial court agreed.
The Court of Appeals, however, noted the “well-settled proposition that the proper party plaintiff in an action for trespass to real property is the person in actual possession”. “The proper person to bring an action for trespass to real property is the person in actual possession. In the context of a trespass action, ‘possession’ is synonymous with ‘occupation’ and connotes a subjection of property to one’s will and control. We adopt this definition.”
While the term “lawful possession” is sometimes used to describe the trespass plaintiff’s status, the term “lawful” in this context merely means “not tortious”. The father’s occupation and possession was sufficient to maintain the action, and the Court of Appeal reversed with directions to litigate the second phase of the trial.