University of Vermont AAHS

STOECKER V. STEPHENS

Court of Appeals of Iowa

2006 WL 133243

FINAL PUBLICATION DECISION PENDING

Jan. 19, 2006

Summary

This suit results from a dispute between a child’s parents and an elderly uncle who they believed had mad a gift of an older, gentle horse to the child.  The parents prepared an appropriate place for the horse and the uncle refused payment for the horse.  Sometime later the uncle picked up the horse and returned it to his own farm saying the youngster had said he was not riding the horse enough.  This court held that the plaintiffs had not proven the transfer of ownership required for conversion nor the requisite malice to justify punitive damages for trespass.

Text of Opinion

Curt Stoecker and Gina Stoecker, individually and as next friend of Daniel Bell, appeal from a district court order that dismissed their conversion claim. They also contend the district court erred in failing to award them punitive damages on their claim for trespass. We affirm.

 I. Background Facts & Proceedings

The following facts and circumstances give rise to this appeal. Curt and Gina Stoecker are married. They live on an acreage in Hamilton County with Daniel Bell, Gina's son by a prior relationship. Rollie Stephens is Gina's seventy-five-year-old uncle. He lives on a farm in Boone County, Iowa. Rollie owns several horses.

In the spring of 1999, Gina contacted Rollie after Daniel, who was five years old at the time, expressed an interest in a horse. Rollie invited Gina, Curt, and Daniel to his farm on March 27, 1999, and Daniel rode one of Rollie's horses, an eighteen-year-old named Joe. Joe was born on Rollie's farm and trained by Rollie. The record reveals that Joe is a gentle horse who had been used by several of Rollie's grandchildren for 4-H projects in the past.

Following the visit to the farm, Gina and Curt decided it was feasible for Daniel to own and care for a horse. As a result, Curt fenced in a pasture at their acreage and made other preparations necessary for boarding a horse. The Stoeckers subsequently made arrangements to visit Rollie's farm on June 13, 1999, to pick up a horse.

On June 13, Daniel rode Joe again at Rollie's farm. Rollie told Daniel he could use Joe as a 4-H project, and Gina told Daniel that Joe was his birthday present. As Joe was being loaded into a trailer, Gina took out her checkbook and asked Rollie about the price for Joe, but Rollie told her arrangements for the horse were between Daniel and himself and refused to accept any payment. Rollie suggested that perhaps Curt could paint several tractors for him in the future. Gina testified that after her family left Rollie's farm, she believed Joe was Daniel's property. None of the parties said anything further regarding the price of the horse or any terms or conditions regarding Daniel's care, use, or ownership of Joe. Joe remained in the Stoeckers' possession from June of 1999 until August of 2002.

In August of 2002 Rollie called Gina and left a message on her answering machine stating that he was going to pick up Joe and return the horse to his farm. Curt called Rollie and asked why he intended to retrieve the horse, and Rollie explained that Daniel told him he was not riding the horse enough.

FN2. Rollie testified that Daniel had informed him that he did not like the horse and that his parents had purchased a goat for him.

Curt told Rollie that he could not enter the Stoeckers' property.

On August 28, 2002, Rollie drove to the Stoeckers' acreage. He parked his horse trailer on the road next to their property, removed Joe from the barn, and returned the horse to his farm.

In May of 2004, the Stoeckers filed suit against Rollie seeking compensatory and punitive damages based on separate claims of conversion and trespass. They claimed Rollie trespassed when he entered their property to retrieve Joe and improperly converted the horse to his own use.

Following a bench trial, the district court found that Rollie never intended to make a gift of the horse and dismissed the Stoeckers' action for conversion. The court found that Rollie committed the intentional tort of trespass and awarded one dollar in damages to the plaintiffs. The court denied the Stoeckers' request for punitive damages after concluding they had failed to prove that Rollie trespassed on their acreage with actual or legal malice. The Stoeckers have appealed.

 II. Scope and Standards of Review

Our review of this law action is for the correction of errors at law. Iowa R.App. P. 6.4; Nathan Lane Assocs., L.L.P. v. Merchs. Wholesale of Iowa, Inc., 698 N.W.2d 136, 138 (Iowa 2005). If substantial evidence supports the district court's findings of fact, they have the effect of a special verdict and are binding on us. Van Oort Constr. Co. v. Nuckoll's Concrete Serv., Inc., 599 N.W.2d 684, 689 (Iowa 1999). Evidence is substantial when a reasonable mind would accept it as adequate to reach a conclusion. Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., 533 N.W.2d 226, 230 (Iowa 1995). We view the evidence in a light most favorable to the judgment made by the trial court. Land O'Lakes, Inc. v. Hanig, 610 N.W.2d 518, 522 (Iowa 2000).

 III. Conversion Claim

We first address the appellants' claim that the court erred in dismissing their conversion claim. The Stoeckers insist that Joe became Daniel's property on June 13, so Rollie converted the horse to his own use when he entered their property during August of 2002 and removed Joe.

The Stoeckers do not contend that ownership of Joe was transferred by sale. Accordingly, to prevail on their claim for conversion, they were required to prove Rollie gifted Joe to Daniel on June 13, 1999. In order to establish a gift, it was their burden to prove: (1) Rollie possessed the present intention to transfer all his ownership interest in Joe to Daniel without retaining the power of revocation, (2) Joe was delivered to Daniel, and (3) Daniel accepted the horse. Needles v. Shenandoah Nat'l Bank of Shenandoah, 202 Iowa 927, 211 N.W. 392, 392-95 (Iowa 1926); Taylor v. Grimes, 223 Iowa 821, 826, 273 N.W. 898, 901 (1937).

In support of the Stoeckers' contention that the horse was Daniel's property, they offered a video at trial showing Daniel riding Joe on June 13. The video shows Gina telling Daniel in Rollie's presence that the horse was his birthday present as the Stoeckers loaded it into a trailer. The Stoeckers contend that Rollie never refuted Gina's statement; however, the video reveals that Rollie may not have overheard Gina telling Daniel that the horse was his birthday present. In addition, Rollie testified that he did not hear Gina tell Daniel that the horse was Daniel's gift.

For the Stoeckers to prevail, Rollie must have possessed a clear intention to pass all right, title, and dominion over the horse to Daniel. Gray v. Roth, 438 N.W.2d 25, 29 (Iowa Ct.App.1989). After carefully considering the evidence presented, the district court concluded that Rollie never intended to relinquish title to Joe. When we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the court's judgment, we conclude substantial evidence supports the court's conclusion. Rollie testified that he merely loaned Joe to Daniel for use as a 4-H project. This procedure was consistent with Rollie's longstanding practice of allowing his grandchildren to temporarily use his horses as 4-H projects free of charge.

FN4. The Stoeckers contend that when Rollie loaned Joe to relatives, the horse never left the farm, so Joe's lengthy stay at the Stoeckers' acreage suggests that Rollie gave rather than loaned Joe to Daniel. However, Rollie's testimony reveals that when his grandchildren borrowed his horses, he never needed to send them off the property because the grandchildren were located close enough to Rollie's farm to work with the horses there. Furthermore, Rollie testified that Daniel's situation was not unique because Rollie once loaned a horse to a relative in Cedar Falls for two years for a veterinary project free of charge.

We find that the district court did not err in dismissing the Stoeckers' claim for conversion.

 IV. Punitive Damages for Trespass

The trial court found that Rollie committed the intentional tort of trespass when he entered the Stoeckers' property on August 28, 2002, and retrieved his horse.

FN5. Rollie admitted that Curt told him he did not have permission to enter the Stoeckers' property.

Because neither Gina nor Curt testified regarding the amount of any actual damages caused by Rollie, the district court awarded nominal compensatory damages in the amount of one dollar.

FN6. Gina testified that Rollie broke a latch on the door to the barn, and Curt testified that Rollie caused some damage to the interior of the barn.

The court concluded the Stoeckers were not entitled to an award of punitive damages under the facts of this case. The Stoeckers now contend the trial court erred in refusing to award punitive damages.

In order for the court to award punitive damages for Rollie's trespass, the Stoeckers had the burden of proving by a preponderance of clear, convincing, and satisfactory evidence that Rollie acted with willful or wanton disregard of their rights. Iowa Code §  668A.1(a) (2003). Punitive damages are only justified if Rollie's acts were malicious. Crawley v. Price, 692 N.W.2d 44, 50 (Iowa Ct.App.2004) (citation omitted). Malice may be actual (expressed) or legal (implied); legal malice occurs when a defendant acts illegally or improperly with a reckless disregard for the rights of others. Id.

The trial court concluded that Rollie did not act with the requisite malice to justify an award of punitive damages. The court concluded that Rollie's testimony revealed he sincerely believed he could enter the Stoeckers' property to retrieve his horse based on the advice of the Boone County Sheriff's Department. The court noted that Rollie retrieved his horse with little, if any, damage in the process. The trial court found that Rollie's actions simply did "not rise to the level of conduct that will support an award of punitive damages." Upon careful review of the record, we conclude the trial court did not err in reaching this conclusion.

 V. Summary.

We conclude the district court did not err in dismissing the Stoeckers' claim of conversion. We also conclude the court did err in failing to award punitive damages to the Stoeckers. We therefore affirm the district court's decision.

 AFFIRMED.

END OF DOCUMENT


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