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NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY v. LEWIS.

decided: April 13, 1896.

NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY
v.
LEWIS.



ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

Author: PECKHAM

[ 162 U.S. Page 372]

 MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after stating the facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

The cases cited by the defendants in error show the doctrine to be quite clearly established that an action of trespass de bonis asportatis does not technically involve the question of title. It relates to the possession only of personal property, and it is brought to recover for the injury to that possession. In such action it is held that an allegation of the ownership of the property is not material and that it need not be made, or if made that it need not be proved. Proof of possession simply is sufficient upon the theory that possession is prima facie evidence of some kind of rightful ownership or title. Therefore, it is held that proof of title to property in a stranger with whom the defendant does not connect himself in any way is no defence to the action as the injury is to the possession. Trespass de bonis asportatis assumes a taking of the property by the defendant out of the possession of the plaintiff, and if the title be in a stranger with which the defendant does not connect himself, that fact is no answer to the cause of action. The possession of the plaintiff is enough under such circumstances against a wrongdoer. If the defendant cannot connect himself with the title in the third person, he is as to the plaintiff a wrongdoer, having no right to disturb the possession of the plaintiff. Aikin v. Buck, 1 Wend. 466; Hammer v. Wilsey, 17 Wend 91; Kissam v. Roberts, 6 Bosworth, [Superior Court

[ 162 U.S. Page 373]

     N.Y.,] 154. Many other cases are to the same effect. The rule is said to be different in trover and replevin on the theory that those actions are not actions grounded on the mere possession, but founded upon a right or title in the plaintiff upon the strength of which he must recover, and that hence title in a third party may be a defence, even though the defendant is not in any way connected with it.

But this action is not an action of trespass de bonis asportatis. There has been no asportation, and that fact must be proved, in such an action. The cause of action here alleged and proved was a negligent act on the part of the defendant, committed on the defendant's own land, and causing in its results the burning up and destruction of the wood in question. The action is, therefore, more accurately and properly described as an action of trespass on the case instead of trespass de bonis asportatis.

The ground of the plaintiffs' right of action is the damage which has been caused them by the negligent act of the defendant, and unless they are able to prove some damage, consequent upon such negligent act, the plaintiffs are not entitled to recover. This is not an action where they would be entitled to nominal damages if no damages whatever were in fact sustained or proved. They must prove the nature and extent of the damage, and if the property destroyed were not owned by them, and if they had no special property therein, and did not have possession thereof, it is entirely plain that no cause of action was proved. The plaintiffs claim that, so far as the defendant is concerned, they did prove property in the wood, and that such proof was made by showing that they were in possession thereof at the time of its destruction, and as simple possession is prima facie evidence of right and title sufficient to support this action, the plaintiffs made out their case. It may be assumed that possession alone is sufficient, even in an action of this nature, in the absence of any evidence explaining that possession or showing that plaintiffs had no title to the property. In this case the plaintiffs, in the course of making out their cause of action, showed the facts which proved that they had neither the title nor the possession.

[ 162 U.S. Page 374]

     The bill of exceptions states that the wood was cut upon the unsurveyed public lands of the United States. The lands were owned by the United States, and the trees growing thereon were its absolute property as much so as any other article of property possessed by the government. Entering upon those lands by the plaintiffs for the purpose of cutting trees was a plain act of trespass, illegal in its nature, and unjustified by any fact appearing in this case. The plaintiffs in cutting down trees committed an illegal act, and while the title to the standing timber was in the United States, the plaintiffs by severing the trees from the freehold acquired no right, title or interest in them by reason of such severance.

In Schulenberg v. Harriman, 21 Wall. 44, 64, it was held, that where title to land upon which the lumber was cut was in the State, severing the timber from the realty did not change the title. Its character was changed from realty to personalty, but its title was not affected. It continued as previously the property of the owner of the land and could be pursued wherever it was carried. All the remedies were open to the owner which the law afforded in other cases of the wrongful removal or conversion of personal property. See also Turley v. Tucker, 6 Missouri, 583. It is plain, therefore, that the plaintiffs obtained no right or title to the trees by cutting them on the lands owned by the United States under circumstances such as are set forth in this bill of exceptions.

It is urged, however, that under the act of June 3, 1878, c. 150, 20 Stat. 88, (1 Supp. Rev. Stat. 1874-1881, 327,) where no evidence is given upon the subject, the presumption is that the plaintiffs had complied with the provisions of that act, and that the cutting was therefore legal, and the timber was their own property.

The first section of that act reads as follows:

"SEC. 1. Be it enacted, etc., That all citizens of the United States and other persons, bona fide residents of the State of Colorado or Nevada, or either of the Territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Dakota, Idaho or Montana, and all other mineral districts of the United States, shall be, and are hereby, authorized and permitted to fell and remove,

[ 162 U.S. Page 375]

     for building, agricultural, mining or other domestic purposes, any timber or other trees growing or being on the public lands, said lands being mineral and not subject to entry under the existing laws of the United States, except for mineral entry, in either of said States, Territories or districts of which such citizens or persons may be at the time bona fide residents, subject to such rules and regulations as the Secretary of the Interior may prescribe for the protection of the timber and of the ...


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