Couple sues neighbors in maple tree tapping lawsuit
By Brent Curtis
STAFF WRITER | November 15,2012
Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo
Plaintiff Robert Maguire, standing, and his Atty. John J. Welch in Rutland Civil Court. In front is a scale diarama showing Maguire's and the area which was allegedly tapped to produce maple syrup. 11/14/12
For years, Bernard and Elizabeth Smith and their neighbors Allen and Pamela Macomber had a sweet relationship.
The Smiths agreed to let their neighbors tap some of the maple trees on their 5-acre lot in exchange for a gallon of maple syrup made across the street by the Macombers each year.
But when the Smiths say they discovered in 2010 that more trees were being tapped on their property than they realized, things went sour fast.
The Fair Haven neighbors on Scotch Hill Road landed in Rutland civil court where a lawsuit filed last year ended Wednesday in a jury verdict that found no basis for the Smiths’ claims that their neighbors trespassed and illegally converted sap to their own use.
“We’re extremely pleased with the verdict,” Middlebury attorney Peter Langrock said on behalf of the Macombers. “They worked hard to maintain their good names.”
Langrock, who runs his own maple sugar shack, added “This is a victory for Vermont sugar makers as well in a state where so much is done on a handshake.”
On the surface, the case appears to be a misunderstanding.
Both parties agree that permission was granted to the Macombers 10 years ago to tap trees on the property. But while the Smiths say they only granted approval to tap five or six maples, the Macombers say they had indicated an interest in tapping all the trees on a side hill of the property — which ended up containing 186 maple trees.
The Macombers placed 258 taps in Smiths’ trees and strung plastic collection lines through the sugarbush which emptied out at a basin not far from the Smiths’ driveway.
The Macombers argued that they weren’t trying to hide anything since the operation was located close to the Smiths’ house.
But in arguments made during the jury trial, Rutland attorney John Welch said his elderly clients’ limited mobility and impaired eyesight kept the extent of the sugaring operation hidden from them until a family friend ventured into the woods in August 2010 and told them about it.
In closing arguments made Wednesday, Welch said the Macombers made an estimated $1,500 worth of maple sugar a year from the trees tapped on his clients’ property.
“Who in their right mind would trade 258 quarts (of maple sugar) a year for four quarts of maple sugar in return?” Welch said. “And if they wanted more maple syrup they had to buy it from them even though it was made from sap obtained from their land.”
“This whole thing is a big deal because Bernie and Liz had a right to believe that no one would be coming and poaching off their property,” he added.
Welch asked the jury to award Elizabeth Smith and the estate of her husband who died before the trial $20,000 — a figure based on the value of the sap taken from the trees and the “discomfort and annoyance” inflicted on the Smiths.
After the verdict was read, Welch said he planned to speak with his client to weigh an appeal.
In his own closing remarks to the jurors, Langrock said greed wasn’t a motivator for the Macombers who grossed $3,191 in sales from their small business last year.
“Since 1992 they’ve run a small sugar making operation in a great Vermont tradition. It’s a family affair — not something they do because they want to make money. They do it because they love it,” he said.
Langrock said he believed that the only party interested in making money in the case was the Smiths and one of their friends who he said convinced the couple that their was money to be made by filing a lawsuit against their neighbors.
“It wasn’t an issue until someone said ‘This is a way to make money,’” he said.