Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dispute Over Grass Clippings Ends With a Neighborly Assault

Jarod Hopson

A 27-year-old Kingsport, Tennessee, man has been charged with aggravated assault after punching his 63-year-old neighbor during an argument over grass clippings.

Jarod Hopson allegedly threw the punches, and Kenneth Jennings wound up with multiple fractures in his face. Jennings reportedly will need reconstructive surgery.

Neighbor disputes always are of special interest here at Legal Schnauzer. They seem to come in endless and fascinating varieties--and Mrs. Schnauzer and I know what it's like to be in the middle of one. Our 10-year legal battle started because of difficulties with a neighbor named Mike McGarity, who we later discovered has at least eight criminal convictions in his background.

No wonder he was hard to deal with. No wonder we wanted to keep him off our property. And as with the case in Tennessee, our experience involved criminal trespassing that led, over a period of years, to an assault. In Tennessee, the trespass and the assault happened almost simultaneously.

The problem in Kingsport reportedly started when Hopson's mother, Jennie Lovelady, objected to Jennings mowing too close to her yard, causing grass clippings to wind up on her property. One witness said Lovelady screamed at Jennings and even laid down in front of his mower.

When Jennings tried to get her to move, an argument ensued, with Hopson coming out of his mother's mobile home to punch Jennings several times.

I know what it's like to be assaulted by a neighbor; Mike McGarity assaulted me, and here is how I described it in an earlier post:

I was the victim of a felony assault in October 2006. My troublesome neighbor, Mike McGarity, essentially stalked me and then hit me in the back with a roadside sign, leaving a bleeding abrasion. There was an eye witness to the attack. . . . McGarity used a "dangerous instrument" and caused "physical injury." Under the law, that's a felony.

When Shelby County officials insisted on treating the case as a misdemeanor, I refused to file a criminal complaint. I have a pending lawsuit that includes a claim for assault and battery against McGarity.

What did I do to incur McGarity's wrath? I walked to the entrance of our neighborhood to remove signs (for-sale signs, garage-sale signs, etc.) that had been unlawfully placed in the right-of-way and were obstructing the view of drivers trying to pull onto a busy highway. I was trying to keep someone from getting hurt or possibly killed. But McGarity was having none of that.

He followed me and started putting the signs back up. When I told him why I was taking the signs down, he said, "Let's get it on, right here." I said I wasn't interested in fighting him, but the signs were going to come back down. When I turned and walked away, he swung a sign as hard as he could and hit me in the middle of the back.

That's an example of how the simplest of acts can lead to an assault, much like the case in Tennessee. It would be interesting to know if Jarod Hopson has a criminal record. My guess, based on his actions and the photo above, is that the answer is yes. By the time, McGarity assaulted me, I knew about his criminal record, which included convictions for violence- and sex-related offenses. At that point, I wasn't surprised at anything he might do.

In analyzing neighbor disputes, it's always instructive to play a game we call "Who's the Jackass?" There's almost always at least one jackass in a neighbor dispute. Sometimes, there are two or more, so it's hard to tell who's really at fault.

I've learned from experience to check for one tip off: Does an individual possess a smart-alecky, vile manner? The first sign of trouble with McGarity came when I called to ask if he could quiet down his dog, a coonhound mix that barked at all hours of the day and night--often for two or three hours at a time. McGarity's response? "You need to get ear plugs." That kind of comment is a pretty clear sign that you are dealing with a jackass. (By the way, if you've never heard a coonhound bark continuously for three hours, you should try it some time. Talk about a treat! There's a reason they are considered great hunting dogs--but not necessarily great pets; their voices travel like you wouldn't believe.)

After proving himself to be a horse's ass, McGarity apparently thought it would be fun to repeatedly trespass on our property. He seemed shock to discover that he wasn't welcome. When I made multiple phone calls to inform McGarity that he, his family members, and guests were to stay off our property--this was after we had witnessed multiple instances of trespassing--he threatened to sue me and said, "We're going to keep on coming."

At that point, I didn't know about McGarity's criminal record. But when I found out about it a few years later, I wasn't at all surprised. (A Schnauzer tip for dealing with difficult neighbors: Check your local courthouses to see if they have a criminal record. If they are world-class jackasses, the answer probably is yes--and public records about arrests often help explain a lot.)

In the Tennessee case, it seems clear that Hopson and his mother, Jennie Lovelady, were at fault. Would it have been nice if Jennings had been mowing in a way that did not blow grass clippings onto Lovelady's property? Sure, but he almost certainly was not violating any statute or ordinance.

Technically, the blowing of grass clippings probably constitutes a civil trespass, and Lovelady could have filed a lawsuit, seeking any damages and an injunction to block Jennings from sending grass clippings her way in the future. But such a lawsuit would probably cost several thousand dollars and most folks likely would not consider the issue to be worth that.

As long as Jennings was on his own property--and by all accounts, he was--he wasn't doing much of anything wrong. If Lovelady had concerns about the grass clippings, she should have waited until Jennings was finished mowing and talked to him by phone or face to face.

Is it possible that Lovelady had previously asked Jennings, in a nice way, not to blow grass clippings on her yard? Yes, it is. Is it possible he ignored her requests or responded in a smart-ass way? Yes, it is. If that was the case, it was unfortunate, but Lovelady's only recourse was to file an expensive lawsuit or learn to live with a few extra grass clippings on her yard. Laying down in front of Jennings' mower and starting an argument was not the way to go.

Lovelady's biggest mistake, the act that turned this into a criminal matter, was going on Jennings' yard. By entering a neighbor's property and laying down in front of his mower, she showed a bizarre lack of respect for boundary lines. That almost certainly amounts to a criminal trespass, which was compounded when Hopson followed her onto the property and punched Jennings.

In addition to the criminal charges, Jennings probably will file a lawsuit for assault and battery, trespass, personal injury, and other torts. We don't know what kind of assets Lovelady and Hopson possess, but they had better hope they have good insurance.

Our guess is that they eventually will wish they had never set foot on Jennings' property.

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