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SHELL OIL COMPANY v. GARRY MURRAH

SEPTEMBER 03, 1986

SHELL OIL COMPANY
v.
GARRY MURRAH, et ux



BEFORE WALKER, C.J., DAN LEE AND GRIFFIN, JJ.

GRIFFIN, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

This is an appeal from the Circuit Court of George County by the defendant, Shell Oil Company, appellant here, from an adverse jury verdict and subsequent judgment. The jury awarded $12,645.00 in actual damages for appellant's trespass on the lands of appellees. This was reduced by remittitur to $6,250.00. The verdict also awarded $47,355 punitive damages. The appellant was represented in the lower court and here by competent counsel; however, the employment of counsel in this matter was the closing of the gate after the cows were in the field.

The factual situation here is not materially unlike that in Seismic Petroleum Services, Inc. v. Ryan, 450 So.2d 437 (Miss. 1984), and we believe that case and the others there cited control here as to the appellant's argument relating to the issue of punitive damages.

 In Seismic, supra, Seismic representatives contacted Ryan and obtained permission for a seismograph crew to run a line over Ryan's property. Ryan gave authorization for an entrance on the land for the purpose of a survey

 to locate the place for the line; however, Seismic was not to run the line without further permission. Ryan's limited permission apparently was never conveyed to the workers, inasmuch as the machinery was brought onto the property and the line was partially run before Ryan, with the assistance of the sheriff, removed the trespassers. As here, good faith was claimed. The vice president and part owner of Seismic stated that if the matter had come to his attention he would have moved the line around Ryan's property but thought his company had a verbal permit. Punitive damages were awarded and the award was upheld. Judge Roy Noble Lee stated the test as follows:

 When a person is charged with committing a willful and wanton trespass and cutting trees upon another's property without permission, the standard by which to measure him is whether or not a reasonable man under like circumstances would have gone upon the property, committed a trespass thereon and would have cut trees of the property owner. The jury answers the question as to whether or not punitive damages should be imposed and the amount thereof.

 450 So.2d at 440.

 We now review the evidence in the light required in City of Jackson v. Locklar, 431 So.2d 475 (Miss. 1983). There Judge Robertson wrote as follows:

 On a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the trial court must consider all of the evidence - not just that evidence which supports the non-movant's case - but in the light and with all reasonable inferences most favorable to the party opposed to the motion. If the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party that the trial court believes that reasonable men could not have arrived at a contrary verdict, granting of the motion is proper. On the other hand, if there is substantial evidence opposed to the motion, that is, evidence of such quality and weight that reasonable and fair-minded men in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions, the motion should be denied and the jury's verdict allowed to stand.

 . . .

 The standard of review employed by this Court when a jury's damage award is under attack is essentially the same as articulated [above]. . . . Unless we can say that no rational jury could have on this proof assessed damages . . ., the award must be left undisturbed. We will not vacate or reduce a damage award unless it is so out of line as to shock the conscience of the Court.

 431 So.2d at 478, 480-81.

 Bobby and Frances Fewell owned a 40-acre tract in George County and on February 6, 1982, they conveyed the east 12.5 acres thereof to the appellees in this cause. Thereafter, Shell began to "permit" (obtain written permission) land in the area for seismic exploration. Shell's title check consisted of nothing more than a review of the tax rolls. Neither the sectional index nor general index was referred to. The "title examiner" had no formal training nor company manual or any other information upon which to conduct his search. He testified that he was under "hurry up" orders from Shell.

 After this title work was done, another employee began contacting the landowners and when Mrs. Fewell was contacted she told them of the ownership of the 12.5 acres by the appellees. It appeared to Mrs. Fewell from Shell's map that the line would cross the Murrahs' property. Incidentally Mrs. Fewell had formerly been a real ...


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