Common-law Form Of Action
Trespass is one of the ancient FORMS OF ACTION that arose under the COMMON LAW of England as early as the thirteenth century. It was considered a breach of the king's peace for which the wrongdoer might be summoned before the king's court to respond in a civil proceeding for the harm caused. Because the king's courts were primarily interested in land ownership disputes, the more personal action of trespass developed slowly at first.
Around the middle of the fourteenth century, the clerks of the king's courts began routinely giving out writs that permitted a plaintiff to begin a trespass action. Before that time criminal remedies for trespass were more common. The courts were primarily concerned with punishing the trespasser rather than compensating the landowner. From the beginning a defendant convicted of trespass was fined; a defendant who could not pay the fine was imprisoned. The fine in this criminal proceeding developed into an award of damages to the plaintiff. This change marked the beginning of tort action under the common law.
As trespass developed into a means of compelling the defendant to compensate the plaintiff for injury to his property interests, it took two forms: an action for trespass on real property and an action for injury to PERSONAL PROPERTY.
In an action for trespass on land, the plaintiff could recover damages for the defendant's forcible interference with the plaintiff's possession of his land. Even the slightest entry onto the land without the plaintiff's permission gave the plaintiff the right to damages in a nominal sum.
An action for trespass to chattels was available to seek damages from anyone who had intentionally or forcibly injured personal property. The injury could include carrying off the plaintiff's property or harming it, destroying it, or keeping the plaintiff from holding or using it as she had a right to do.
Later, an additional CAUSE OF ACTION was recognized for injuries that were not forcible or direct. This action was called trespass on the case or action on the case because its purpose was to protect the plaintiff's legal rights, rather than her person or land, from intentional force.
Over the years the courts recognized other forms of actions that permitted recovery for injuries that did not exactly fit the forms of trespass or trespass on the case. Eventually, writs were also issued for these various types of actions. For example, a continuing trespass was a permanent invasion of someone's rights, as when a building overhung a neighbor's land. A trespass for mesne profits was a form of action against a tenant who wrongfully took profits, such as a crop, from the property while he occupied it. A trespass to try title was a form of action to recover possession of real property from someone who was not entitled to it. This action "tried title" so that the court could order possession for the person who turned out to be the rightful owner.
These common-law forms of action had serious shortcomings. A plaintiff who could not fit her complaint exactly into one of the forms could not proceed in court, even if she obviously had been wronged. Modern law has remedied this situation by enacting rules of CIVIL PROCEDURE that replace the common-law forms with more flexible ways of wording a civil complaint. The various trespass actions are still important, however, because modern property laws are largely based on them. The rights protected remain in force, and frequently even the old names are still used.