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Knowing Your Property Rights: Easements and Trespassing
We’ve talked about easements before, when a party has limited legal rights to land owned by someone else. Examples of common easements include an individual’s right to enter someone’s property in order to gain access to a public area like a beach, or a utility company’s right to dig up a yard in order to lay pipes or cables.
Drainage easements are another common type. It’s this type of easement that was at the center of a South Carolina Court of Appeals case, Ralph v. McLaughlin, 2019, which we’ll look at today. This case shows how important it is to fully understand the limits and the extent of your property rights when an easement is – or historically has been – involved.
Ralph v. McLaughlin: Facts and Background
The background to this case is long and quite complex, and for the full story, you can read the court’s decision here.
It starts in 1984, when E. M. Seabrook prepared and recorded a plat of a section of Seabrook Island that contained lots 21 through 28. The plat records a 20-foot-wide drainage easement and no-build area across the back of those lots, plus a drainage easement running along the property line between lots 21 and 22 from the front to the back.
Fast forward decades later, and Richard and Eugenia Ralph (the Ralphs) own lot 23 and Paul Dennis and Susan Rode McLaughlin (the McLaughlins) own lot 22. The McLaughlins purchased the lot from Carroll and Lorraine Gantz, who had previously approached the Seabrook Island Property Owners Association (SIPOA) about eliminating the 20-foot drainage easement and no-build area on the back of their lot. The SIPOA agreed, and in September 2002 a new plat was drawn up, documenting that the drainage easement and no-build area were both abandoned with respect to lot 22.
In 2006, the McLaughlins wanted to build a house that would partially be built on the area of the drainage easement and no-build area. The SIPOA’s architectural review board agreed, with a number of stipulations.
This was followed by a lot of back and forth between the McLaughlins who wanted to remove the drainage pipe and begin construction, their neighbors who didn’t want the pipe removed for fear of flooding and drainage issues, and the SIPOA who wasn’t able to get all parties to come to an agreement. In October 2008, the SIPOA sent a letter saying it was out of options and was rescinding the previous resolution to abandon the easement.
The McLaughlins still insisted there was no easement and went ahead with the removal of the drainage pipe and construction of their building in late 2008. In fall 2011, the Ralphs filed a complaint seeking actual and punitive damages, alleging the McLaughlins’ actions led to flooding and poor drainage in the Ralphs’ yard. They said the loss of the drainage pipe meant they had severe flooding issues and the value of their house was significantly lower because of it. They also filed a trespass claim.
In May 2016, the matter went to trial and the jury in the circuit court found in favor of the plaintiff (the Ralphs), ordering the defendant (the McLaughlins) to pay $1,000 in nominal damages. The case came to the SC Court of Appeals, where it was ultimately reversed and remanded.
Rights, Abandonment, and Dominant Tenement Versus Servient Tenement
With respect to easements, a dominant tenement (or dominant estate) is the party gaining the benefit of the easement, while the servient tenement (or servient estate) is the party bearing the burden and/or granting the benefit of the easement. It’s understandable that in some instances, the servient tenement may not want to bear that burden anymore and want to free themselves of the easement. That’s what the McLaughlins’ predecessors-in-title did when they approached the SIPOA about removing the easement from their lot.
As stated above, the SIPOA agreed. But it was wrong to do so. It was not the SIPOA’s place to unilaterally abandon the easement, since other parties had special property interest in it – namely, the owners of lots 21-28 that benefitted from the drainage easement. To abandon the easement legally, it would require the agreement of all parties with property interest in it. That agreement was never sought, let alone attained.
Because the Ralphs had ownership interest in the drainage pipe that was part of the drainage easement, and because the dominant tenement had the right to have the pipe on the servient tenement’s property, Mr. McLaughlin trespassed when he removed the drainage pipe. Though the drainage pipe was in his yard, his actions were considered trespassing because he did not wholly own it and by removing it, he destroyed the easement. This was the basis of the Ralphs’ claim of trespass.
Mr. McLaughlin admitted he told the contractors to remove the drainage pipe and construct the building over part of the no-build area, and he didn’t get the Ralphs’ permission to do so. In its decision, the court states, “the owner of a servient estate commits trespass by intentionally destroying an easement without the consent of the easement holder.”
This case still isn’t settled, as the Court of Appeals remanded it back to the circuit court. The McLaughlins maintain that they were not subject to the easement because it had been abandoned by the SIPOA before they purchased their property. Yet the SIPOA didn’t have the authority to abandon the easement the way it did. The circuit court will need to determine, among other things, whether the McLaughlins owe compensatory or punitive damages to the Ralphs.
You Need to Know What You’re Getting
Things like easements come up during a title search, which is one reason it’s so vital to have a thorough title search done before purchasing a piece of real estate. You should also know what’s in the deed to the land you’re purchasing, whether you read it yourself or rely on your attorney to tell you what it contains. Interestingly, in this case Mr. McLaughlin said his real estate agent insisted the easement had been abandoned, but the deed to the land did specify that it was subject to the easement. If the McLaughlins were so intent on buying property without an easement, that should have been a red flag.
If you’re planning on purchasing commercial land in South Carolina, talk to commercial real estate attorney Gem McDowell. Gem has been practicing in South Carolina since 1992 and has closed several multi-million-dollar transactions for a total of more than $1 billion in real estate deals. He and his associates at the McDowell Law Group in Mt. Pleasant, SC can help you understand your rights, limits, and opportunities with respect to your land purchase and offer strategic advice to help you grow your business. Call 843-284-1021 today to schedule a free consultation to discuss your commercial real estate deal with Gem.