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Issue  125  Article  212
Published:  12/1/2005

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Easement Case Advances on Procedure Decision
Chris Burti, Vice President and Legal Counsel

Falkson v. Clayton Land Corporation, COA04-1596 filed November 15, 2005 in the North Carolina Court of Appeals, is a case involving easements though the appeal properly is about the sufficiency of the complaint to withstand a motion under rule 12(b)(6) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.

The facts in the case were undisputed. Plaintiffs and defendants, are the owners, or representatives of the owners, of parcels of property, which originally comprised a single piece of property. The properties owned by the individual plaintiffs and those of the owners represented by the plaintiff Homeowner's Association originally had been transferred as a single parcel from a common predecessor in title with the defendants. That parcel had been subdivided into two subdivisions. The original deed to the property, now comprising the two subdivisions, included an easement for ingress and egress called Airport Road. The Homeowner's Association was formed to maintain Airport Road as well as other roads and common areas within the two subdivisions.

The defendants' farmland properties, collectively, constitute the servient estate underlying the easement. Airport Road, is a dirt road constructed by the common grantors prior to any land sales. The road was constructed by digging abutting canals and piling the spoil consisting of wood and dirt. The road develops holes when the underlying wood rots away. Filling them with dirt normally repairs these holes. After the original transfer of the property constituting the dominant estate to plaintiffs' grantor, the entire length of the road surface was improved by placing rock on top of the dirt.

The Homeowner's Association maintained the road by placing rock in holes that developed and sought compensation from defendants for that portion of the cost that it considered reasonable for the portion of the road owned and used by defendants. Defendants contended that their use was reasonable, was within the uses provided for by the easement and that they had no duty to maintain the easement. Plaintiffs contended that defendants' use of the easement caused substantial damage depriving them of their reasonable use of the easement and requiring compensation.

After hearing the testimony and arguments of counsel, the trial court denied plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment and granted defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.

 The Court of Appeals noted that the “standard of review of an order granting a 12(b)(6) motion is whether the complaint states a claim for which relief can be granted under some legal theory when the complaint is liberally construed and all the allegations included therein are taken as true. Country Club of Johnston County, Inc. v. U.S. Fidelity & Guar. Co., 150 N.C. App. 231, 238, 563 S.E.2d 269, 274 (2002).”

The plaintiff did not dispute that that the general rule in North Carolina is that in the absence of an agreement, the owner of a servient estate has no duty to maintain or repair an easement for the benefit of the dominant tenant. Both parties also agreed that the owner of a servient estate might make reasonable use of the property subject to the easement. However, the servient owner may not make use of the property so as to interfere with the dominant tenant's reasonable use of the easement for the purpose for which it was granted.

The Court cited Webster's Real Estate Law in North Carolina, with respect to this rule:

“Any activity by the fee owner which would result in increased cost or inconvenience to the easement holder in exercise of his rights or which would create a safety hazard should those rights be exercised amounts to a material impairment of the easement interest.” Patrick K. Hetrick & James B. McLaughlin, Jr., Webster's Real Estate Law in North Carolina 15-23 (5th ed. 1999) (quoting United States v. Sea Gate, Inc., 397 F. Supp. 1351, 1358 (D.N.C. 1975)).

The Court of Appeals noted that the complaint alleged that defendants caused substantial damage to the roadway in the easement and that it substantially deprived them of the reasonable use of the easement. Plaintiffs sought damages for the damage allegedly done to the easement by defendants' use and plaintiffs' loss of use resulting from such damage. The Court noted that such “relief is available in North Carolina in situations where a servient tenant impermissibly interferes with a dominant tenant's use of an easement. See Williams v. Skinner, 93 N.C. App. 665, 673, 379 S.E.2d 59, 64-65, cert. denied, 325 N.C. 277, 384 S.E.2d 532 (1989) (“It is a correct proposition that the holder of an easement may seek monetary damages for wrongful interference with his use of the easement.”).” The Court then reversed the trial court's order granting the defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

The allegations relevant to this appeal are that defendants had caused substantial damage to the roadway over which plaintiffs had an easement and that such damage substantially deprived plaintiffs of the reasonable use of that easement. This question should go to the jury to determine whether the damage to the road was caused by the method of construction or by unreasonable use by the defendant’s. As these issues are not addressed in this appeal, nothing should be read into the case concerning what constitutes unreasonable use by the defendant’s giving rise to relief. It should be noted that the Williams court acknowledged the right to recover damages for interference but refused to allow them for merely claiming that the right did not exist without a physical obstruction. The question unanswered by this line of cases is whether ordinary wear and tear is a maintenance issue for which the dominant tenant may not recover. The implication of the language of these opinions is that would be the case.

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