Where the State had an easement on plaintiff’s property for the construction and maintenance of a drainage facility, but plaintiff had no evidence that the faulty concrete structure causing flooding on his property was installed by the State, summary judgment on his nuisance claim was affirmed.
In Walker v. State, No. M2020-01626-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 244108 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2022), plaintiff purchased a piece of property in a distress sale and did not perform an inspection before the purchase. The previous owners of the property had granted the State a permanent easement “for construction and maintenance of a drainage facility.” Shortly after the purchase, plaintiff began having flooding issues, which he attributed to a concrete structure located within the easement that was broken and/or defective. Plaintiff initially sued the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (Metro) for damage to his property, which ended in summary judgment for Metro based on sovereign immunity. After that decision was affirmed on appeal, plaintiff filed this nuisance claim against the State.
The State moved for summary judgment, asserting that plaintiff “failed to offer any evidence that the State installed the drainage structure and that the State is not responsible for maintaining materials it did not place on the easement.” In support of its motion, the State pointed to deposition testimony that the structure in question was “funky,” was not something the State would have used at any point, and was available to consumers. Based on the evidence presented, the trial court granted summary judgment to the State, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
While it was uncontroverted that the State had a permanent easement on the property, the issue was the extent of “the State’s obligation with respect to its easement and the drainage facility there.” Citing previous caselaw, the Court reasoned that “a holder of an easement is responsible for proper maintenance of what it puts on the easement to facilitate its use of the easement, but there is no duty to remove from such land any nuisance placed thereon by other and previous owners.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). The Court agreed with the trial court that the State had no responsibility for the concrete structure that it did not place on the easement, explaining:
[T]here is no evidence to suggest that the State constructed or installed the concrete drainage structure at the center of Claimant’s allegations. …Claimant presupposes that the rectangular concrete structure on his property was installed by the State; however, according to [the State witness], the concrete structure Claimant alleges is the source of the flooding is “a little funky”; not recognizable as “anything TDOT has”; “not a standard structure”; and could be purchased by “a consumer.” Importantly, [the State witness] explained that the State typically employs an “open channel design” or “ditch” for its drainage facilities… Given that Claimant has not come forward with any evidence that the State constructed or installed the drainage structures he references in his complaint, we hold…that the State had no duty to remove or maintain the drainage materials placed on Claimant’s property by other and previous users.
(internal citation omitted). Summary judgment was thus affirmed.
This pro se case illustrates that simply showing that a defendant has an easement will not be enough to prove a nuisance case based on a structure within that easement. If the structure in question was not put onto the easement by the defendant, the defendant will likely have no duty related to that structure.
This opinion was released 1.5 months after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 82, Section 1 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law contains summaries of leading cases on over 500 topics and citations to more than 1500 additional cases. The 500,000+ word book (and two others, Tennessee Law of Civil Trial and Compendium of Tennessee Tort Reform Cases) is available by subscription at www.birddoglaw.com and is continually updated as new decisions and statutes impact Tennessee law. Click on the link to see the book’s Table of Contents.
BirdDog Law also provides Tennessee lawyers with free access to user-friendly versions of the Tennessee rules of evidence and procedure.