A recent decision out of the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals addresses the requirements to prove an easement by estoppel and offers some good reminders for Texas landowners when dealing with access easements.
This case involves a dispute over a road between two pieces of property, one owned by the Cores family and another by LaBorde Properties. The road had been in place even before the Cores and LaBordes owned the land and was created to allow landlocked landowners with property south of the Cores’ land to access their parcels. Testimony showed that prior to the current owners buying the land, the prior owners all used the roadway to access their various properties.
When the current owners purchased their respective properties, an issue arose. The Cores family filed suit to prevent the LaBorde owners from using the easement road to access their property. Cores argued that because the LaBorde property is not landlocked and their property can be accessed from other roads, the LaBorde land was not included as part of the properties for which the easement road was created. The LaBorde owners, in response, argued that the prior landowners had continually had access to the easement road and that due to this access, an easement by estoppel existed.
Easement by Estoppel
Easement by estoppel essentially provides that the owner of a servient estate may be estopped to deny the existence of an easement if certain representations are made and have been acted upon by the other of the dominant estate. In other words, if a landowner upon whose property an easement exists in favor of another makes certain representations regarding the existence of the easement and the person for whose benefit the easement exists acts in reliance of those statements, the landowner may not deny the easement exists.
In order to prove easement by estoppel, the plaintiff must show: (1) representation communicated by word or action; (2) communication was believed; and (3) communication was relied upon.
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. [Read full opinion here.]
Representation communicated by word or action
Testimony at trial showed that numerous prior owners had used the easement road at issue to access the properties adjacent to the road. The prior owners of the Cores property had never restricted use of the easement to certain landowners, and the prior owners of the LaBorde property had used the easement road without issue. Further testimony of the prior owner of the LaBorde property testified that he was told he could use the easement road and that he had done so for years to access his property. Based on this testimony, the court held that when the tracts were first divided in 1979, both owners understood that the owner of the LaBorde property would be allowed to use the easement road. From 1979-2004, the owners of both properties the easement road was regularly used to access the LaBorde property with no objection from the owners of the Cores property. Because the owners of the Cores property did not challenge the use of the road by the owners of the Cores property for 30 years, this constituted a representation by conduct that the owners of the LaBorde property could use the easement.
Communication was believed
Again, testimony of a former owner of the LaBorde property was solicited at trial. The former owner testified that when he purchased the LaBorde property, he talked to the then-owners of the Cores property and was told that he was entitled to use the easement road. He rebuilt the cattle pens next to the road and used the easement road to move in supplies without any objection from the surrounding landowners. Likewise, when the LaBordes purchased the property, they believed that they had the right to use the easement, as had the prior owners. The second element was satisfied.
Communication was relied upon
Lastly, the LaBordes had to show they (or their successors in interest) relied upon the representation. Again, the actions of the prior owners allowed this proof. The prior owner of the LaBorde property testified that he used the road to access the property and he moved all of the materials for building pens in on the easement road. Further, the prior owner had allowed gravel from the LaBorde property to be used to fix potholes in the easement road, in reliance on the belief that he could use the road himself. Further, at the time Cores bought his property, he knew that the LaBorde owners used the easement road. Thus, the court found that the LaBordes purchased the property in reliance on being able to use the easement road. The court held that both the prior owner and the LaBorde owners had made decisions to purchase, use, and improve the property, based upon the existence of the easement road.
Based on this, the court upheld the trial court verdict finding an easement by estoppel exists and that LaBorde has the right to use the easement road.
This case illustrates that, although rare, easements by estoppel can be proven under Texas law. It is also offers a couple of important reminders for landowners. First, landowners or persons looking to purchase property should identify any existing easements on the land and investigate prior and current uses to know who may claim continued use of roads or other existing easements. Second, easement-users and landowners should both seek to put any easement agreements into writing and record them in the deed records. Had the original owners of the tracts in this case done so, a lawsuit would likely have been avoided. Putting easement agreements into writing ensures that both parties–and any successors in interest who come thereafter–are on the same page about who will be allowed to use the easement in the future. People die or sell land, memories fade, and without something in writing and recorded at the courthouse, this is exactly the type of legal dispute that can arise.