In this week's Alabama Law Weekly Update, we present for your consideration two decisions from Alabama courts. In the first, the Supreme Court of Alabama reviewed an appeal brought by landowners who claimed that blasting operations conducted by the defendants damaged their house. In the second, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals considered whether the neighbors of a landowner had acquired portions of the landowner's real property by adverse possession.
Roland Crouch and Sandra Crouch v. North Alabama Sand & Gravel, LLC, and Austin Powder Company, No. 1131086 (Ala. Mar. 27. 2015) (holding that disputes of material fact warranted submission to jury on a landowners' claims – brought against parties engaged in a blasting operation – for wantonness, nuisance, and damages caused by the conduct of an abnormally dangerous activity)
Roland and Sandra Crouch (the “Crouches”) lived in a house located less than a mile from a quarry owned by Alliance Sand & Gravel, LLC (f/k/a North Alabama Sand & Gravel, “Alliance”). In order to loosen the sand and gravel at its quarry, Alliance hired Austin Powder Company (together, with Alliance, the “Defendants”) to perform blasting. Alliance indicated blasting at its quarry occurred at the rate of approximately one blast per month. According to the Crouches, the blasting caused strong vibrations/tremors in the ground that caused extensive damage to their home and possessions. Following repeated contact with the Defendants about the problem, the Crouches filed a civil action against the Defendants alleging, among other things, that the Defendants conducted the blasting in a negligent and wanton manner, created a nuisance, and engaged in an abnormally dangerous activity for which they were strictly liable for the damages to their house. The trial court granted the Defendants' motion for summary judgment; the Crouches appealed. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Alabama reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment, finding that disputed of material fact called for submission to a jury on the Crouches claims.
As to the Crouches' claim for damages caused by the conduct of an abnormally dangerous activity, the Court held that expert testimony was not required in order to establish that the blasting operation was “abnormally dangerous” for purposes of strict liability. The Court noted that Alabama followed the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which imposes strict liability on abnormally dangerous activities that result in damage to the property of another. The Court concluded that legal precedence in Alabama established that a plaintiff is not always required to offer expert testimony, noting that whether a party is carrying on an abnormally dangerous activity is an issue of fact for the jury.
The Court further reversed the lower court's grant of summary judgment on the Crouches' claims for wantonness and nuisance. Essentially, “wantonness” is defined as conduct which is carried on with a reckless or conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others; a crucial element of wantonness is the knowledge of the defendant. Noting the evidence showing that representatives of Alliance were aware of a potential problem and ignored repeated complaints from the Crouches, the Court concluded that the Crouches' wantonness claim warranted submission to a jury. As to the Crouches' claim for nuisance, the Court noted that even a legal activity conducted in accordance with laws and regulations can create an actionable nuisance should it rise to a sufficient level of interference with a use and enjoyment of property. The Court concluded that the Crouches presented sufficient evidence to submit this question to a jury.
Douglas Dickinson and Barbara Dickinson v. James H. Suggs et al., No. 2130899 (Ala. Civ. App. Mar. 27, 2015) (holding that a party took title to a parcel through adverse possession by prescription but failed to present evidence establishing a landlord-tenant relationship in order to benefit from an alleged tenant's use of another parcel)
James and Ruth Suggs (the “Suggses”) were neighboring property owners of Douglas and Barbara Dickinson (the “Dickinsons”). The Suggses claimed that they had acquired two parcels of land by adverse possession, despite the Dickinsons holding legal title to those parcels. The parcels at issue comprised approximately 1.2 acres of 8.6 acres to which the Dickinsons' held legal title.
As noted by the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, under Alabama law, there are two principle types of adverse possession (statutory adverse possession and adverse possession by prescription), in addition to a hybrid type that applies in cases of boundary line disputes. (Finding the size of the parcels substantial in relation to the whole (1.2 acres of the 8.6 acres), the court concluded this was not a case of a mere boundary dispute.) Adverse possession by prescription requires actual, exclusive, open, notorious and hostile possession under a claim of right for a period of 20 years. Statutory adverse possession requires the same elements but further provides that if the adverse possessor holds under color of title, has paid taxes for 10 years or derives title by descent cast or devise, then title may be acquired in only 10 years. While the Suggses did not meet the requirements for statutory adverse possession on either parcel, as to one of the parcels the court found undisputed evidence that members of the Suggses family erected a barn and shed, stored possessions, erected a border fence, among other activities, as far back as 1946. The court held that the Suggses acquired such parcel by adverse possession.
As to the other parcel, however, the court reversed the trial court, concluding that it inappropriately credited the Suggses with the time period during which a third party used the parcel to sell peanuts. While the Suggses noted that this person did so only by seeking and obtaining their permission to do so, the court held that in order for the Suggses to benefit from the third party's use of the land they must establish a landlord-tenant relationship. Since the Suggses presented no evidence that they had leased or otherwise charged rent for the peanut seller's use of the land, they were not entitled to benefit from his period of use. As such, the Suggses had not met the 20 year requirement for adverse possession as to that parcel.