October 4, 2017

An Easement Cannot Be Unilaterally Dissolved; VanElla v. VanHorne Properties, LLC

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

After obtaining a couple of great verdicts in cases dealing with easements, property law has become something near and dear to our firm’s heart. And this case teaches us something about Indiana property law.

In 1950, a piece of property was divided into 20 lots, with a lake on the front of the lots and a 25-foot roadway easement along the back side. Those lots were then sold to third parties.

In 1970, the owners of all but lots 1, 2, and 15-17 petitioned to vacate the lots and the easement. The owners of these lots who weren’t participating in the suit were not parties to the action. The petition alleged that it was not interfering with the rights of the non-parties, and that the non-party owners would still be able to enter their properties. The trial court granted the petition and vacated the easements for the parties to the lawsuit.

VanHorne purchased lots 16, 17, and parts of lot 18, and wanted to use the easement to access his property. The owner of most of the other lots, VanElla, restricted use of it. He had constructed a pole barn that extended 12 feet into the easement, used it to park equipment, dug speed bumps into the road, and put a fence within it. He also refused to allow the road to be maintained. VanHorne filed a complaint against all of the other lot owners.

VanHorne sued, arguing that the 1970 order vacating the easement was (1) void and (2) did not vacate the rights of the non-parties to that action. He moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted that motion, giving VanHorne the right to use and repair the roadway. VanElla appealed.

On appeal, VanElla argued that the 1970 judgment vacated the easement, so VanHorne could not claim any right to the easement. But the Court disagreed. It found that easements like the ones at issue could not be “unilaterally dissolved.”

Once the easement that benefited each of the lot owners was platted, individual lot owners could not destroy the easement by vacating the easement associated with their lots. The easement could not be vacated without the consent of all the lot owners or a proper legal action.

As the prior owners of VanHorne’s lots were not made parties to the 1970 action, there was no evidence that they had consented to that action, and there was no evidence that they were even put on notice of that action, that action did not affect VanHorne’s easement. Moreover, as the dominant estate owner.

VanHorne may make repairs, improvements, or alterations that are reasonably necessary to make the grant of the easement effectual. Further, the servient owner, VanElla, may not obstruct the easement or interfere with VanHorne’s use of the easement.

Thus, the trial court properly granted summary judgment to VanHorne.

Lesson:

If a property owner wishes to vacate a written easement, then the easement holder must consent to that vacation or be made a party to a suit seeking that vacation.