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Harrison v. SPAH Family Ltd.

Harrison v. SPAH Family Ltd., 2020 UT 22 (Durrant, C.J.)

Property: Prescriptive Easements

A neighbor and a landowner disputed whether the neighbor had established a prescriptive easement over the landowner’s property. On summary judgment, the district court determined that the neighbors had established a prescriptive easement, but the case went to a jury trial on the scope of that easement. After the jury trial, the landowners appealed. The Utah Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, holding:

  • The district court did not err when it determined that the neighbor’s prescriptive use was continuous for 20 years. Although the landowner informed the neighbor that he did not acquiesce to the neighbor’s use of the easement a few months before the 20-year period had run, a landowner’s lack of acquiescence in a prescriptive use does not interrupt the running of a prescriptive period. Rather, in analyzing whether the use of a prescriptive easement is continuous, the focus is on the prescriptive user—whether the prescriptive user halts his actual use of the easement or alters her mental state. It is the prescriptive user’s submission to the landowner that interrupts the prescriptive period—not the landowner’s grant of permission. Because the landowner presented no evidence that the neighbor submitted to the landowner’s ownership of the easement or that the neighbor stopped using the easement, the district court did not err in concluding that the use of the easement had not been interrupted.
  • The district court did not err when it concluded that the neighbor’s use was adverse rather than permissive. The easement was initially created without the landowner’s predecessor’s knowledge or permission. And even the predecessor later gave her permission, there is no evidence that the neighbor accepted that permission.
  • The jury instruction on the scope of the easement was erroneous. The instruction treated the nature and extent of the 20-year historical use as a factor in determining the scope of the easement rather than the ultimate issue to be decided. Rather than requiring the jury to determine what was reasonably necessary for the neighbor to continue his historically established use, the instruction required the jury to determine what was reasonably necessary for the neighbor to access his property, with historical use being just one factor. The Court remanded for a new trial on this issue.
  • The district court properly allowed the neighbor’s expert to testify. The expert testified about the physical dimensions of the road in 2016, which provided information to the jury about the upper limits of the permissible scope of the easement.
  • The district court properly excluded the landowner’s rebuttal expert. The expert was going to provide testimony about the dimensions of the prescriptive easement, rather than the dimensions of the road, it was reasonable for the district court to conclude that the expert might usurp the court’s role in instructing the jury regarding the legal requirements of prescriptive easements.

Read the full court opinion

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