The Appellate Group

SRB Investment Co. v. Orson

SRB Investment Co. v. Orson, 2020 UT 23 (Durrant, C.J.)

Property: Prescriptive Easements

A neighbor used a road crossing the landowner’s property for over 20 years. A company purchased the neighbor’s land and continued using the road. The landowner objected. After a bench trial, the district court determined that the company acquired a prescriptive easement over the landowner’s property and the scope of the easement was limited to its historical usage. Many of the company’s uses of the property were outside the easement’s historical usage. The company appealed. The Utah Supreme Court reversed, holding:

  • The extent of the prescriptive easement is measured and limited by its historical use during the prescriptive period. But there is a difference between the easement’s type (or purpose) and the easement’s scope. A prescriptive easement’s type should be categorized broadly based on the general purpose for which the easement over the servient estate has been historically used. A prescriptive easement’s scope should be defined with particularity based on the nature, or extent, or that historical use. The limitations imposed by the type and the scope should be analyzed separately. 
  • When analyzing the scope of the easement, the ultimate aim of courts should be to preserve the utility of the prescriptive right without materially adding to the burden imposed on the servient estate. The focus in a court’s analysis should be on the burden historically imposed on the servient estate by the easement’s use. In conducting this analysis, courts should almost always consider the physical dimensions of the prescriptive use, the frequency and intensity of the use, and the effect of the use on the aesthetic and economic value of the property. Courts may consider the subjective purpose for using the easement, as well as the nature of the use of the dominant estate, but only to the extent those factors are helpful in determining the nature of the burden on the servient estate. Courts should take a flexible approach that permits changes of use so long as those changes do not materially burden the servient estate or materially interfere with the prescriptive right.
  • Here, the district court incorrectly limited the use of the easement to those people who would use it for the purposes that the neighbor originally used the easement. The Court remands the case for the district court to reexamine the scope of the easement.

Read the full court opinion