According to Enterprise Te Products Pipeline Company v. Avila, it is the value of the expropriated property, even if it is as little as 33 cents each to the landowners. This seemingly small case must have had big potential for chaos. Otherwise, why appeal?
Enterprise sought expropriation of a 30-foot wide servitude over the Avilas’ property. The trial court granted a 99-year servitude and found the total value to be $1,060, but awarded each of the 12 landowners who appeared between $150 and $300, despite their collective ownership of slightly more than 1 percent. Each of the many absentee owners was awarded $150. Enterprise appealed, arguing that imposition of a term was erroneous and that the compensation award was contrary to the facts in the record.
Under Louisiana law, a legal servitude can be extinguished only by certain events, such as destruction of the dominant or servient estate, if things necessary for its use have undergone such a change that the servitude can no longer be used, or if it is not used for 10 years or longer. The trial court erred in fixing a term for a legal servitude.
What about those damages?
An award of damages caused by the expropriation should be based upon the value of the property before the contemplated improvement was proposed, without deducting benefits to the owner from the improvement. He must be compensated to the full extent of his loss. La. R. S. 19:9. Enterprise’s expert determined that, based on the highest and best use of this rural property, the value of the 160-acre tract was $1,200 per acre. The servitude covers less than one acre, making the total value of the expropriated property $1,060.
What motivated the trial court?
The trial court was “impressed by the impact that taking such as this would have upon the ancestors of an African-American landowner who acquired the property at a time when ownership by a person of color was rare .” The court of appeal believed that sentiment was “implicit” in the ruling.
The main argument of the landowners (who weren’t represented by counsel) was the fundamental unfairness of the expropriation process – a viewpoint no doubt shared by every expropriation defendant since the beginning of time. The court of appeal also appeared to sympathize. It its words, it was “forced to conclude that the award to the Appellees is manifestly erroneous” and amended the judgment. The result was that each appellee-landowner received between 33 cents and $5.23.
- When is a trial court’s duty to do what she believes is right, rather than rule in strict (or no) conformance with the rule of law?
- What motivated the trial court? Sympathy, … a sense of justice and fairness, or … what?
- What if there were no appellate court – no cavalry galloping over the hill to save the troops?
- Why appeal? To communicate a message to future hold-outs?
A musical interlude for the long-suffering landowners.