Chauvin v. Shell Oil Company et al is the pot full of legal unpleasantness that can be stirred up by landmen trying to buy easements, leases, and the like.

A number of plaintiffs – descendants of grantors of two parcels of land in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana – were contacted by pipeline companies seeking servitudes. Apparently believing that betting on litigation offered a better return than the trifecta at the Fairgrounds, the descendants sued Shell and several pipeline companies holding servitudes from Shell for trespass. In the end, the court denied the plaintiff’s claims; they couldn’t carry their burden to prove their ownership of the property.

The dispute arose out of the sale of the two tracts in 1971, Parcel A, 3.71 acres and Parcel B, 3.70 acres. The plaintiffs’ claimed that in the two Acts of Sale the southern boundaries were coterminous with the northern boundary of the right-of-way for Airline Highway. Shell claimed that the southern boundaries were southward of that and included the land in dispute.

The court couldn’t ascertain from the face of instruments where the parties intended the southern boundaries to be. So the court resorted to …

Extrinsic evidence

The court focused on the following testimony:

  • Shell’s surveyor surveyed the property and created a map depicting the southern boundaries of the two parcels to be such that the parcels were encumbered by the rights-of-way granted by Shell over which defendants’ pipelines extended. The southern boundaries were where Shell contended they were.
  • The plaintiffs’ surveyor expressed doubt about the accuracy of the original survey and suggested that perhaps the original surveyor did not actually perform an on-the-ground survey. He couldn’t reach a conclusion regarding the location of the southern boundaries of the parcels. His own survey supported Shell’s position.

The court also considered the parties’ actions after 1971:

  • Successions of two heirs, in 1984 and 1994, didn’t include the property in question but did include other real estate. If the sellers hadn’t intended to convey the property, one would expect they would have bequeathed it to their heirs.
  • A number of the plaintiffs testified that they were unaware of the property and had never set foot on it. One said she didn’t believe she owned any of the property.
  • Shell had undertaken numerous actions on the property since 1971, including granting servitudes, removing brush and vegetation at least twice a year, and maintaining posted signs.

The actions of the parties led the court to conclude that everybody thought Shell intended to buy Parcels A and B in 1971.

Another way:  Acquisitive prescription

Shell also established its title by acquisitive prescription of 30 years under the Louisiana Civil Code. The requirements are a thing susceptible of acquisition by prescription and continuous, uninterrupted, peaceable, public, and unequivocal corporeal possession.

In defense of the landmen

Yes, they solicited the wrong parties. But even three judges couldn’t discern what the instruments meant by reading them. Better to approach everybody who might have a claim than get it wrong and be the trespasser yourself.

A musical interlude from a Louisiana-born songstress.