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Scope of Easement - Exclusion of Expert Testimony - Attorney Fee Award

Toomey v. Riverside RV Resort, LLC, [Ms. 1180521, Dec. 4, 2020], ___ So. 3d ___ (Ala. 2020). The Court (Mitchell, J.; Parker, C.J., and Wise, Bryan, and Stewart, JJ., concur; Bolin, Shaw, Sellers, and Mendheim, JJ., concur in the result) affirms the Baldwin Circuit Court’s bench verdict awarding Riverside RV Park compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction against Toomey, a neighboring land owner. The Court reverses the circuit court’s award of $50,000 in attorney’s fees to Riverside.

With knowledge that it would cause Riverside’s property to flood and damage the road, Toomey blocked a culvert installed by Riverside in an easement to channel water away from the only road providing access to Toomey’s and Riverside’s property. Ms. **4-5. In affirming the judgment, the Court explains

the easement for Riverside’s benefit does not preclude the construction, maintenance, or improvement of a culvert because the culvert is reasonably necessary for the purpose of the easement. The easement from Toomey to Riverside is for “ingress and egress.” Riverside presented evidence indicating that the culvert is reasonably necessary for that use of the easement. And, in its order, the trial court found that the construction of the head wall and other remedial efforts by Riverside around the culvert “were necessary to protect and preserve the culvert and Water Rapids Road.”

Ms. **14-15.

Toomey also argued on appeal that the circuit court erred in refusing to allow his expert land surveyor “to provide expert-witness testimony about the cause of erosion on the properties based on his personal observations and interpretation of topography, contours, and water accumulation.” Ms. *15. The Court rejects this argument, and explains “‘the trial court has broad discretion over whether to consider a witness qualified as an expert and to consider that witness’s expert testimony,’ and this Court will not disturb those findings unless the trial court exceeds its discretion. Vesta Fire Ins. Corp. v. Milan & Co. Constr., Inc., 901 So. 2d 84,106 (Ala. 2004).” Ms. *16. The Court finds the circuit court did not exceed its discretion because “Alabama law recognizes that the work and expertise of an engineer is different from that of a land surveyor.” Ibid.

While recognizing authority of a trial court to award attorney fees to the prevailing party “where fraud, willful negligence or malice has been practiced,” Ms. *17, the Court reverses the attorney fee award because

Although an attorney-fee award is within the sound discretion of the trial court, this Court cannot provide meaningful appellate review without the trial court providing a reasoned order of its award. … We hold, therefore, that the trial court exceeded its discretion in awarding Riverside$50,000 in attorney fees without explaining the basis for its award, and we reverse the judgment to the extent it awarded attorney fees and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Ms. *19.

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