Landowner negligent in discharge of stormwater over neighbor’s property

by Hannah Dankbar

A.D., L.L.C. v 2004 SC Partners L.L.C.
(Iowa Court of Appeals, November 26, 2014)

2004 SC Partners L.L.C. is the current owner of Morning Hills Apartments.  A.D., L.L.C. bought property adjoining Morning Hills Apartments in 2009 and the two parties have had many conflicts since then. Starting in 2009 A.D. began to receive notices from the city of Sioux City and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to solve a public nuisance relating to soil erosion and silting. The hillside between Partners and A.D. is highly erodible. A.D. filed an equity action in July 2011 petitioning to have Partners help solve this problem. A.D. sought money judgments for past damages and an order for Partners to abate the issue. Partners answered by saying this issue was already addressed in court and solved privately with A.D. saying they would solve the problem and that the damage was their fault. Partners filed a counter claim that A.D. had failed to comply with the settlement agreement and that they should stabilize the slope and to compensate Partners for the damage to their land from the prior suit.

In 2012 Partners filed a motion for summary motion, which A.D. resisted. A.D. said that the water damage is a result of Partners’ water drainage system that changed the natural flow of water and that they have failed to maintain the system. The district court cited the “general rule” that the dominant estate is entitled to drain surface water in a natural water course of the servient owner’s land, and if damage results the servient landowner is without remedy, unless there is a substantial increase in drainage that results in actual damage. Citing Oak Leaf Country Club v. Wilson, the court also observed, “A corollary of the rule is an overriding requirement that one must exercise ordinary care in the use of his property so as to not injure the rights of neighboring landowners.”

The court found the essential issue in this case to be whether Partners is discharging water in an unnatural manner, has changed the method of drainage in such a way that it has become liable for damages, or, stated another way, whether it is exercising ordinary care in the use of its property so as not to injure the rights of neighboring landowners.

It concluded there were questions of fact as to whether or not “Partners has violated a duty to use ordinary care in the maintenance of [its] property, and whether or not a private nuisance has been established.” The district court therefore denied the motion for summary judgment.

Both sides testified that they attempted to address the problem. A.D. built a retaining pond to accommodate the water and Partners asserted they would add piping, but were waiting for payment from the 2009 suit. A variety of engineers testified that the structure was not functioning to its’ maximum capacity. The court concluded A.D.’s petition had sufficient facts to plead an alternative claim of negligence. The court decided that Partners had a duty to be aware of dangerous property conditions (the degraded drainage system) and failed to fix the problem given a reasonable amount of time.

The trial court decided that A.D. suffered $92,800 in damages, but that it had purchased the property knowing there was a problem with the drainage system and had no plans to remedy the situation. The court decided that A.D. was 65%, and Partners 35%, at fault for the property damage. Under Iowa’s Comparative Fault Act Partners argued that A.D. therefore could not recover damages; however, the court found it could not conclude that something other than Partners’ failure to abate the drainage system was the only cause of damage to A.D.’s property. The court also ruled that the easement a dominant estate has on a servient estate cannot provide a defense to a negligence claim.

The court enjoined Partners from continuing to allow its drainage system to function without repair and order it to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that its drainage system is properly functioning at its own cost. The court ordered Partners to allow A.D.  access to Partners’ property, if required, to tie into a properly functioning drainage system, which will allow storm water to safely traverse A.D.’s property.

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