(Plaintiffs Claiming) Trespass Beware

by Liskow & Lewis

In Chauvin v. Shell Oil Company, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of the trial court granting summary judgment to defendants on Plaintiffs’ trespass action.  In doing so, the Fifth Circuit made clear that to succeed on a trespass claim when the contracts at issue are ambiguous, parole evidence from the plaintiffs’ experts and the plaintiffs themselves should be consistent with ownership.

Plaintiffs filed suit for trespass against defendants after learning of their possible ownership of property over which numerous pipelines ran. Motions for summary judgment were filed by a number of defendants named in the action, arguing that plaintiffs could not succeed on an essential element of their claim – proof of ownership.  At issue were two sale contracts from plaintiffs’ alleged ancestors in title to Shell Oil Company (“Shell”) dated 1971, in which two tracts of land were transferred to Shell.  Based on these 1971 sales, Shell had granted a number of servitudes to other entities over the years.  Plaintiffs claimed that the existence of pipelines on the property at issue pursuant to servitudes granted by Shell constituted a trespass and sought damages. While Plaintiffs did not dispute the fact that some property was sold to Shell in 1971, they did dispute exactly what property was included in those 1971 sales, claiming that the property over which the pipelines ran was not included.

The court disagreed with the Plaintiffs, and granted defendants’ motions for summary judgment, finding that there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding Shell’s ownership of the disputed property.  On de novo review, the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  Its opinion boiled down to interpretation of the 1971 sales, noting that essentially the case was a boundary dispute.  Because the acts of sale themselves were ambiguous, the appellate court looked to parole evidence, such as the testimony of the parties’ respective surveyors, and evidence of the parties’ actions after 1971 to help determine the intent of the parties to the 1971 sales.  First, the court noted that even the Plaintiffs’ own surveyor testified he could not determine the extent of the southern boundary of the property at issue in the 1971 sales, but despite this testimony, he still created a survey map that reached the same conclusion as Shell’s surveyor –the 1971 sales included the property over which defendants’ pipelines now extended.  Second, the court noted that, although there were succession proceedings for the Plaintiffs’ alleged ancestors-in-title, none of the successions included the disputed property, suggesting that Plaintiffs’ ancestors-in-title believed they had sold the property in question and did not need to bequeath it to their heirs.  Finally, the court made much of the fact that numerous plaintiffs testified that either they had never set foot on the property at issue, or that they were unaware of the property until just prior to suit.  Furthermore, the husband of one of the Plaintiffs testified that his wife did not believe she owned an interest.  The court contrasted the above “non-action” by Plaintiffs and their ancestors-in-title with Shell’s action since 1971, which included the granting of a number of servitudes and maintenance of a pipeline and posting of signage.  The Fifth Circuit thus ultimately concluded there were no genuine issues of fact as to what the parties intended in the 1971 sales, i.e. that Shell had satisfactorily demonstrated ownership.

The court also noted that, even if the 1971 sales had not transferred the disputed property to Shell, Shell had also established ownership via acquisitive prescription, as it had possessed the property peaceably and continuously for thirty years, as evidenced by its granting of servitudes, posting of signage, and maintenance.  The Fifth Circuit therefore affirmed the judgment of the district court.

A copy of the Fifth Circuit’s decision can be found here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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