Public Land/Water Access Assoc., Inc. v. Jones

Public Land/Water Access Assoc., Inc. v. Jones, 2015 MT 299 (Oct. 15, 2015) (Cotter, J.; Rice, J., concurring & dissenting) (4-1, aff’d & rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred in awarding money damages as supplemental declaratory relief; (2) whether the district court erred in failing to consider ownership of the railroad car bridge or its suitability as a bridge in violation of PLWA IV; and on cross-appeal, (3) whether the district court erred by not awarding PLWA reasonable attorney fees and costs.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) no; and (3) yes.

Affirmed (1 & 2), reversed (3) and remanded for attorney fees

Facts: Roger Jones bought Boadle Ranch in 2000, a 4,900-acre ranch in Teton County. Since then, he has prohibited public use of the two main roads transecting the ranch, Boadle Road and Canal Road. PLWA has consistently sought to regain use of the roads; this is the parties’ fifth time before the Court. Although PLWA has been successful in the courts, Jones has not yet removed the gates barricading entrance to the property.

Boadle Road enters Boadle Ranch at the east boundary of the property and travels west where it historically crossed the Sun River Slope Canal via Boadle Bridge and intersected Canal Road, which runs northwest to Pishkun Reservoir and southeast through the property onto neighboring land. These roads have been used by the public since the early 1900s.

In earlier cases, this Court affirmed that the public has a prescriptive easement over Boadle Road, which includes the rebuilt Boadle Bridge (a flatbed rail car), and that Canal Road is a public road to which Jones may not block access.

In September 2011, Jones removed the railcar bridge, destroyed the abutments and support columns, and reinstalled the bridge about a quarter-miles away on a private road to which the public had no access. PLWA sued Jones for supplemental relief under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, and for tortious interference with a public easement and public nuisance. The district court held Jones owned the bridge and had no obligation to facilitate public access across Slope Canal. PLWA appealed, and this Court reversed. PLWA IV.

On remand, the district court held a three-day jury trial on the tort and nuisance claims. The jury found Jones liable for tortious interference with the easement and public nuisance. It awarded PLWA $375,000 in damages to restore Boadle Bridge at the original location, $25,000 in damages for loss of use of the bridge, and $10,000 in punitive damages, finding Jones acted with actual malice.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court issued findings of fact, conclusions of law and an order on PLWA’s request for supplementary declaratory relief. It adopted the jury’s verdict, with variations. It awarded $375,000 to PLWA as a restoration award but instructed PLWA to subtract its costs and fees from the award and use the remainder to restore the bridge. It allowed PLWA to give the restoration award to other entities for construction of a new bridge. Finally, it awarded PLWA $35,000 for loss of bridge use and punitives, directing this award to be used for future bridge repair and maintenance. Jones appeals, PLWA cross-appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms in part and reverses in part.

Reasoning: (1) The jury determined that Jones had tortiously interfered with the public’s easement over Boadle Bridge, and was liable for public nuisance. After hearing evidence from both sides’ experts, the jury awarded $375,000 to replace the Boadle Bridge. That figure is supported by the evidence and was a proper basis for the district court’s order of equitable supplemental relief.

(2) The district court had discretion to grant supplemental relief under the UDJA and Jones’s claims of improper jury instructions are unpersuasive. Moreover, the district court did consider Jones’s ownership of the railcar and its suitability as a bridge when it allowed the railcar to remain in its current location for exclusive use by Jones.

(3) The general rule in Montana is the American Rule, which says attorney fees will not be awarded. In isolated cases, a district court using its equity powers may award attorney fees to make an injured party whole. In Martin, the Court adopted a three-part test to determine whether the equitable exception applies. The district court did not apply this test. It is apparent, however, that the equities in this matter fully support an award of attorney fees to PLWA in addition to the damages award of $375,000. Given the long history of this case, Jones’ continuous efforts to thwart the public’s easement rights, and his persistent disregard for the multiple judicial decisions rendered in PLWA’s favor, equity fully supports an award of attorney fees. The district court is instructed to award reasonable attorney fees and costs incurred by PLWA in pursuing this case and this appeal.

Justice Rice’s Concurrence and Dissent: Justice Rice concurs on (1) and (2) and dissents on (3), the cross-appeal. The majority holds, without expressly stating, that the district court abused its discretion by including attorney fees within the $375,000 restoration award. Justice Rice does not believe the district court abused its discretion and would affirm.

Jones argues he was given no notice that the jury was acting in an advisory capacity. He cited federal law for the rule that it is reversible error for the trial court to determine a jury verdict will be advisory after submitting the case to the jury. Justice Rice would nonetheless conclude the error is harmless. The majority’s reversal of the cross-appeal results in greater damages than those awarded by the jury, which prejudices Jones for the failure to advise him of the advisory nature of the jury.