This is the next post in a series of articles about understanding real property easements in Tacoma or Olympia, Washington. The previous post addressed common reasons easements are disputed or challenged. It also stressed the importance of retaining knowledgeable real estate counsel to assist you through the process. If the parties are unable to agree on a resolution to the easement dispute, the case may proceed to litigation. This post will explain what one may expect at a trial for an easement dispute. If you need assistance, contact my office today to speak with a lawyer.
Litigating an easement dispute can be particularly challenging. An express easement may not have been drafted in a clear way, causing the parties to disagree about it. A party claiming an implied easement may assert more than one legal theory to support their claim of easement. A party may challenge the very existence of an easement through legal action, including an action for quiet title or declaratory judgment. Easement disputes often involve requests for special court orders by both parties, where each seeks an injunction against the other party based on their understanding of the limitation or reality of the easement. Depending on the type of litigation and relief sought, a party may have the right to a trial by jury or the dispute may be resolved by a judge in a bench trial. For example, equitable relief, such as an injunction preventing a party from accessing a property, is typically handled by a judge. On the other hand, a complaint for trespass or nuisance may be heard by a jury. In all cases, the initiating party will be the plaintiff and the adverse party will be the defendant. Mediation is usually required before trial, and easement disputes can often be resolved by settlement. However, if the case goes to trial, expert testimony (such as surveyor testimony) and witness testimony (such as from “old timers” with knowledge of the history of the property, often spanning decades) will be essential. The plaintiff will present their arguments and evidence to the court and the defendants will have a chance to respond with their own evidence. Following this process, the judge or jury will deliberate and render a verdict.
As in other types of litigation, facts presented during the case are required to comply with the rules of evidence, which are strictly enforced. Easement litigation can pose unique evidentiary problems for the parties. For instance, disputes over implied easements may require a review of historical facts, such as the intent of the parties or proof of past usage. It is not uncommon for the facts surrounding an easement to date back many years. Witnesses may be previous landowners whose location may be unknown or who may now be deceased. Historical documentation, such as maps, surveys, deeds or contracts may be difficult to locate, interpret, or authenticate. An experienced real property attorney will identify which types of evidence will be admissible in court and will present the evidence clearly to a judge or jury on your behalf.
In light of the potential complexities involved with easement litigation, it is essential to retain a lawyer with experience in real property disputes. My firm has experience in commercial and residential real estate matters, including litigation. If you need assistance, contact me today to speak with an Olympia property attorney. The firm also services the Thurston County cities of Lacey, Tumwater, and Yelm, the Pierce County cities of Tacoma, Puyallup, and Lakewood, the Lewis County cities of Centralia, and Chehalis, the King County cities of Seattle, Auburn, Bellevue, Burien, and Federal Way, as well as other areas in Washington, including Grays Harbor, Mason, Cowlitz, and Pacific Counties.