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Morgan v. New Swed. Irrigation Dist.

Supreme Court of Idaho

March 13, 2014

BRADLEY K. MORGAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
NEW SWEDEN IRRIGATION DISTRICT, Defendant-Respondent

2014 Opinion No. 25

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Appeal from the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District, State of Idaho, Bonneville County. Hon. Dane H. Watkins, Jr., District Judge.

M. Brent Morgan, Chtd., Pocatello, for appellant. M. Brent Morgan argued.

Hall Angell Starnes, LLP, Idaho Falls, for respondent. Blake G. Hall argued.

BURDICK, Chief Justice. Justice EISMANN, J. JONES, HORTON and SCHROEDER, J, Pro tem, CONCUR.

OPINION

Page 984

[156 Idaho 251] BURDICK, Chief Justice

This case arose after New Sweden Irrigation District (" New Sweden" ) mowed the canal banks on Bradley Morgan's property. Morgan claimed New Sweden negligently damaged his property. New Sweden counterclaimed for a declaratory judgment as to its easement's existence and scope, and then moved for summary judgment. The Bonneville County district court granted partial summary judgment, holding that New Sweden's easement was sixteen feet wide and New Sweden was not liable for damaged items within its easement. The district court denied summary judgment as to Morgan's claim for damaged items outside the easement. At trial, the court held that Morgan failed to establish that New Sweden caused damage outside its easement. Morgan appeals the district court's grant of partial summary judgment and the court's trial judgment in favor of New Sweden. We remand to the district court for the court to enter a judgment that describes the precise location where the easement's sixteen-foot width measurement begins. We otherwise affirm the district court.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On June 25, 2009, New Sweden mowed the canal banks along Morgan's property in Bonneville County. New Sweden is an irrigation district in Bonneville County that supplies irrigation water through canals. Because New Sweden owns the canal, it also holds an easement along the canal's banks. New Sweden owns two commercial mowers that it has used since 1995 to maintain its 125 miles of canals. These mowers each use a tractor with a hydraulic arm mower that is raised and lowered electronically.

Morgan's property has several structures within sixteen feet of the canal bank. Morgan also has a tree that has grown eight feet from the canal for over thirty-five years. Several Russian Olive trees and wild roses grew along the canal banks. Before June 25, 2009, New Sweden had never asked Morgan to remove the structures or the plants. However, New Sweden and Morgan did once jointly remove Russian Olive trees. Morgan also has a well and a barn about twenty feet from the canal. Morgan installed these items without New Sweden's permission.

On June 25, 2009, Morgan left his property to go to work. That same morning Kail Sheppard, New Sweden's manager, told his employee, Kent Ockerman, to mow Morgan's property. Ockerman had mowed for New Sweden for about ten years and was trained on the mowers. Sheppard instructed his employees to remain within the easement when possible and to be " way more careful" when traveling outside the easement. Ockerman entered Morgan's property along the south side of Morgan's barn due to obstructions near the canal. Once on the property, Ockerman drove to the canal's edge and backed up behind Morgan's barn. While turning around, he saw a pile of pipes under the barn's stairway and intentionally avoided the pipes and stairway. Ockerman then left the easement to get around a tree, which he accomplished by turning off the mower blades and raising the mower. Ockerman stated that he knew he did not hit or damage any structure because the mower makes a noise and vibrates when it strikes a solid object.

While at work, Morgan was informed that New Sweden had mowed his property. Morgan met Ockerman and Sheppard on his property to discuss his concerns. That discussion became heated, and Sheppard called the Bonneville County Sherriff's Office. Morgan testified at trial that the next day he found damage to the stairway and discovered the well had lost water pressure. Morgan met with New Sweden's Board of Directors a month later, but never mentioned damage to the well or stairway. Morgan also submitted a Claim for Damage form to New Sweden

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[156 Idaho 252] that only stated that New Sweden had damaged landscaping and sprinklers.

Morgan filed a complaint on October 20, 2010, alleging New Sweden was negligent when it mowed his property. He sought to recover damages to plants, sprinklers, outbuildings, and a well. He never mentioned a stairway. New Sweden timely filed its answer. On July 12, 2011, New Sweden filed a counterclaim for (1) declaratory judgment that it held an easement; (2) declaratory judgment regarding the easement's scope; (3) removal of all physical encroachments on the easement; and (4) an injunction preventing Morgan from restricting New Sweden's access to the easement.

New Sweden then filed a summary judgment motion with supporting affidavits from Ockerman and Sheppard. New Sweden asked the district court to dismiss Morgan's complaint and grant New Sweden's counterclaim. Morgan opposed summary judgment with his affidavit and a neighbor's affidavit. These affidavits stated that New Sweden had never used its mower on Morgan's property before, Morgan had always maintained his property himself, and his neighbor had also maintained the canal banks. Morgan's photos also showed that while his lawn was neatly maintained, other property owners in the area did not maintain their canal banks. The district court partially granted New Sweden's summary judgment motion. Specifically, the court: (1) granted New Sweden's counterclaim for declaratory relief; (2) dismissed Morgan's claim for damage to items within the sixteen-foot easement; (3) denied dismissal of Morgan's claim for damage to items outside the easement; and (4) denied Morgan's motion to add a claim for declaratory relief. The district court also held that New Sweden's easement was sixteen feet wide, vegetation removal within the easement was reasonable, Morgan must remove structures that unreasonably encroached on the easement, and New Sweden was not liable for damaged items within the easement.

Morgan filed a motion to reconsider and a supporting affidavit. The district court denied this motion, holding that Morgan had not presented the court with any new law or argument. The court held that outbuildings, sprinklers, and a garden unreasonably interfered with New Sweden's ability to occupy the canal banks with its equipment.

Morgan's remaining claim on whether New Sweden negligently damaged his property outside the easement went to trial. Morgan claimed New Sweden damaged the barn's stairway, which he knew because the day before New Sweden mowed the stairway was undamaged, but the day after it was damaged. Morgan also claimed New Sweden damaged the well because it operated properly before New Sweden mowed and did not after the mowing. He testified that a well drilling service inspected the well and found a broken joint twenty-five feet below the surface. However, no witness testified that Ockerman hit the stairway or well, and no photo at trial showed damage to the stairway or well. The only evidence Morgan provided was testimony that the broken joint lacked rust, which suggested the break was recent.

The district court held that New Sweden was not liable because New Sweden did not breach its duty of care on Morgan's property outside of the easement, res ipsa loquitur did not apply, and if comparative negligence applied, Morgan was at least as negligent as New Sweden. The court then entered its final judgment. Morgan timely filed his amended notice of appeal.

II. ISSUES ON APPEAL

1. Whether the district court erred in granting summary judgment as to the scope of ...

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