A property dispute can create some of the most interesting legal cases. One case might involve a neighbor beating up Congressman Rand Paul for stacking brush on his property. Another might involve the ability to own a home by simply moving into it. No matter what, there’s no shortage of captivating property cases out there.
Those unique property cases are interesting. But it’s the other property cases that tend to illustrate the importance of understanding your state’s property laws. The North Carolina Court of Appeals addressed one of those more common cases in a published opinion from Sept. 1, and it shows how crucial that understanding can be.
That case involved an “appeal from an order granting Plaintiffs’ motion for judgment on the pleadings in their action to quiet title and for declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs have an appurtenant easement over Defendants’ property.” Huh?
An “action to quiet title and for declaratory judgment” over an “appurtenant ingress/egress easement” just means a property dispute between neighbors over a driveway.
While the case involved multiple decades of property sales, its circumstances were relatively straightforward. One family—the plaintiffs’—purchased property and used an “ingress/egress easement” (i.e., a driveway) that was owned by another family—the defendants—to access their own driveway in Wake County. After doing so for several years, though, the defendants parked a vehicle on the driveway and blocked the plaintiffs’ access to their property.
North Carolina law defines an easement as a right to make use of land owned by another. People can create easements in several ways, but the simplest is by expressly granting one in a written contract. Yet easements don’t need to be in writing, which leads to the other ways: by “implication.”
Under North Carolina law, easements need not be in writing and can be implied by the circumstances.
Under North Carolina law, people can create easements by implication in several ways. First, they can do so “by prior use,” meaning that they continually used the land over time. They can also do so “by necessity” (where their circumstances require it).
They could also do so “by prescription.” That requires that their use of the property be adverse or hostile to that of the actual owner. Finally, they could do so “by cartway proceeding.” That circumstance involves some sort of business venture, such as one involving timber, mining, industrial or manufacturing work, or cemeteries.
So was the contested driveway in this case a legally-enforceable easement? According to the Court of Appeals, it was. In reaching that conclusion, the Court of Appeals emphasized that, dating back for decades, “[t]he recorded deeds and plats create a sufficiently identifiable appurtenant ingress/egress easement….” Because the deeds reflected the easement, it was enforceable.
The Court of Appeals’ decision reminds property owners that simply owning the property isn’t enough to keep others off it—a lesson you don’t want to learn the hard way.
This leads to important questions for property owners across North Carolina. Does your neighbor drive across your property? Do you know whether the deed to your property discusses an easement? If you tell your neighbor to stop driving across your property, will they? If you don’t ask these hypothetical questions, you might find yourself in a situation just like the defendants did here.
For North Carolinians, the Court of Appeals’ decision doesn’t mean much by itself. There was an easement, and the courts enforced it. For property owners, though, the decision serves as a reminder. Simply owning property isn’t enough to keep others from using it. With North Carolina law permitting easements by implication, not just express easements, you might not be able to stop your neighbors from driving across your property once they start. That’s the tough lesson the defendants learned the hard way in this case.