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Understanding Easements and their Enforcement in California and their Complexities

In California, easements are an essential aspect of property law and often arise when a landowner sells a portion of their land, retaining an easement for access to the remaining parcel. Disputes can occur when the owner of the land on which the easement is located attempts to prevent the easement holder from using it or places obstructions on it. This blog post explores easement enforcement, including legal actions for nuisance and injunctive relief, and the potential for compensatory and punitive damages.


Easements: Appurtenant or In Gross


Easements are classified as appurtenant or in gross, with appurtenant easements transferring automatically when the dominant tenement is sold, even if not mentioned in the deed (Civil Code §§ 1084, 1104). In contrast, an easement in gross is a personal right and does not pass with the dominant tenement when sold. The determination of an easement's classification typically comes from the instrument creating it, but courts may need to interpret ambiguous deeds using extrinsic evidence.


Two Rules for Easement Interpretation


Courts apply two rules in reviewing easement claims:


A reservation in any grant is interpreted in favor of the grantor (Civil Code § 1069).

An easement will not be interpreted as being in gross if it may fairly be interpreted as being appurtenant.

Successive Ownership and Enforcement


Successive owners of the dominant tenement are entitled to enforce appurtenant easements. This right transfers even if the easement is not mentioned in the deed to a successor in interest to the dominant parcel.


Compensatory and Punitive Damages


If a person interferes with an easement, the easement's owner is entitled to compensatory damages. In cases where malice is proven by clear and convincing evidence, punitive damages may also be awarded.


Injunctive Relief and Abatement of Nuisance


An action may be brought under Code of Civil Procedure § 731 for injunctive relief or abatement of a nuisance, as defined in Civil Code § 3479, when it interferes with the free use of the easement.


Preliminary Injunctions and Lis Pendens


A preliminary injunction may be granted under Code of Civil Procedure § 526, and a notice of pendency of action (lis pendens) may be recorded on the servient tenement in an action concerning an easement.


Lessons and Takeaways


Determine if the easement is appurtenant or in gross, as appurtenant easements pass with the transfer of ownership of the dominant and servient tenements, even if not mentioned in the deeds.

Review the preliminary title report for the sale of the servient tenement to identify easements appurtenant to the servient tenement.

Interference with an easement can be permanently enjoined and result in a judgment for compensatory damages and punitive damages, depending on the circumstances.

Conclusion


Understanding the complexities of easements and enforcement in California is crucial for property owners and buyers. Recognizing the type of easement, the rights it conveys, and the legal remedies available in cases of interference can help protect property rights and ensure smooth transactions.

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