Case of the Day – Wednesday, August 9, 2017

SPIDERS AND SNAKES

spiders150520Jim Stafford and Greg Barnett have something in common — neither one likes spider or snakes. In Greg’s case, he doesn’t think much of Southern California Edison, either.

The utility had an easement along one side of his yard, where he and his neighbor had parallel fences. The easement was to maintain power lines, but when Greg cleaned up some debris between the fences, a big ol’ spider bit him. Arachnophobia reared its ugly head, followed close on by a lawsuit.

Greg said Edison had a duty to maintain its easement, and it should be liable to him for the spider bite. The trial court disagreed, and the Court of Appeals concurred. It found Greg’s argument, like the spider of waterspout fame, just an “itsy bitsy” bit light on common sense. The easement was one known as an easement “in gross,” meaning that it was limited, in this case to activities related to delivering electricity. Edison could (and had) trimmed and cut down trees that interfered with its lines, but it had no duty to Barnett to do things unrelated to the right for which the easement was granted. Such as kill spiders.

itsybitsy150520The Court rightly concluded that to make the utility liable would be a major burden on a public utility given the thousands of miles of easement territory the company had. Nothing except the fact that the cleanup job bites kept Barnett from cleaning up his own land.

Barnett v. Southern California Edison Co., Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2007 WL 2751874 (Cal.App. 4 Dist., Sept. 21. 2007). Gregory J. Barnett owned a place on Hayes Avenue. Edison held a six-foot wide easement on the west side of the property to “construct, lay, install, use, maintain, alter, add to, repair, replace, inspect and/or remove, at any time and from time to time, aerial and underground electric lines and communication lines, consisting of poles, guys and anchors, crossarms, wires, cables, conduits, manholes, vaults, pull boxes, markers[,] and other fixtures and appliances, for conveying electric energy to be used for light, heat, power, telephone[,] and/or other related uses …”

Barnett’s neighbor built a fence along the western boundary separating Barnett’s property from the neighbor’s, and Barnett had installed his own fence which overlapped the neighbor’s fence. There was a small gap of land between the two fences measuring two feet wide and four feet long. The gap was located within Edison’s easement. One day, Barnett was bitten by a spider while cleaning the area between the two fences of small pieces of concrete, branches, leaves, and old paper trash. He said he was trying “to abate the infestation of rats, spiders, and other vermin …” that Edison had ignored.

Barnett claimed Edison told him that he could not close the gap or take other remedial measures because Edison’s lineworkers needed access to the utility pole located between the two fences. Barnett sued Edison for negligence and premises liability, arguing it had the duty to clean up the space and eradicate the spiders.

Edison argued it owed no duty of care to prevent the spider bite. Barnett argued Edison exerted exclusive control over the area and, therefore, had a duty to maintain the premises in a safe condition. The trial court agreed that Barnett could not establish the duty element of his cause of action for negligence. Instead, there was merely a nonexclusive easement for the maintenance of electric facilities that burdened Barnett’s property. Barnett’s alleged injury from a spider bite was unconnected to Edison’s use of the property pursuant to its easement. Therefore, as a matter of law, Edison did not owe Barnett a duty of care to prevent spiders from nesting behind his fence. Barnett appealed.

socallines150520Held: The easement did not create a duty for Edison toward Barnett. An easement such as this one, called an easement in gross, is not attached to any particular land as dominant tenement, but belongs to a person individually. Here, it is undisputed there was just a parcel of property owned exclusively by Barnett. Edison held an easement in gross, limited to the purpose of conveying electricity to its customers. Edison owed no general duty of care for all purposes on its easement in gross, or more specifically, any duty to rid the area of spiders, rats, and other vermin.

The easement owner’s possessory right is limited to the use of the land granted by the easement. Accordingly, an easement holder has a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances in its use of the servient estate, but the duty does not extend beyond the scope of that use. Barnett didn’t cite a single case where an easement holder was held to have a duty to guard against a risk of harm unrelated to the scope of the interest represented by the easement. The Court said that to impose such an unlimited duty “would impose a tremendous burden on Edison, its customers, and all other utilities in California.

Barnett argued he presented evidence Edison exerted exclusive control over the easement property and therefore assumed the duty of care typically held by a landowner. The Court held he had failed to provide relevant admissible evidence to support his claims. Although Barnett claimed Edison had once removed a rat-infested palm tree, he admitted he had told Edison the palm tree was growing up into Edison’s lines, and Edison had an obligation to maintain a certain clearance between its trees and electric lines. Trimming and removing trees was part of the express terms of its easement right. The eradication of the rats was merely incidental.

– Tom Root
TNLBGray140407

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