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Judges rule against commissioners in eminent domain dispute

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In a case involving the use of eminent domain to acquire land to expand the runway at the Clark County Airport, the Indiana Court of Appeals encouraged lawyers and the courts to stop using the phrase “jurisdiction over a particular case” when the term “legal error” should be used.  

In Clark County Board of Aviation Commissioners v. Dennis Dreyer and Margo Dreyer as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Margaret A. Dreyer, 10A01-1206-PL-288, the Clark County Board of Aviation Commissioners filed a Trial Rule 60(B) motion for partial relief from a judgment in favor of Margaret Dreyer. The commissioners entered into an agreement to purchase land from Dreyer to expand the airport runway, but they could not agree on the appraised value of two tracts. This led to the commissioners filing a complaint for eminent domain.

Three-court appointed appraisers valued the property and filed their report April 24, 2009, but Dreyer didn’t file her objections until July 2009, outside the 20-day statutory time frame. But the commissioners never objected to this until after she was awarded, at trial, $865,000 plus attorney fees. The commissioners appealed, but the judgment was upheld by the Court of Appeals.

The Board of Aviation Commissioners later filed the Rule 60(B) motion when Dreyer sought to collect on the judgment after the commissioners hadn’t paid the full amount.

The Board of Aviation Commissioners argued that the judgment should be set aside because it was void, insofar as the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

“Subject matter jurisdiction and legal error are distinct concepts. Here, at most, there was legal error when the trial court permitted Dreyer to file her objections in July 2009,” Judge John Baker wrote. “Because legal error may not be collaterally attacked, and the Commissioners did not object to Dreyer’s July 2009 objections and did not raise the issue in the first appeal, the trial court did not err by denying their Rule 60(B) motion.”

“To be sure if statutory procedures are not followed, the trial court may not be permitted to hear the issue of damages; however, this is not because the trial court lost jurisdiction, but rather, because legal error was committed,” he continued. “…practitioners and the judiciary, including ourselves, should stop using the phrase ‘jurisdiction over a particular case,’ rather than ‘legal error,’ which is what occurred in the instant case.”

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