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First impression case tackles wetlands issue

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In a case of first impression, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that a landowner who raises the subterranean water table on his land and creates a federally regulated wetland may not invoke the common enemy doctrine of water diversion and be shielded from liability to adjoining landowners whose properties as a result become federally regulated wetlands.

In B & B, LLC v. Lake Erie Land Company, No. 45A04-1002-PL-183, the appellate judges reversed the grant of judgment in favor of Lake Erie Land Company on B&B LLC’s claims against it for trespass, nuisance, and negligence. B&B argued that the defense of the common enemy doctrine wasn’t properly raised and presented at trial by LEL and that the trial court improperly implied it in this case. It also argued the trial court erred in finding LEL didn’t commit trespass as a matter of law and that LEL clearly breached a duty that it owed to B&B.

B&B and LEL purchased portions of land near each other that once were swampy and unusable but became usable after a ditch was built to drain the land. B&B intended to operate a concrete crushing and recycling facility on its land. Just south of this property were two mitigation bank parcels that LEL owned. LEL made modifications to the land to create wetlands, which caused the water table of the land to rise. These modifications caused a wetland to be formed on B&B’s property, leading to the Army Corps of Engineers to order B&B to cease and desist from bringing in any more concrete to the property. That’s when B&B sued LEL for lost profits, clean-up costs, and the lost value of its land.

The Court of Appeals first rejected B&B’s arguments for reversal on the basis that LEL didn’t raise the defense of the common enemy doctrine at trial. B&B offered evidence at trial that related to surface water issues and it failed to object to any pretrial evidence that LEL submitted on those issues. The record demonstrates that the issues relating to the common enemy doctrine and surface waters were tried by the parties’ consent, wrote Judge John Baker.

The judges then analyzed the common enemy doctrine and noted that because the water in question in the case was groundwater, it’s not governed by the common enemy doctrine. They also noted that they were unable to find any cases that cite any authority that allows a party to stop the free flow of subterranean waters in order to raise the water table not only upon its land but on adjoining lands to create a federally regulated wetland.

“In our view, neither the principles applicable to subterranean waters nor the common enemy doctrine would permit a defendant to stop the free flow of underground waters so that adjoining properties become flooded,” wrote Judge Baker.

Also, LEL knew that raising the water table on its land past a certain elevation could potentially flood neighboring properties and that the mitigation bank would likely inundate B&B’s land. As such, LEL undertook a duty and breached that duty by not stopping the propagation of wetland species that culminated in the establishment of wetlands on B&B’s parcel of land. The judges also held that B&B presented evidence of trespass.

The judges reversed the trial court and remanded for further proceedings.

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