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Justices rule on casino land-ownership dispute

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A land-ownership dispute about an Ohio River riverboat-casino docking site is the subject of an Indiana Supreme Court ruling today, touching on land deeds from the 1800s and who had the right to use and give away ownership of less than an acre of land.

Justices issued their decision in Gloria A. Murray, et al. v. City of Lawrenceburg, et al., No. 15S04-0907-CV-310, which stems from a suit against the city government, a local conservancy district, and the Indiana Gaming Company that runs the Argosy Casino and Hotel in Lawrenceburg. The justices held that inverse condemnation is the sole remedy for a governmental act purporting to exercise all land-ownership rights, and that a six-year statute of limitations for trespass applies to that type of claim. The ruling reverses and remands a decision by Dearborn Circuit Judge James D. Humphrey denying a motion for judgment on the pleadings by the city and gaming company.

The case involves a 0.768-acre parcel of land situated inside a larger 32-acre parcel within Lawrenceburg that houses the riverboat casino and hotel. The plaintiffs claimed to be successors in interest based on an 1886 deed for the smaller parcel, which didn't have any established owner or ownership claims between 1941 and 1995 when it was part of the Lawrenceburg Conservancy District. But the district leased the larger area to the city and ultimately relied on an 1865 deed to include the smaller parcel, ultimately subleasing the property to Indian Gaming in 1995. The casino opened in late 1997, but it wasn't until November 2005 that Gloria Murray and other property owners sued the city, conservancy district, and gaming company over the land. The suit sought to quiet title to the disputed parcel, eject the defendants, and set aside the other deeds and leases, as well as compensate plaintiffs for lost rent under negligence and unjust-enrichment theories.

Defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings under Indiana Trial Rule 12(C), arguing that even if plaintiffs owned the parcel, the only cause of action available was inverse condemnation and that was barred by a 6-year statute of limitations. Judge Humphrey denied the jury trial demand and denied the motion. The Indiana Court of Appeals initially declined to accept the appeal, but ultimately it did. In March 2009, the panel affirmed and reversed parts of Judge Humphrey's decision - upholding the judgment motion denial but reversing on the timeliness aspect and granting a jury trial demand on those claims.

Chief Judge John Baker dissented, saying the result could effectively preclude most, if not all reverse condemnation actions in the future.

In their eight-page ruling, the justices rejected the plaintiffs' claims that inverse condemnation is inappropriate because the land title is clouded. Relying on caselaw about eminent domain and injunctive relief about land being taken for a public purpose, the justices found that allowing alternative remedies would circumvent those provisions. The state, as well as other judicial jurisdictions, have previously determined that casino projects and infrastructure improvements constitute public use.

While no limitation period applies to eminent domain proceedings by the state, this case doesn't involve an action from the government about any eminent domain and so the trespass or inverse condemnation statute of limitation applies, and it's barred by Indiana Code § 34-11-2-7.

"Accordingly, we agree with the Court of Appeals that the six year limitation for trespass applies to inverse condemnation actions," Justice Theodore Boehm wrote for the court. "Plaintiffs' action accrued when they could have brought a claim for inverse condemnation. Giving plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt, the last possible date the action could have accrued was December 1997, when Indiana Gaming began operations at the site. Plaintiffs did not file this suit until Nov. 21, 2005, almost eight years after the action accrued."

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