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A Better Partnership
October 25, 2013

Easements by necessity require strict, not reasonable, necessity

In Charles A. Murray Trust v. Futrell, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that an easement by necessity requires strict necessity to access the property, not just reasonable necessity.

In 1934, a state court granted the owners of several lots reciprocal easements by necessity to traverse each other’s lots to provide access to public highways.  Plaintiffs and defendants in these consolidated cases own those lots.  Plaintiffs filed suit to enforce the 1934 easements.  The trial court concluded that one set of lot owners had an easement by necessity, but only for emergency vehicles in the winter.  As to another set of lot owners, it concluded the easement by necessity established in the 1934 decision had been extinguished because the necessity no longer existed.  The Court of Appeals reversed in part, concluding that none of the plaintiffs had easements by necessity, not even for emergency vehicles in the winter.

The Court examined the degree of necessity required to establish an easement by necessity—strict necessity or reasonable necessity.  It recognized that many early Michigan Supreme Court cases required strict necessity, i.e., that the easement be “absolutely” necessary.  Since those early cases, however, there had been several inconsistent Court of Appeals decisions.  Some decisions applied the strict-necessity standard and others applied the reasonable-necessity standard.  The Court identified the origin of the problem as a 2001 Court of Appeals decision—Chapdelaine v SochockiChapdelaine erroneously applied the reasonable necessity standard to an easement by necessity, misapplying a prior case and relying on the First Restatement of Property.  But, as the Court explained, the Michigan Supreme Court had never adopted that section of the First Restatement of Property, nor had it ever applied the reasonable-necessity standard.  Accordingly, the Court concluded that the standard is what it has always been—strict necessity.  The Court also determined that a conflict panel was not necessary to resolve the inconsistent decisions created by Chapdelaine because stare decisis required the Court to follow the Supreme Court’s prior decisions on the issue, and because the panel rule only requires the Court to follow prior Court of Appeals decisions that have “established” a rule of law, something Chapdelaine did not do.

Applying the strict-necessity rule, the Court held that because plaintiffs have other access routes to their properties, the 1934 easements by necessity were no longer necessary.

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