A Tumbling-T Ranches v. Flood Control Dist. of Maricopa County (10/8/2009)

October 13, 2009

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That Inverse Eminent Domain Claims Must Demonstrate an Increased Risk of Sufficient Magnitude, and a Depreciation in Property Value.

In 1993, the Gila River flooded. The floodwaters breached the Gillespie Dam, releasing considerable amounts of sediment. The sediment clogged the riverbed downstream, damaging downstream properties and making future floodwater flow in erratic patterns that are unpredictable. Downstream landowners (the “Farmers”) sued the Flood Control District of Maricopa County (the “District”), alleging that its upstream flood control project contributed to the dam’s failure and that it also led to the downstream sedimentation. At trial, the jury found the District negligent, apportioning 10% of the liability to the District.

The Farmers appealed, challenging the trial court’s denial of their motion for judgment as a matter of law on an inverse eminent domain claim, arguing that a public entity should be liable for any damage caused by a public improvement. The Appeals Court affirmed, holding that to prevail on an inverse eminent domain claim, the party must prove that the increased risk caused by the public improvement “has caused a substantial interference with private property rights,” that the increased risk was of “sufficient magnitude,” and that the risk caused a depreciation in “the value of the plaintiff’s property.”

The District cross-appealed, asserting that the Farmers had failed to prove the District’s negligence. The District also argued that the trial court had erred in denying the District’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the basis of governmental immunity, and had improperly granted summary judgment on the issues of the Farmers’ failure to obtain permits for floodplain activities and whether the Farmers could seek permanent damages for land within the confines of a navigable river. The District also asserted that the trial court had given improper jury instructions on diminished land values as a measure of damages, assumption of risk, and assigning fault to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court on all the issues raised by the District’s cross-appeal.

Judge Brown authored the opinion; Judges Barker and Downie concurred.