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Murphy v. Burch

April 27, 2009


Ct.App. 1/2 A117051 Mendocino County Super. Ct. No. SCUK-CVG-0493420. Richard Henderson.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.

This is a quiet title action between owners of adjoining properties. In 1998, the plaintiff purchased property having no vehicular access to or from any public road. Because her property is "landlocked," she seeks to establish, without payment of consideration to the defendants, an "easement by necessity" over an existing private road that crosses the defendants' property and connects to a public highway. Under California common law, such an easement requires examination of the circumstances of the original conveyance by the "common owner" that severed what is now the defendants' property from what is now the plaintiff's landlocked property. In this case, the federal government was that common owner, and it first conveyed the defendants' property without expressly reserving a right of access to the plaintiff's property, which it retained. The question is whether a right of access nonetheless arose by implication based on the circumstances surrounding that conveyance, including whether or not a strict necessity for access resulted and the inferences reasonably drawn regarding the parties' intent.

Given the distinctive nature and history of federal land grants and the government's power of eminent domain, we hold that extreme caution must be exercised in determining whether an access easement arises by implication when common ownership is traced back to a federal grant made without an express reservation for access. We conclude, based on the stipulated facts presented at trial, that the circumstances here fail to support an easement by necessity. We affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal.


The parties to this matter are plaintiff Cheryl C. Murphy, Trustee of the Murphy Children Education Trust dated June 11, 1998, and defendants Roger Burch and Michele Burch, Trustees of the RMB Revocable Family Trust dated February 5, 1999.

In their respective capacities as trustees, Murphy and the Burches are owners of certain adjoining real property in Mendocino County. The "Murphy property" consists of four parcels located east of the "Burch property," which consists of two parcels. The only public road that has ever existed in the vicinity of the Murphy and Burch properties is California State Highway 162 (Highway 162), which is located to the south and runs in a generally east-west direction without intersecting either property. The sole means of vehicle access between Highway 162 and the Murphy property is a private road (the Access Road) that extends north from the highway and crosses over the Burch property and other privately owned land before entering the four parcels of the Murphy property.

As relevant here, Murphy filed this action seeking to quiet title to an easement along the portion of the Access Road located on the Burch Property. The Burches also seek to quiet title and to permanently enjoin use of the Access Road by Murphy and any successors. The parties submitted this matter to a bench trial upon the following agreed statement of facts.

Prior to 1876, the federal government owned all of the properties at issue in this case. Over the course of time between 1876 and 1929, it deeded the parcels now making up the Burch property, by patent, to various private owners.*fn1 The federal government conveyed these parcels without expressly reserving an easement over the Access Road to Highway 162 for the benefit of the parcels it retained, including the adjoining parcels to the east.

On December 28, 1932, the federal government conveyed to John Bridges, also by patent, the four landlocked parcels now constituting the Murphy property. The conveyances to Bridges did not include any express grant of an easement over the Access Road to Highway 162 for the benefit of the conveyed property. In 1998, Murphy purchased these parcels from Bridges's successors in interest.

As indicated, the Access Road provides the only roadway access between the Murphy property and Highway 162. Consequently, without an easement over the Access Road across the Burch property, the Murphy property has no vehicular access to or from any public road. At the bench trial, the parties agreed that Murphy has no right to cross the Burch property by virtue of a prescriptive easement, but contested whether Murphy is entitled to an easement by necessity. The trial court resolved the matter in Murphy's favor, and entered judgment accordingly. The Burches appealed, and the Court of Appeal reversed.


The central issue is whether the federal patent conveyances to Murphy's predecessors in interest and to the Burches' predecessors in interest included a an easement by necessity over the Burch property for the benefit of the Murphy property.

Generally, an easement by necessity arises from an implied grant or implied reservation in certain circumstances when a property owner (the grantor) conveys to another (the grantee) one out of two or more adjoining parcels of the grantor's property. When there is no express provision for access, and the parcel conveyed is either landlocked entirely by the parcels retained by the grantor or landlocked partly by the grantor's retained land and partly by the land of others, the grantee may claim an implied grant of a right-of-way of necessity over the land retained by the grantor. (See generally 6 Miller & Starr, Cal. Real Estate (3d ed. 2006) § 15:27, p. 15-104 (6 Miller & Starr).) Conversely, when the grantor conveys adjoining property without an express agreement for access to a retained parcel left landlocked, the grantor may seek an implied reservation of a right-of-way of necessity over the conveyed property for the retained parcel's benefit. (6 Miller & Starr, supra, § 15:27, p. 15-107.) In both situations, the landlocked parcel benefitted by the implied right-of-way is called the dominant tenement or dominant estate, while the burdened property is referred to as the servient tenement or servient estate. Remote grantees in the chain of title may assert the easement long after its creation by the original common grantor, and despite the failure of a prior grantee to exercise the right. (Lichty v. Sickels (1983) 149 Cal.App.3d 696, 700-701; see Kripp v. Curtis (1886) 71 Cal. 62, 65 [an easement by necessity "pass[es] as appurtenant to the estate when sold"].)

Easements by necessity originated in the common law and are " 'the result of the application of the presumption that whenever a party conveys property, he conveys whatever is necessary for the beneficial use of that property and retains whatever is necessary for the beneficial use of land he still possesses.' " (Daywalt v. Walker (1963) 217 Cal.App.2d 669, 672-673.) The rationale driving this presumption is that "the demands of our society prevent any man-made efforts to hold land in perpetual idleness as would result if it were cut off from all access by being completely surrounded by lands privately owned." (Roemer v. Pappas (1988) 203 Cal.App.3d 201, 205.) Hence, easements by necessity are grounded in the public ...

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