Annoyance With Neighbors Not Enough to Create Nuisance Even After Rainstorm

April 15, 2013 | Erika Eckley

Property owners may not create a nuisance by unreasonably interfering with their neighbor’s use and enjoyment of their land. Altering water flow from its natural course from one parcel to another to the detriment of a neighbor can be a nuisance. Iowa surface water drainage law allows a landowner of a dominant tract to drain water in a natural flow onto a servient parcel even if the water flow is increased so long as there is no damage to the landowner of the servient property. The servient landowner cannot prevent the water’s natural flow to the detriment of the dominant estate.

This case involved the aftermath of the 2008 flood that impacted portions of Iowa.  Two neighbors suffered damage from the flood to the extent that their homes had to be demolished. The plaintiffs rebuilt their home, and then tried to purchase the defendants’ parcel. The defendants declined the offer and decided to rebuild their home as well.

The defendants poured twelve-foot foundational walls for their home and garage. The contractors placed fill dirt against the foundation to prevent shifting until the construction was completed. The dirt was to be removed when construction was complete. The plaintiffs were upset with the construction and went to the city council to complain about the safety of their neighbors’ construction. The council refused to stop the construction because the home had passed city inspections.

Shortly thereafter, a heavy thunderstorm hit the area that caused widespread flash flooding. Between six and eight inches of water invaded the plaintiffs’ crawlspace and damaged property stored there. After the storm, the city retrenched and repaired ditches and cleaned out culverts to help the neighborhood drainage. The plaintiffs sued the defendants claiming damages resulting from the changed drainage flow caused by the defendants’ construction, as well as damages for mental and physical distress.

The trial court judge determined that the plaintiffs’ property had a higher elevation so it was the dominant estate. The court, however, held that the defendants’ construction did not obstruct the free use of their property or unreasonably interfere with their enjoyment of their tract.  The plaintiffs appealed.

The Court of Appeals agreed that plaintiffs owned the dominant estate. The court held, however, that the plaintiffs were required to show that the altered flow of water actually harmed their property and caused their damages. The appellate court agreed with the district court that the plaintiffs failed to meet this burden. The information supplied by the plaintiffs to their expert witness was unreliable and the entirety of his testimony was based on this information. The court also agreed that the flooding caused by the thunderstorm would have likely occurred regardless of the defendants’ construction. Because they failed to meet their burden and the temporary diversion did not amount to a nuisance, and because the defendants testified they would remove the grading changes after completion of their construction, the court affirmed the district court’s denial of any remedy to the plaintiffs.  Sojka v. Breck, No. 34-114, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS 408 (Iowa Ct. App. Apr. 10, 2012).