Damages Awarded for Breach of Duty to Allow Natural Flow of Drainage Upheld

January 31, 2013 | Erika Eckley

In Iowa, the owner of an upper or dominant estate has a legal easement over the lower or servient estate for the natural drainage of water. The servient estate has a duty to accept this flow of water and cannot take measures to prevent it.

The parties were adjoining landowners whose properties were divided by a fence. The Grand River bordered both properties to the west. The plaintiff drained water from his land through small ditches that bisected the fence. The water from the ditches flowed through an east-west waterway that merged with the river on the defendant’s side of the fence.

In the spring of 2008, the area flooded. The plaintiff cleaned and expanded the ditches. In response, the defendant plowed dirt against the ditches which impeded the water flow. The plaintiff claimed that, by plowing dirt against the ditches, the defendant blocked and impeded the established drainage from plaintiff’s land. He sought compensatory and punitive damages as well as double damages under Iowa Code § 468.148 (levee drainage improvements) for defendant’s negligence and nuisance. The defendant counterclaimed for trespass.

The trial court held that the defendant breached the duty to not interfere with the plaintiff’s established drainage rights. This breach caused a nuisance interfering with plaintiff’s free use of his farm. The court ordered $13,260.46 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages, but did not order statutory double-damages. In addition, the defendant was ordered to abate the nuisance and was enjoined from plugging the ditches again. The defendant’s trespass claim was dismissed. Both parties appealed.

The defendant first argued that the issue of negligence (comprised as part of the duty to not interfere with the plaintiff’s established drainage rights) should have been reviewed under the “scope of liability” standard adopted by the Iowa Supreme Court in 2009 rather than be reviewed as a foreseeability standard in determining whether a duty exists. The court reviewed the common law riparian principles and agreed that when the trial court had found that the natural flow of water between the parties was in a north-south direction that the defendant owned the servient estate. Because of this, the defendant had a duty as the servient estate not to interfere with the water flow from the plaintiff’s land and that the defendant’s action in plowing the drainage ditches caused damage. The court also upheld the injunctive relief because there was substantial injury to the plaintiff from the defendant’s actions when he was unable to harvest crops on eighteen acres of waterlogged fields, which allowed for injunctive relief.

The court did, however, overturn the award for punitive damages because there was no evidence of malice on the part of the defendant in blocking the ditches. At best, the court stated, it showed a lack of open communication and some degree of apathy toward the rights of the other. The court also upheld the denial of double damages under Iowa’s drainage laws because the county engineer testified that no evidence of a lateral waterway existed in the established drainage district.

It is important for owners of servient land to not interfere with the natural water drainage from a dominant land owner. Breach of this duty can result in litigation costs and the potential for significant  damage awards.  Sobotka v. Salamah, No. 2-668, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS 64 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 9, 2013).