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Velasquez v. Chamberlain

June 18, 2009

ROSE VELASQUEZ, MIKE VELASQUEZ, MARY VELASQUEZ AND ERNESTINO VELASQUEZ, LAND OWNERS, APPELLANTS (PLAINTIFFS),
v.
LARRY CHAMBERLAIN AND NOREEN CHAMBERLAIN, HUSBAND AND WIFE, APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).
LARRY CHAMBERLAIN AND NOREEN CHAMBERLAIN, HUSBAND AND WIFE, APPELLANTS (PLAINTIFFS),
v.
ROSE VELASQUEZ, MIKE VELASQUEZ, MARY VELASQUEZ AND ERNESTINO VELASQUEZ, LAND OWNERS, APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).



Appeal from the District Court of Converse County The Honorable John C. Brooks, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Golden, Justice.

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] These two consolidated appeals arise from a dispute between neighboring landowners. The Chamberlains own certain water rights. Traditionally, the water had been carried to their property through an established ditch running through property currently owned by the Velasquezes. Prior to the Velasquezes' purchase of the property, the ditch failed, and the Chamberlains replaced it with a pipeline, running on a different course from the ditch. When the Velasquezes bought the property, they claimed the Chamberlains had not received proper permission to install or maintain the pipeline and proceeded to effectively destroy the pipeline as it ran through their property. The resulting legal action included multiple claims for damages on both sides and a petition for a restraining order against the Velasquezes allowing the Chamberlains to go on their property and fix the pipeline.

[¶2] The district court determined the Chamberlains legally had the unencumbered right to convey their water through the pipeline. In appeal No. S-08-0043, the Velasquezes appeal the district court's order allowing the Chamberlains to maintain and use the pipeline as it crosses their property, as well as the district court's refusal to grant them damages. In appeal No. S-08-0044, the Chamberlains appeal the amount they were granted in damages, alleging the evidence supported a larger amount. We affirm the district court in No. S-08-0043. We reverse the district court's determination of damages in No. S-08-0044.

ISSUES

[¶3] In appeal No. S-08-0043, the Velasquezes state the issues as:

a. Was the District Court in error in concluding that the pipeline is legally in place and that Appellees are entitled to the same rights in the pipeline that they were entitled to in the Powell No. 1 Ditch; specifically:

1. Did Appellees comply with Wyoming law in changing the means of conveyance of their appropriation?

2. Was the Agreement by which the pipeline was legally installed legally enforceable?

b. Did Appellants fail to prove that they sustained damages as a result of multiple trespasses by Appellees?

[¶4] In appeal No. S-08-0044, the Chamberlains ask this Court to determine "whether the District Court erred in finding that Appellants' damages were limited to Four Thousand, Three Hundred Dollars ($4,300)?"

FACTS

[¶5] The appellants, Rose, Mike, Mary, and Ernestino Velasquez, own certain ranch property. Mary and Ernestino Velasquez are the parents of Mike and Rose Velasquez. Of the four, only Rose Velasquez resides on the property.

[¶6] The appellees, Larry and Noreen Chamberlain, own neighboring property on which they run farming and ranching operations. Larry generally manages the day-today operations.

[¶7] In 1999, Dave and Cindy Lozier (husband and wife) bought the property that is now owned by the Velasquezes under a contract for deed. In 2000, because Dave and Cindy Lozier were unable to meet their obligations under the contract for deed, the property was sold to Guy Lozier, Dave's brother. Guy never lived on the property. Rather, Dave and Cindy continued to live on and manage the property. Over the years, Dave and Larry entered into various agreements, including agreements allowing Larry to use portions of Guy's property such as a feed lot and stack yard.

[¶8] The Chamberlains own certain water rights from the LaPrele Creek. The water had traditionally been carried to the Chamberlains' property from the LaPrele Creek through the Powell Number One Ditch, which crosses the property now owned by the Velasquezes. A portion of the ditch failed, leaving the Chamberlains with little, if any, of the water to which they were legally entitled. Consequently, on February 28, 2005, Dave and Larry entered into a written agreement (the "Agreement") allowing Larry to lay a buried water pipeline across Guy's property for the transportation of water in exchange for Dave receiving water from the pipeline. Guy did not sign the Agreement.

[¶9] The pipeline was installed shortly after the Agreement, in March 2005. Guy was on the property after the pipeline went in and was able to observe the scar on the land left by the installation. Guy never said anything to Larry about the pipeline. Neither Guy nor Dave ever told Larry to remove the pipeline.

[¶10] Rose Velasquez is Cindy Lozier's sister. Dave and Cindy had allowed Rose to run some cows on the property while they lived there. As a result, Rose had lived on the property with Dave and Cindy for a couple of months each year during calving season. Rose also visited the property on weekends. While Rose did not see the pipeline going in, she was aware of the pipeline from her time spent on the property. When Dave and Cindy announced they were moving, Rose related her desire to buy the property. Since Dave had always run the place as if he owned it, Rose talked to him first. Dave referred Rose to Guy. This was the first time Rose became aware that Guy owned the property and not Dave and Cindy.

[¶11] The Velasquezes bought the property from Guy in November 2005. After the purchase, they never requested the Chamberlains remove the pipeline. They believed the Agreement was invalid, and therefore the pipeline was their personal property. In January 2006, alleging the pipeline leaked, they destroyed two separate sections of the pipeline as it crossed their property. They never informed Larry of their actions, either before, during or after. Thus began the instant litigation.

[¶12] Initially, the Chamberlains petitioned for a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction against the Velasquezes so they could go on the Velasquez property and repair the pipeline. The Chamberlains also sought damages in the amount necessary to repair the pipeline and for their hay crop losses due to the resulting lack of irrigation. The Velasquezes answered and counterclaimed for a declaration that the Agreement was invalid and sought damages for various alleged trespasses including trespass caused by the existence of the pipeline, trespass for Larry using the feedlot, trespass by Larry driving through the feedlot area on his way to and from his hayfield; and alleged damages caused by leaks in the pipeline.*fn1

[¶13] After a bench trial, the district court ruled generally in favor of the Chamberlains. The district court ruled the pipeline was legally in place on the Velasquez property and the Chamberlains had full rights in it. The district court additionally determined all claims for damages on both sides were speculative, being unsupported by the evidence presented. The lone exception was the claim by the Chamberlains for damages in the amount of the costs incurred in repairing the pipeline. As to this issue, the Chamberlains submitted a bill from the company that did the repairs in the amount of $11,540. Evidence presented at trial indicated the Chamberlains had paid only $4,300 at the time of trial. Larry testified he still owed the remainder of the amount to the company. The district court ruled the Chamberlains were only entitled to the $4,300 they had already paid. Both parties appealed.

APPEAL NO. S-08-0043

Discussion

Standard of Review

[¶14] As regularly stated:

This Court applies a clearly erroneous standard when reviewing findings of fact made by the district court after a bench trial. A finding is clearly erroneous when, even though substantial evidence supports it, the reviewing court is left ...


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