Utility Easement Not Materially Impaired by Intersection Expansion

On December 16, 2016, the Court of Appeals found that “the reasonable necessity of an intersection expansion outweighed whatever injurious effect that expansion would have on an electric utility’s enjoyment of its easement.” Duke Energy Indiana, LLC v. City of Franklin, 41A01-1607-CT-1549, at 23. Duke Energy Indiana, LLC (“Duke”) had an easement for the transmission of electrical energy in the area of the City of Franklin’s proposed traffic plan, which would connect a four-lane state road to two city streets. Duke, believing that the plan would unreasonably interfere with its easement rights, filed for a preliminary injunction. The trial court denied the request, finding that Duke failed to establish unreasonable interference, and therefore, failed to show a reasonable likelihood of success at trial. Duke asserted that the increased volume and speed of traffic proceeding past the utility pole, located adjacent to and just northwest of the proposed intersection, would increase the hazard to maintenance and repair crews. The trial court found that Duke did not show material impairment, unreasonable interference, or irreconcilable conflict. Instead, the trial court found that Duke essentially argued that to repair and maintain the utility pole and transmission lines, Duke’s crews would interfere with the public’s use of the road. While the court found this concern valid, it did not address the issue of Duke’s use, and the need for additional traffic measures was not found to equate unreasonable interference with Duke’s easement. Duke appealed.

The Court of Appeals addressed Duke’s two claims related to its contention of a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits at trial: (1) the City should not be able to expand the intersection because it does not have adequate property interests in portions of the land and (2) the proposed expansion of the intersection unreasonably burdens its rights pursuant to the easement. The Court of Appeals found that the first claim was essentially a trespass action. However, as an easement holder, Duke lacked standing to maintain an action for trespass for invasion of a right of way or easement. As for the second claim, the Court found that the proposed intersection was a reasonably necessary use of the City’s right-of-way, as it will beautify the corridor, enhance safety, and spur growth. Duke would still be able to repair and maintain the transmission lines and utility poles by simply using additional traffic measures. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that the reasonable necessity of the expansion outweighed the injury to Duke’s enjoyment of its easement.

Jeremy Fetty is a partner in the law firm of Parr Richey Frandsen Patterson Kruse with offices in Lebanon and Indianapolis. He often advises businesses and utilities (for profit, non-profit and cooperative) on organizational, human resources, and transactional matters and drafts and reviews commercial contracts.

The statements contained herein are matters of opinion and general information only and are not to be considered legal advice and should not be construed to form an attorney-client relationship. If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact an attorney.