On February 5, 2020, the Indiana Court of Appeals handed down an opinion that will have landowners thinking twice before interfering with easement owners’ rights. In Duke Energy Indiana v. J & J Development Company, J & J bought a piece of land with the intent of developing a residential subdivision. Duke Energy Indiana v. J & J Development Company, 19A-PL-735, 1 (Ind. Ct. App. 2020). Moving forward with their intent, J & J Development Company (“J & J”) constructed improvements within an electric-transmission line easement owned by Duke Energy (“Duke”). Id. at 1-2.
Duke and its predecessors have owned the electric-transmission line easement in question since 1956 through an instrument that granted Duke, among other rights, the right to “erect, construct, and maintain the necessary substructures for said towers and poles.” Id. at 3. Without contacting Duke, J & J went ahead and had a surveyor prepare a plat for the subdivision, received plat approval, and then purchased the land. Id. at 5. J & J then began to construct the “improvements” to the easement, or in other words, they started to build the subdivision which fell within the easement. Id. at 5. The improvements J & J constructed within the easement included: an entrance, a road running through much of the easement, detention basins, a fire hydrant, and buried utility lines. Id. at 5.
Duke was not contacted by J & J until they wanted to discuss the sewer work they wanted done. Id. at 8. This led to Duke inspecting the improvements made by J & J and concluding that J & J impermissibly encroached upon the easement. Id. at 8. As a result, J & J filed suit against Duke, seeking a declaration that the improvements did not unreasonably interfere with Duke’s use of the easement. Id. at 8. Duke counterclaimed, requesting a declaration that J & J’s improvements were impermissible and asked for an injunction to have J & J remove the improvements. Id. at 8. The trial court ruled that the improvements were permissible, which resulted in an appeal by Duke. Id. at 8.