March 24th, 2010 — By — In News & Events

Idaho Supreme Court upholds jury verdict in favor of property owners in eminent domain case

Last week, the Idaho Supreme Court in State v. Canyon Vista Limited Family Partnership, et al., Docket No. 34485, Opinion No. 26 (March 17, 2010) upheld a jury verdict awarding approximately $3.3 million as just compensation for property taken to widen a road in Twin Falls, ID.

In a unanimous opinion the Court concluded that Idaho Transportation Department’s (ITD) objections were either not preserved for appeal or were without merit.  Although the property owners’ motion to dismiss the appeal as moot was denied by the Court, the Court found in favor of the property owners on every other issue, including upholding the award of attorneys’ fees by the trial court and further awarding attorneys’ fees on appeal.

The Court’s decision upheld a jury award of $399,633 as compensation for the real property taken by ITD, plus $2,021,897 awarded as severance damages. The opinion also upheld the district court judgment on the verdict awarding the property owners $903,096.77 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

ITD appealed a number of issues from the trial including the decision of the district court judge, Nathan Higer, to allow the jury to determine issues of access, Judge Higer’s decision to allow the order of condemnation into evidence, the trial court’s decision to award attorneys’ fees as well as various objections to jury instructions.

In the opinion authored by Justice Joel D. Horton, the Court found that although the trial court may have “committed legal error” by allowing the jury to determine the scope of access, ITD failed to raise the issue during the trial and therefore did not preserve its objection for review on appeal. Justice Horton wrote, “We are unwilling to hold that a party may preserve an issue for appeal through silence.” (Opinion at pg. 6.)  Horton continues, “Instead, it appears as though the State was perfectly content with the jury determining the issue of access rights until the jury returned an unexpectedly large verdict.” (Opinion at pg. 7.)  Additionally, on the issue of the jury instructions, the Court found that ITD either “raised objections to this Court that it failed to squarely present at trial” (Opinion at pg. 11) or were without merit.

With respect to attorneys’ fees, the Court agreed with the trial court quoting it its opinion the lower court’s finding the the work performed by the defendants’ attorneys were “both reasonable and necessary” in this “exceptional case” considering that “exceptional hours were required to defend it.”  (Opinion pg. 14.)  Furthermore, the Justices found that the property owners are entitled to attorney fees on appeal. “An award of attorney fees on appeal is appropriate in this case. The only arguments that the State has properly raised on appeal relate to whether the district court erred in admitting the order of condemnation and whether the district court erred in awarding Canyon attorney fees. As discussed, neither of these arguments has merit. For this reason, we award Canyon attorney fees on appeal.” (Opinion at pg. 15.)

Heather Cunningham, OCA Idaho Member, represented the property owners and argued the case before the Idaho Supreme Court.  In his Times-News article, Pricey pavement–ITD loses appeal of Pole Line costs, reporter Nate Poppino, wrote that Ms. Cunningham said the property owners were pleased with the Supreme Court’s opinion.

On the other hand, Poppino quoted ITD spokesman Jeff Stratton (comment via email): “The Transportation Department believes that the monetary award was excessive, did not represent the value of the land taken from Canyon Vista or the impacts to the remainder of its property, and was not in the best interests of the taxpayers of Idaho.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Stratton, the jury and Idaho Supreme Court disagreed.

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