Any Tennessee boundary line case will most likely turn into a classic “battle of the experts” where both parties use a surveyor as their expert witness. In cases where both parties have reputable surveyors, how does the court pick the winner?
A boundary line case which recently reached the Court of Appeals of Tennessee provides some solid insight into how a Tennessee court will approach and decide a boundary line dispute where two surveyors come to different conclusions. The case, Haddad Family Partnership v. Pouncey, involved the following facts:
- The Pouncey property, about 430 acres of farmland, lay directly to the north of the Haddad property, about 208 acres of farmland
- A field road was located on the north part of the Haddad property, and the Haddad family always considered the field road and everything south of it to be their property
- According to Pouncey, the field road, over the years, had been moved north and was located on his property
- A dispute arose and both parties hired surveyors
- The Haddad family used a surveyor named Erwin
- Pouncey used a surveyor named Van Boals
- Erwin concluded that the field road was on the Haddad property
- Van Boals determined that the field road was on the Pouncey property
- The discrepancy between the surveys of Erwin and Van Boals was significant – – – almost 50 feet
To determine the correct boundary line, Erwin did the following:
- He examined the deeds of the Haddad property and adjoining properties and created a computer generated title map based on the legal descriptions of the properties in the deeds
- He discovered that the latest Haddad deed was incomplete because it included a specific bearing and distance for only three sides of the Haddad property
- He determined that, because of that, the Haddad deed contained an error of closure of 622 feet
- Even though there was an error of closure, Erwin determined that each of the deeds from 1910 forward called for the north line of the Haddad property to be common with the south line of the Dunlap Estate which was the predecessor to the Pouncey property
- Erwin went to the Haddad property to find any markers, and he found several iron stakes
- Erwin found two iron stakes which marked the northwest corner of the Haddad property and the southwest corner of the Pouncey property
- Erwin decided to survey the Pouncey property (in addition to the Haddad property) because the latest Haddad deed was incomplete
- The Pouncey deed called for an iron stake in a lake, and Erwin located it with a metal detector in three feet of water
To determine the boundary line, Van Boals decided to ignore the iron stakes. His reasoning for ignoring them was that he was unsure of who had set them. Instead of using the iron stakes, Van Boals followed the measurements in the Haddad deed. Furthermore, Van Boals never surveyed the Pouncey property because, according to him, he was trying to locate the northern end of the Haddad property.
The trial court, the Chancery Court for Tipton County, found that Erwins’ survey was correct. The trial court noted its concern that Van Boals relied on distances in the deed rather than on the existing iron stake which marked a corner of the Haddad property. Presumably, this was a key factor in its decision. The Court of Appeals of Tennessee affirmed the finding of the trial court, and noted that Van Boals had ignored all of the iron stakes in making his survey.
In affirming, the court of appeals observed that, in resolving the boundary line dispute, the trial court had followed the correct priority. In Tennessee, a court should consider the following, in the following order, when resolving a boundary line dispute:
- natural objects or landmarks
- artificial objects or landmarks
- the boundary lines of adjacent properties
- the courses and distances contained in relevant deeds
It is clear from the court’s opinion that Van Boals ignored the iron stakes, which should have been given priority over the measurements in the deed upon which he relied. It appears to have been a case where Van Boals knew that he had to ignore the iron stakes, or at least one of them, to get to the result his client wanted, and he did just that. It also appears that neither the trial court, nor the appeals court, believed that he had a good reason to ignore the iron stakes.
For Tennessee lawyers who handle boundary line cases, this case is a good reminder that, in these battles of experts that come up in boundary line cases, you have to pay attention to the order of priorities set forth above.