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Noone v. Price

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiffs sued a neighbor who was downhill from their house for damage to their home resulting from the Defendant’s lack of maintenance to a retaining wall on the slope between the houses.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. While an adjacent landowner has an obligation to support his neighbor’s property in its raw or natural condition, if the support for land in its raw, natural condition is insufficient and the land slips, the adjacent landowner is liable both for the damage to the land and the damage to any buildings that are on the land.

    Facts. Mr. and Mrs. Noone (Plaintiffs) bought a house on the side of a mountain. Union Carbide built the house in 1928 or 1929. The Plaintiffs bought the house in 1960. In 1964, Plaintiffs became aware that the wall under their front porch was giving way and that the living room plaster had cracked. Price (Defendant) lived below the Plaintiffs at the foot of the hill in a house built in 1912. Between 1912 and 1919, a wall of stone and concrete was built along the side of the hill, ten to twelve feet behind Defendant’s house. The Defendant purchased her house in 1955 and lived there until 1972, when Defendant sold the property. Before Defendant’s purchase of the house, the wall had fallen into disrepair. The Plaintiffs, upon discovering that their house was slipping down the hill, complained to Defendant that their problem was the result of deterioration in the Defendant’s retaining wall. Defendant did nothing to repair the wall and Plaintiffs expended $6,000 to repair the damage to t
    heir house. The Plaintiffs commenced this action in 1968 for damages of $50,000 for failure of Defendant to provide lateral support to Plaintiffs’ land and negligent failure to provide lateral support to Plaintiffs’ home. Defendant made a motion for summary judgment, which the lower court denied in part and granted in part. The lower court found that Plaintiffs had no right to recover for damage to their buildings, but left open the question of whether Plaintiffs could recover for damage to their land. The lower court stated that there is a duty of lateral support to the land but not for any structures on the land. The Plaintiffs appealed.

    Issue. Can the Plaintiffs recover for damage to their house on a theory of negligence?

    Held. No. Reversed and remanded.
    An adjacent landowner has an obligation to provide lateral support to his neighbor’s property in its raw or natural condition. If the lateral support is insufficient to support the land in its raw, natural condition and the land-slips, the adjacent landowner is liable both for the damage to the land and the damage to any buildings that are on the land.
    The withdrawal of lateral support may subject the landowner that withdraws support to strict liability or to liability for negligence. An adjacent landowner is strictly liable for acts of commission and omission on his part that result in the withdrawal of lateral support to his neighbor’s property. Strict liability is limited, however, to land in its natural state and there is no obligation to support the added weight of buildings that land cannot naturally support.
    The Plaintiffs should have been allowed to prove that their land was sufficiently strong in its natural state to support the weight of their house, and that their house was damaged as a result of the chain reaction that began because the land slipped as the result of the withdrawal of lateral support by the Defendant’s deteriorating retaining wall.
    Because the Defendant’s house and retaining wall was built before the Plaintiffs’ house, the Defendant’s wall was required only to be strong enough to support the Plaintiffs’ soil. The Defendant was not required to strengthen the wall to support the Plaintiffs’ house, but was required to keep the wall sufficiently repaired to support the Plaintiffs’ land.
    The court found that the Plaintiffs could not hold the Defendant liable on a theory of negligence. In order to hold Defendant liable, the Plaintiffs must prove that the deterioration of the Defendant’s retaining wall would have inevitably led to the slippage of Plaintiffs’ land. If, on the other hand, the Plaintiffs’ land would not have slipped but for the added weight of the house, then the Plaintiffs may not recover.

    Discussion. This opinion contains an excellent discussion of strict liability and negligence as it relates to lateral support.


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