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Stoner v. Zucker

    Brief Fact Summary. Defendants were granted a license by Plaintiff to enter Plaintiff’s land and construct an irrigation ditch, and thereafter Plaintiff revoked the license and sued to have Defendants adjudged trespassers.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. When a licensee undertakes significant cost and effort to make improvements to the land of another under an oral license, the court may find that such a license is not revocable at will of the licensor because the character of the license has changed to an easement.

    Facts. In 1899, Defendants entered onto the land of Plaintiff, pursuant to an oral license, and built a ditch which was for irrigation. In 1900, Plaintiff revoked the license and served notice to Defendants. The Defendants have continuously disregarded this revocation and have entered onto Plaintiff’s land for the purpose of maintaining the ditch. The Defendants have threatened to continue to do so. The Defendants spent more than seven thousand dollars constructing the ditch. The lower court found that Plaintiff had granted a right of way to Defendants for the construction and maintenance of the ditch, and that there was consideration for the granting of the right of way in the form of an agreement that Defendants would construct a canal for the irrigation of Plaintiff’s land.

    Issue. Is the license revocable at the will of Plaintiff?

    Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
    The court noted the arguments of the Plaintiff, which were that: 1) the license justified anything done by the licensee, but is revocable at the option of the licensor; 2) that, because the license is merely a revocable permission, equitable estoppel will not work against the licensor because the licensee took the risk of expending money on improvements under a license; 3) that to convert such a license into an easement by estoppel is to destroy the purpose of the statute of frauds, insofar as the easement would arise without having ever been expressed in writing by the landowner.
    The court recognized that, generally, one could not enforce an easement, which is based on oral agreement alone. However, the court recognized that there was an exception to the general rule when a licensee has made improvements by expending money or labor in the execution of the license, such that the license becomes irrevocable. Then the licensee gains the right to enter the lands for the purpose of maintaining the structures built thereon, as long as the structures need maintenance.
    The court found that in this case the nature of the license was converted to an easement by the licensee’s expenditures of labor and money, and that the easement will continue so long as the ditch continues to be used.

    Discussion. When a licensee undertakes significant cost and effort to make improvements to the land of another under an oral license, the court may find that such a license is not revocable at will of the licensor because the character of the license has changed to an easement.


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