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Urbaitis v. Commonwealth Edison

Citation. 22 Ill.143 Ill. 2d 458, 159 Ill. Dec. 50, 575 N.E.2d 548 (1991)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiffs sued to quiet title to a strip of land, which was formerly used as a railway, but was no longer being used for such purpose.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The mere use of the descriptive words “right of way,” without more, is insufficient to create an easement when the clear intent of the parties is to convey a fee simple title.


Plaintiffs, a group of landowners whose property is directly abutting the land in question, and the Commonwealth Edison (Defendant), claim title to a strip of land formerly used as a railway under the same conveyance from Dodson to the Chicago, Wheaton and Western Railway in 1909. The strip of land is approximately 100 feet wide and 2,713 feet long. The Plaintiffs own residences next to the strip of land and allege that they have improved the land with gardens and lawn ornaments. Plaintiffs brought this action to quiet title to the strip of land based on the contention that Dodson conveyed the strip of land to the railway company only as an easement for purposes of building a railway and that the easement was abandoned in 1946 when the strip of land ceased being used for such purposes. In the alternative, Plaintiffs allege that when the strip of land ceased being used for railway purposes, the land reverted to Dodson’s heirs, who then deeded their interest to Plaintiffs. The D
efendant contends that Dodson conveyed an estate in fee simple to the railway company in 1909. Therefore, Defendant has the title in fee simple and has the power to grant a perpetual easement to the Forest Preserve District.


Did the original deed from Dodson to the Defendant convey an easement or a fee simple?


The original deed conveyed the land in fee simple. Both the trial and appellate courts were correct in determining that the 1909 deed conveyed a fee simple to the railroad.
When a deed uses language, which is a term of art in its customary legal meaning, such terminology will be given its legal effect. The words “convey and warrant” will be suggestive of a grant in fee simple. When a deed purports to grant a “right,” however, the estate conveyed is limited to an easement.
In this case, the Plaintiffs rely on the words “right of way” to show the grantor’s intent to convey only an easement. The court found that the use of such wording was not meant to limit the estate granted, but was, rather, shorthand for the description of the parcel of land conveyed in fee simple.
The term “right of way” is found in the conditions portion of the deed, which is where the grantor outlined certain improvements to be made by the grantee and, in order to accurately describe the location of such improvements, the deed used the term “right of way” to mean the location of certain intersections between the land of the grant (which was to be a railway) and certain streets. The language does not indicate an intention to limit the grant.
The court points out that a number of other cases have held that the use of “right of way” does convey only an easement. However, the court distinguished those cases by pointing out that in those cases, the term “right of way” was the actual conveyance, not, as here, merely a descriptive word in the conditions portion of the deed. Also, in those cases the habendum clause called for a reversion should the railway cease its operations.
The intent of the parties is to be read from the instrument as a whole, and not just shorthand language in a portion of the deed. Thus, the intent of the 1909 deed was to convey a fee simple to the railway company.


Courts generally require some higher degree of specificity to create an easement. In this case, the 1909 deed did not contain the word “easement,” and the Plaintiffs were relying on language in one portion of the deed, which was not the portion of the deed of conveyance. Therefore, no easement was created.

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