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Stegner v. Milligan

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division

June 20, 2017

KENNETH G. and SHIRLEY M. STEGNER, TRUSTEES OF THE STEGNER FAMILY TRUST, Appellants,
v.
RUSSELL D. and DONNA L. MILLIGAN, TRUSTEES OF THE RUSSELL D. MILLIGAN and DONNA L. MILLIGAN JOINT REVOCABLE TRUST, Respondents.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COOPER COUNTY The Honorable Jeff A. Mittelhauser, Judge.

          Before: Mark D. Pfeiffer, Chief Judge, Presiding, Lisa White Hardwick and Edward R. Ardini, Jr.

          LISA WHITE HARDWICK, JUDGE.

         Kenneth and Shirley Stegner ("the Stegners") appeal the circuit court's order dismissing their petition to widen their private road, which they filed against Russell and Donna Milligan ("the Milligans"), the owners of the property over which the proposed widened road would pass. For reasons explained herein, we reverse and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Factual and Procedural History

         The Stegners and Milligans own tracts of land that abut at their southeast and northwest corners. The Stegners also own an L-shaped 14-foot wide gravel road that runs through the Milligans' property. This road is the Stegners' only route to and from a public road that adjoins the Stegners' and the Milligans' properties.

         In 2014, the Stegners filed a lawsuit against the Milligans ("2014 lawsuit") asking the court to award them a prescriptive easement over a dirt path that runs through the Milligans' property. The Stegners alleged that, for more than ten years, they and their tenants and assignees had been using the dirt path to access the Stegners' property with agricultural equipment and passenger vehicles. The Stegners asked the court to hold that they were the owners of a 30-foot wide easement by prescription over this dirt path. In the alternative, the Stegners asked the court to hold that they were entitled to condemn an easement by necessity over the dirt path under Section 228.342, RSMo 2016.[1]

         Following a bench trial, the court entered judgment in favor of the Milligans. The court found that the Stegners did not establish the right to a prescriptive easement because they failed to prove that their use of the dirt path was continuous, uninterrupted, visible, and adverse. The court further found that the Stegners did not establish the right to an easement by necessity over the dirt path because the evidence showed that the Stegners' gravel road was usable or could be made usable to allow them unfettered access to their property.

         In March 2016, the Stegners filed a second lawsuit against the Milligans, which is the subject of this appeal. In this suit, the Stegners asked the court to grant them an easement by necessity to widen their gravel road from 14 feet to 25 feet. In their petition, the Stegners alleged that the Milligans had recently built fences enclosing the Stegners' road on both sides. The Stegners alleged that, with the addition of these fences, the gravel road's 14-foot width did not allow for the passage of modern farm equipment, including mowers, balers, and hay trailers, to the remainder of their property.

         In response to the Stegners' petition, the Milligans filed a motion to dismiss the case on the basis that res judicata barred the Stegners' claim. The Milligans argued that the 2014 lawsuit constituted a judgment on the merits involving the same parties, the same claim of private condemnation of a wider road, and the same issue of strict necessity. The Milligans attached the petition and judgment in the 2014 lawsuit to their motion to dismiss. In their suggestions in opposition to the motion to dismiss, the Stegners argued that their claim in this suit was not the same as their claim in the 2014 lawsuit because the sufficiency of the width of their gravel road was not litigated or decided in the prior suit, and the impact of the Milligans' newly-constructed fences on the Stegners' access to their property was not considered in the prior suit.

         The court held a hearing on the Milligans' motion to dismiss. During this hearing, the parties presented only arguments of counsel; no evidence or testimony was offered. Counsel for both parties asserted their recollections as to the extent of the testimony from the 2014 lawsuit regarding the sufficiency of the gravel road for the Stegners' agricultural use of their property. The Milligans' counsel argued that there was evidence offered during the 2014 lawsuit regarding whether the gravel road was sufficient and that, when the court rejected the Stegners' request in that lawsuit for an easement by necessity over the dirt path, the court specifically determined that the 14-foot-wide gravel road was sufficient.

         In response, the Stegners' counsel argued that, while evidence of the existence of the gravel road may have negated their request for an easement by necessity over the dirt path in the 2014 lawsuit, the sufficiency of the gravel road after the Milligans' addition of barbed wire fences on both sides of the road was not litigated. When the Stegners' counsel also attempted to argue that, in addition to the barbed wire fences, there was another "change" on a "corner"[2] of the road that occurred after the 2014 lawsuit, the court stopped Stegners' counsel and told him that was "beyond where -- what I should consider in a motion to dismiss."

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the court advised counsel for both parties that they could submit further legal authority on the motion to dismiss to the court. The Stegners submitted amended suggestions in opposition to the motion to dismiss in which they argued that their present claim was not the same as their claim in the 2014 lawsuit and involved new facts that occurred after the judgment in the 2014 lawsuit.

         The court subsequently entered its judgment sustaining the Milligans' motion to dismiss. Citing the petition and judgment from the 2014 lawsuit, as well as evidence presented during the trial in the 2014 lawsuit, the court found that res judicata and collateral estoppel barred the Stegners' ...


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