New Case Summary – Metropolitan Water District v. Sorf

December 18, 2023

2023 UT App 146 (Dec 7, 2023) (click for full text of opinion)

The Utah Court of Appeals refused to adopt a bright-line legal rule that the placement of any permanent structure inside an easement of definite dimensions conveyed by grant is unreasonable as a matter of law.

The Metropolitan Water District is a governmental entity that acquired–by warranty deed–an easement over the property currently owned by Sorf for purposes of the Salt Lake Aqueduct, a forty-two mile pipeline that provides culinary water in the Salt Lake Valley. The easement allows the District to “construct, reconstruct, operate and maintain a pipeline or pipelines on, over and across” Sorf’s property. The easement area is described in deed and passes through much of Sorf’s backyard at a width of mostly 125 ft wide. Sorf installed many improvements on the property including a deck, a shed, concrete pad and other landscaping, some of which are located in the easement area, and the District sued Sorf for interference after he refused to remove structures from the easement area.  

After years of legal proceedings including two appeals, following the Utah Supreme Court’s most recent remand (see, Metro v. Sorf, 2019 UT 23), the case went to trial, and the trial court refused the District’s requested jury instructions that any “permanent structure located within an easement of definite location and dimensions is unreasonable” as a matter of law. The trial court also refused the District’s requested verdict form that asked the jury to consider the cumulative effect of the improvements. The jury found for Sorf and the District appealed. 

The Court of Appeals found that the rule of mutual reasonableness has long been applied in Utah easement cases, and that whereas reasonable use is a question of fact, factual questions are typically not decided as a matter of law. The District maintained that the court should adopt a bright-line exception to the mutual reasonableness rule that would only apply in narrow circumstances. The court noted that such an exception has been adopted by some courts in cases egress/ingress easements, but that it would not be appropriate here because Utah’s caselaw has strictly adhered to the mutual reasonableness rule, applying such exception outside the context of ingress/egress cases is unprecedented and problematic, and it was unlikely that such a rule would actually reduce litigation, as suggested by the District.