Lessons from a Massachusetts Adverse Possession Case
The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an important decision this week concerning adverse possession and easements by prescription. The decision, Smaland Beach Association v. Genova, is available here.
This decision concerns beach access . . . a common source of these cases. The case also involves many other property law areas, but my blog post here will stick to the parts of the decision relevant to adverse possession.
Overview of Adverse Possession/Easement by Prescription
Adverse possession is a legal claim that allows a party to acquire other property if it uses it without the legal owner’s permission. In Massachusetts, such use must occur continuously for twenty years. Importantly, such a claim requires exclusive use, with no one else having similarly used the property.
A claim of easement by prescription is similar to adverse possession but without the requirement of exclusive use. An easement by prescription allows a party permanent use (as opposed to ownership) of property. These claims are common for disputes involving water access and parking.
Smaland Beach has some important lessons for litigating these kinds of cases.
Lesson #1: Facts Matter
Adverse possession cases are highly factual cases. It is not uncommon for these disputes to get into the weeds (no pun intended!) of the disputed property and concern even the smallest portions of the disputed land.
In this case, the party opposing this claim attempted to argue that the claimant’s case should not have been decided by the jury, arguing they did not present sufficient evidence to make such a claim. The Appeals Court rejected this argument by recognizing that such claims are questions of fact and often need to be resolved at trial.
This is an important lesson for one of these cases: assume the dispute will go to trial and plan accordingly by making a detailed and consistent narrative of one of these claims’ requirements.
Lesson #2: Unexplained Use of Property Creates a Presumption of Adverse Use
Smaland Beach Association reaffirms a long-standing presumption for adverse possession: longstanding unexplained property use creates a presumption that such use is adverse (non-permissive).
This presumption is essential for a successful claim. Adverse use is a requirement for one of these claims, and this presumption helps a claimant make this required showing. After doing so, the party opposing such a claim has the burden to overcome this presumption and show that such use was allowed.
Lesson #3: All Necessary Parties Must Be Part of an Adverse Possession Case
Finally, Smaland Beach Association is a reminder that any persons whose property may fall under such a claim must be part of the action in an adverse possession case.
This isn’t that unique to an adverse possession case; in any civil action, a failure to join a necessary party can be grounds for dismissing a lawsuit. I suspect, however, that given the implications of adverse possession to property owners, this rule is even more strictly applied.
If you find yourself involved in a property dispute concerning adverse possession, contact me for a consultation.