When purchasing property, buyers should be aware of rights reserved by others in the deed. Certain reservations of rights made by an original owner can continue to haunt a parcel of property through successive conveyances and multiple owners. In Louisiana, the language in a deed can create a personal servitude, a charge or burden on a piece of property for the benefit of another person. Personal servitudes are not automatically extinguished at death and may be inheritable by descendants of the beneficiary. For example, a seller may reserve hunting rights for his or her family on the newly purchased property for generations. Needless to say, disputes often arise regarding the breadth and depth of such reservations. When interpreted by a court, the intent of the original parties in negotiating the reservation is key, as shown by a recent decision of the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal.
The dispute, in this case, involved two adjoining parcels of property in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana. One parcel was owned by Kirby Roy Jr. and his wife Marjorie. Kirby Roy, III and his wife Sheila owned the other. In 1980, the couples sold their parcels to Douglas and Ralph J. Bordelon, reserving any and all hunting rights on the property described in the deeds. After a foreclosure proceeding, Nelson A. Bordelon, Wayne L. Gremillion, and Richard Tassin purchased the property in 1991. The three purchasers partitioned the property among themselves.
During the various conveyances, the Roy family continued to hunt on the property much to the dismay of the new owners. The new owners questioned whether the Roys retained their reservation of hunting rights after the 1991 purchase. Mr. Gremillion filed a criminal trespass complaint with the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s’ Department, reporting Mr. Roy III for hunting on the property without permission.
While the criminal complaint was dismissed after grand jury proceedings, the Roys initiated their own legal proceedings. The Roys filed suit against Mr. Bordelon, Mr. Gremillion, and Mr. Tassin, alleging that the three defendants leased the property to others for hunting purposes, depriving the Roys of their hunting rights. The Roys sought revenue from the hunting leases, damages for emotional distress related to the criminal prosecution and an injunction prohibiting the defendants and their guests, agents, lessees or assignees from hunting on the property.
The trial court found for the Roys, holding that they were entitled to own all of the hunting rights on the property. The trial court granted the injunction in favor of the Roys and ordered the defendants to pay $12,000 from the hunting leases. It also ordered Mr. Gremillion to pay Mr. Roy III $6,500 in damages for the criminal prosecution. The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for a new trial.
The defendants appealed on a number of grounds, asserting primarily that the trial court erred in holding that the hunting rights reserved in 1980 were inheritable and that the Roys’ right of use included the right to have guests or invitees on the land for hunting purposes. The court of appeals held for the Roys and affirmed the trial court’s findings on both grounds.
In this case, the underlying issue was how to interpret the clause ‘vendors reserve any and all hunting rights.’ The Roys claimed that this open-ended phrase expressed the intent to reserve all hunting rights for future generations, not just Kirby Roy Jr. and Kirby Roy, III, and included the right to have invitees. The defendants claimed that the clause should be construed narrowly, meaning that it only applied to Kirby Roy Jr. and Kirby Roy, III.
As a preliminary, but nonetheless critical evidentiary concern, the court of appeals addressed the trial court’s admission of parol evidence. Generally, the parol evidence rule prohibits the admission into the court of extrinsic or outside evidence to negate or vary the contents of a writing, such as a contract for the sale of land. La. C.C. art. 1848. The defendants sought to apply the parol evidence rule, in this case, to exclude Mr. Roy III’s testimony about his father’s intent when negotiating the reservations in the initial 1980 transfer. The defendants asserted that the issues should be resolved by looking only to the conveyances themselves.
The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to admit Mr. Roy III’s testimony. In Louisiana, if a particular contract is susceptible to more than one interpretation or the parties’ intent cannot be discerned from the language used, parol evidence is admissible to clarify any ambiguities and show the intention of the parties. McCarroll v. McCarroll, 701 So.2d 1280, 1286 (La. 1997). The court of appeals considered that in this case, the parties put forward differing views on the interpretation of the reservation, presenting evidence and witnesses to further their view. The court of appeals also referenced the Louisiana Civil Code, noting that it provides for consideration of the parties’ intent and foresees that the contours of a particular right may change over time.
When it comes to purchasing property, the general rule is ‘buyer beware.’ Buyers should be vigilant and aware of personal servitudes and other burdens affecting property before negotiating for any purchase. Having a lawyer helps. Good lawyers have mastered the complexities of property law, understand the maxims of interpretation, and assist their clients to make informed decisions.
Additional Sources: KIRBY A. ROY, III, ET UX. VERSUS NELSON BORDELON, ET AL.
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer Noah Al-Malt
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