Law School Case Brief
Envtl. Processing Sys., L.C. v. FPL Farming Ltd. - 457 S.W.3d 414 (Tex. 2015)
A trespass to real property is an unauthorized entry upon the land of another, and may occur when one enters—or causes something to enter—another's property.
To maintain an action for trespass, it is the plaintiff's burden to prove that the entry was wrongful, and the plaintiff must do so by establishing that entry was unauthorized or without its consent.
Plaintiff FPL Farming Ltd. owned a land in Texas, which it used primarily for farming. Defendant Environmental Processing Systems (EPS) leased a five-acre tract on an adjacent property, where it constructed and operated a wastewater disposal facility. FPL Farming sued EPS and alleged that wastewater had migrated into the deep subsurface of its land, possibly contaminating the briny groundwater beneath it. FPL Farming sued for injunctive relief and damages for trespass, negligence, and unjust enrichment. Before the jury verdict, the trial court denied FPL Farming's no-evidence motion for a directed verdict on the issue of whether EPS provided evidence that FPL Farming had consented to the subsurface entry. The jury charge included consent in the definition of trespass. The jury’s verdict was in favor of defendant EPS. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the jury’s verdict. Both parties petitioned to the Texas Supreme Court. EPS challenges the court of appeals' decision recognizing a trespass cause of action under these circumstances and holding that consent is an affirmative defense. FPL Farming challenges the court of appeals' decision affirming the denial of its motion for directed verdict.
1. Was lack of consent an element of the trespass cause of action?
2. Did the jury charge properly placed the burden of proving an unauthorized entry, or lack of consent, on the plaintiff, which would not entitle plaintiff for a directed verdict?
3. Was defendant harmed by the submission of a jury question asking whether it committed a trespass by causing deep subsurface wastewater to migrate underneath FPL Farming's property?
1. The Court concluded that jurisprudence was well-established with regard to the characterization of consent as an element of the definition of trespass. Jurisprudence never departed from the inclusion of lack of consent or authorization in the definition of a trespass. The Court defined trespass to real property as an unauthorized entry upon the land of another and may occur when one enters or causes something to enter another's property. Hence, consent was not an affirmative defense as argued by plaintiff FPL Farming.
2. Since the Court agreed with the trial court that consent was not an affirmative defense to a trespass action, the lack of consent or authorization was an element of a trespass cause of action that the plaintiff must prove. Accordingly, FPL Farming's motion for directed verdict relied on an erroneous premise because EPS was not obligated to prove that FPL Farming consented to the alleged entry. Stated differently, it was FPL Farming’s burden to show that it did not consent to the alleged action of trespassing by EPS.
3. Because the Court rendered judgment in favor of EPS and did not remand the case for a new trial, EPS was not harmed by the submission of a jury question asking whether it committed a trespass by causing deep subsurface wastewater to migrate underneath FPL Farming's property. This lack of harm eliminated the need to address whether Texas law recognized a trespass cause of action for deep subsurface wastewater migration.
The Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment and reinstated the trial court’s judgment in favor of EPS.
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