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Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 871.3, provides that a good faith improver may bring an action in the superior court or, subject to Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 396, may file a cross-complaint in a pending action in the superior or municipal court for relief under this chapter. In every case, the burden is on the good faith improver to establish that he is entitled to relief under this chapter, and the degree of negligence of the good faith improver should be taken into account by the court in determining whether the improver acted in good faith and in determining the relief, if any, that is consistent with substantial justice to the parties under the circumstances of the particular case.
Plaintiffs brought an action for a mandatory injunction and damages against adjoining landowners alleging two separate, continuing trespasses by defendant. The complaint alleged that defendants had built a cabin entirely on plaintiffs' land at a northwest corner of the common boundary, and had built a family home with approximately one-third of the premises located on plaintiffs' land at the southerly end of the common boundary. With respect to the cabin built at the northwest boundary, the trial court concluded that defendants were good faith improvers within the meaning of Code Civ. Proc., §§ 871.1-871.7, providing judicial relief for one who makes an improvement to land in good faith and under a mistaken belief that he is the landowner. Accordingly, the judgment realigned the northern common boundary to give defendants the .287 acre where their cabin was situated, and awarded plaintiffs $ 700 as compensation for the reasonable value of the land. As to defendants' dwelling house to the south, the court found that approximately 10 years before the lawsuit, defendants had established part of their driveway, utility lines, yard and landscaping on plaintiffs' land, and concluded that the occupancy had been open, obvious and hostile, had lasted for more than five years, during which time defendants had paid all taxes. Accordingly, the court held that defendants had acquired by prescription an easement covering their driveway, utility lines and yard.
Under the circumstances, were the defendants good-faith improvers, thereby justifying the trial court’s decision to award the land to the defendants?
The Court of Appeal reversed. The court, referring to Code Civ. Proc., § 871.3, declaring that the improver's "degree of negligence" should be taken into account in determining his good faith and in shaping the relief, held that the trial court's failure to make a finding on negligence was reversible error, in view of the record which showed that before defendants had completed the cabin and when only $ 1,956 had been spent on it, plaintiffs warned that the building was on their land, but defendants disregarded the warning and spent an additional $ 2,206 to complete the cabin, without making a survey or offering to share in the cost of a survey, and that plaintiffs later spent a considerable amount for a survey which the trial court accepted as the true boundary line. The court further found that the evidence and findings did not sustain the award of an "easement" covering defendants' driveway, utility lines and yard on plaintiffs' property since, while the findings and judgment employed the nomenclature of an easement, it was in fact designed to create the practical equivalent of an estate, and achievement of that objective required proof and findings of the elements of adverse possession, not prescriptive use. Accordingly, the court held that since the findings recited no exclusivity of use, they would not support a judgment of adverse possession.