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Law School Case Brief

Somerville v. Jacobs - 153 W. Va. 613, 170 S.E.2d 805 (1969)


An improver of land owned by another, who through a reasonable mistake of fact and in good faith erects a building entirely upon the land of the owner, with reasonable belief that such land was owned by the improver, is entitled to recover the value of the improvements from the landowner and to a lien upon such property that may be sold to enforce the payment of such lien, or, in the alternative, to purchase the land so improved upon payment to the landowner of the value of the land less the improvements and such landowner, even though free from any inequitable conduct in connection with the construction of the building upon his land, who, however, retains but refuses to pay for the improvements, must, within a reasonable time, either pay the improver the amount by which the value of his land has been improved or convey such land to the improver upon the payment by the improver to the landowner of the value of the land without the improvements.


The plaintiffs, W. J. Somerville and Hazel M. Somerville (Somervilles), were the owners of Lots 44, 45 and 46 in the Homeland Addition to the city of Parkersburg, in Wood County, but mistakenly constructed a building on Lot 47 owned by the defendants, William L. Jacobs and Marjorie S. Jacobs (Jacobses). The Somervilles believed that they were erecting a warehouse building on Lot 46 which they owned. Construction of the building was completed in January 1967 and by deed dated January 14, 1967, the Somervilles conveyed Lots 44, 45 and 46 to the plaintiffs Fred C. Engle and Jimmy C. Pappas. Engle and Pappas subsequently leased the building to the Parkersburg Coca-Cola Bottling Company, a corporation. Soon after the building was completed but not until then, the Jacobs learned that the building was on their property and claimed ownership of the building and its fixtures on the theory of annexation. The Somervilles then instituted a proceeding for equitable relief in the Circuit Court of Wood County and in their complaint prayed, among other things, for judgment in favor of the Somervilles for $ 20,500 as the value of the improvements made on Lot 47, or, in the alternative, that the Jacobses be ordered to convey their interest in Lot 47 to the Somervilles for a fair consideration. The Farmers Building and Loan Association, a corporation, the holder of a deed of trust lien upon the land of the Jacobses, was on motion permitted to intervene and be made a defendant in this proceeding. By final judgment rendered June 11, 1968, the circuit court required the Jacobses within 60 days to elect whether they would retain the building and pay the Somervilles $ 17,500 or suffer judgment against themselves in their favor in that amount, or convey title to Lot 47 of Homeland Addition to the Somervilles for the sum of $ 2,000 cash.


Was it an error to require the Jacobses to either retain or sell the building to the plaintiffs?




According to the Court, the Somervilles erected the building on the land due to a factual mistake by the surveyor, reasonably believing it was their property. On the other hand, the Jacobses did not discover the error until the building was completed and were not guilty of fraud or inequitable conduct constituting an estoppel. As such, in order to prevent unjust enrichment benefitting the Jacobses, the Court affirmed the judgment directing the latter to either sell the land to Somervilles for the fair market value of the unimproved lot, or compensate the Somervilles in the amount of the fair market value of the bottling plant.

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