Law School Case Brief
Westland Skating Ctr., Inc. v. Gus Machado Buick, Inc. - 542 So. 2d 959 (Fla. 1989)
The principle that an upper landowner enjoys an easement across the lower tract for all naturally occurring surface water continues to apply to land in its natural state. However, when any party improves his land, thereby causing surface waters to damage his neighbor's property, the reasonable use rule shall be applied in order to settle the controversy. The rule applies not only in cases involving the conduct of the upper owner but also to improvements by the lower owner, such as the construction of dams designed to protect against the natural flow of surface waters across the lower land.
This case involves a dispute among occupiers of adjacent parcels of land that used to be part of the Everglades and later became pastureland, but which now comprise commercially developed property in Dade County. Petitioner, Westland Skating Center, Inc. (“Westland”), operated a skating rink on property leased from petitioner, Hialeah Skating Center, Ltd. An auto dealership, now operated by respondent, Gus Machado Buick, Inc., occupied abutting property. There has been some alteration of all the land involved, but the parties agree that the natural drainage flow was generally and gradually toward the southwest, that is from the skating rink property onto and toward the rear of the auto dealership property. When the auto dealership was built in 1970, a miniature-golf course occupied the skating rink property, and apparently neither landowner had unusual problems in dealing with rainwater. Trouble began in April 1980, however, after the construction of the skating rink. The building's roof was 200 by 120 feet. A 200-by-60-foot section sloped toward the auto dealership; it ended about 10 feet from the property line. Water drained off the roof through five downspouts. During a rainstorm the auto dealership, then Seipp Buick, experienced flooding extensive enough to damage several cars. This sort of flooding had occurred only once before, and then during much heavier rain. Seipp blamed the new skating rink, with its sloping roof and downspouts, for increasing the flow of water onto his property. Seipp then built a wall, which acted as a dam; Westland did not object to the construction of the wall. The skating rink then sustained damage after heavy rains when water backed up from the wall. The trial court noted that the reasonable use rule had been adopted by Restatement Second of Torts § 833, which recommended that claims of interference with the flow of surface waters should be decided under principles of nuisance. Westland appealed from the appellate court decision that reversed the trial court judgment for Westland and Hialeah.
Could evidence of Westland’s compliance with the building code be used to exclude other relevant evidence of reasonableness in a dispute between adjacent property owners regarding property flooding?
The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed the judgment of the appellate court reversing the trial court's judgment and ordering a new trial. The court held that the jury instruction had the practical effect of requiring the jury to determine the reasonableness of petitioner's conduct based upon whether or not it complied with the South Florida Building Code. While one's compliance with a statute or an ordinance may amount to evidence of reasonableness, such compliance was not tantamount to reasonableness as a matter of law. Thus, evidence of petitioners' compliance with the code could be properly considered as evidence of the reasonableness of their conduct, but not to the exclusion of other relevant evidence on that issue. Moreover, the case involved an evaluation and comparison of the reasonableness of the conduct of both parties. The rule of reasonable use employed the proper balance and best enabled surface water controversies to be fairly decided. Therefore, the entry of the partial summary judgment and the resultant giving of the disputed jury instruction constituted reversible error.
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