An action for waste may be lost by laches. Likewise, estoppel may be asserted as a defense in an action for waste. The doctrine of laches and estoppel are closely related, especially where there is complaint of delay which has placed another at a disadvantage. Laches is sometimes spoken of as a species of estoppel. Laches is a wholly negative thing, the result of a failure to act; estoppel on the other hand may involve an affirmative act on the part of some party of the lawsuit. The mere passage of time is not enough to invoke the doctrine of laches. Each case must be governed by its own facts, and what might be considered a lapse of sufficient time to defeat an action in one case might be insufficient in another. Laches, in legal significance, is not mere delay, but delay that works a disadvantage to another. The defense of laches may be applied in actions at law as well as in equitable proceedings. Laches is an equitable defense and will not bar a recovery from mere lapse of time nor where there is a reasonable excuse for nonaction of a party in making inquiry as to his rights or in asserting them.
A decedent devised certain farmland to the life tenant for her life. Initially, the life tenant resided in the farmhouse. However, the farmhouse was unoccupied for 11 years prior to the life tenant's death. The remaindermen filed a demand against the life tenant's estate following her death on the theory of waste to recover damages for the deterioration of the farmhouse. The executrix asserted the defense of laches or estoppel. The trial court found, however, that the defense was not applicable and entered judgment for the remaindermen.
Was the defense of laches or estoppel applicable?
The court affirmed the judgment. Under the circumstances, the trial court did not err in rejecting the defense of laches or estoppel. The evidence was clear that the life tenant failed to carry out her duty as life tenant and quasi-trustee to keep the property in reasonable repair. Preservation of the property was the life tenant's responsibility, and the fact that permissive waste occurred was proved beyond question. If the life tenant had been alive, she could not have disputed the fact that the property had been allowed to deteriorate. Hence, any delay in filing the action until after her death could not have resulted in prejudice to the executrix.