When the government chooses not to condemn land but to bring about a taking by a continuing process of physical events, the owner is not required to resort either to piecemeal or to premature litigation to ascertain the just compensation for what is really "taken."
In order to improve navigability of a river, Congress authorized construction of a dam. The government raised the river by successive stages over a course of approximately one year. As result of raising of the river, the landowners' property was permanently flooded, erosion damaged the land, which formed a new bank of pool, and further land was subject to intermittent flooding. The landowners brought actions under the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C.S. § 41(20) to recover the value of property claimed to have been taken by the government. The trial court found in favor of the landowners, and the appellate court affirmed the judgment. The government sought a writ of certiorari.
The principal attack by the United States against the judgments is that both actions were outlawed. The applicable statute of limitations is six years. The complaints were filed on April 1, 1943. The Government argues that the statute began to run on October 21, 1936, when the dam began to impound water. In any event, it maintains that the six years began to run not later than on May 30, 1937, when the dam was fully capable of operation, the water was raised above its former level, and the property of the respondents was partially submerged for the first time.
Was the action barred by the statute of limitations?
The Court granted the petition and affirmed the judgment, holding that the statute of limitations did not begin to run under the Tucker Act until the taking was complete or before the landowners owned the property. The Court determined that the government was liable for damage to the surrounding land caused by erosion, that one landowner's alleged reclamation of land did not disentitle him to be paid for the original taking, and that the judgment for intermittent flooding was proper.
The Court held that property is taken in the constitutional sense when inroads are made upon an owner's use of it to an extent that, as between private parties, a servitude has been acquired either by agreement or in course of time. The Fifth Amendment expresses a principle of fairness and not a technical rule of procedure enshrining old or new niceties regarding "causes of action" -- when they are born, whether they proliferate, and when they die. Assuming that such an action would be sustained, it is not a good enough reason why he must sue then or have, from that moment, the statute of limitations run against him. If suit must be brought, lest he jeopardize his rights, as soon as his land is invaded, other contingencies would be running against him -- for instance, the uncertainty of the damage and the risk of res judicata against recovering later for damage as yet uncertain. The source of the entire claim -- the overflow due to rises in the level of the river -- is not a single event; it is continuous. And as there is nothing in reason, so there is nothing in legal doctrine, to preclude the law from meeting such a process by postponing suit until the situation becomes stabilized. An owner of land flooded by the Government would not unnaturally postpone bringing a suit against the Government for the flooding until the consequences of inundation have so manifested themselves that a final account may be struck.
When dealing with a problem which arises under such diverse circumstances procedural rigidities should be avoided. The court is holding that when the Government chooses not to condemn land but to bring about a taking by a continuing process of physical events, the owner is not required to resort either to piecemeal or to premature litigation to ascertain the just compensation for what is really "taken." The court found that the taking which was the basis of these suits was not complete six years prior to April 1, 1943, nor at a time preceding Dickinson's ownership.