The Power of Eminent Domain
Most people do not realize the power that governmental agencies and power companies have to take property. The right of “eminent domain” is one that is granted for public projects, such as roads, electric transmission lines, sewer projects and gas lines. The right of eminent domain is the right of any agency to “purchase” private property without the consent of the landowner. It is an awesome right that the courts in South Carolina have looked at very carefully to be sure the landowner is not mistreated.
The Rights of Landowners
While the law grants authority for these agencies to take lands of private citizens and companies for public purposes, the impact of such “taking” can be very detrimental to private landowners and businesses. People affected by such projects have recourse in our legal system.
First, the condemning authority cannot be arbitrary in its route selection over private property. It must utilize objective criteria for selecting a route. Under South Carolina law, a private landowner can challenge the condemning authority’s right to take. If a court determines that the route selection is arbitrary and without proper factual foundation, it will enter an Order of Injunction prohibiting the route.
Secondly, even where a condemnation project is for a legitimate purpose and the route is not arbitrary, the landowner is still entitled to full “just compensation” for the taking. Just compensation includes the following elements:
- Fair market value of the land taken (the area of the right of way or easement);
- Any damages to the remainder of the property owned by the landowner, including damages outside the area of the right of way; and,
- In certain cases, landowners can recover his/her attorneys’ fees, costs, and litigation expenses (such as appraisal fees and expenses).
Pope & Hudgens has represented dozens of landowners in condemnation cases in the last 40 years. We have achieved successful jury verdicts or settlements which far exceed the value of the actual land used in the project. Some examples:
- $800,000 for 5 acres taken for a highway project
- $170,000 (including fees and costs) for a 1-acre taking for a sewer project that adversely affected an entire horse farm
- $100,000 (including fees and costs) for a 2-acre electric power line taking which caused damage to a landowner’s full use of a tract of land
- $1,000,000 for a highway project taking 1-acre of land where the project cut off the landowner’s access to his property.
- Verdict of 25% damage to the remainder of a 100-acre tract where a highway project taking less than 1 acre for widening a highway caused damage to the remainder of the tract
(Each case is unique. Any result the lawyer or law firm may have achieved on behalf of clients in other matters does not necessarily indicate similar results can be obtained for other clients. Verdicts, awards, or total recoveries presented reflect gross numbers, are before attorney’s fees, costs, and expenses are deducted.)
Jurors are very vigilant to consider the full scope of a taking on a landowner’s property. They understand that taking a homeowner’s front yard to widen a highway is devastating to the use of that home and can result in a verdict for an amount that would award the landowner the full value of his home, as well as the portion taken. If a landowner is ever faced with a condemnation, he or she needs to be sure they get proper legal advice from an attorney well-versed in condemnation law.