Holder Of Easement Liable For Damages To Dominant Estate Owner For Failing To Maintain Easement Premises
In Gates v. AT&T Corp., 100 A.D.3d 1216 (3d Dep't 2012), Defendants were grantees and successors-in-interest, of an easement to erect a communications tower and install an access road on Plaintiff's farmland. Pursuant to the written easement agreement, Defendants constructed a paved roadway within the demised premises, and Plaintiff had the continued right to use the roadway. The agreement also contained an indemnity provision that required Defendants to indemnify Plaintiff from any damages sustained by reason of the "location, construction, maintenance, use or presence" of the roadway. When Defendants ceased maintenance efforts on the roadway, Plaintiff claimed that the roadway sustained substantial erosion and deterioration, which allegedly caused damages to Plaintiff's adjacent farmland. Plaintiff sued AT&T Corp., and its successor-in-interest, American Towers Inc. ("ATI"), for damages. The trial court granted Plaintiff summary judgment on liability against ATI based upon, among other things, the indemnification provision in the easement agreement. ATI appealed, arguing that the written agreement contained no provision that required ATI to affirmatively maintain or repair the roadway and absent such a provision, Plaintiff was obligated to maintain the easement.
On appeal, the Appellate Division recognized the longstanding principle that a dominant estate holder is generally responsible for maintaining the easement and the servient owner is under no duty to make repairs. See Tagle v. Jakob, 275 A.D.2d 573, 574 (2000), aff'd on other grounds 97 N.Y.2d 165 (2001); 49 N.Y. Jur. 2d, Easements § 129. However, the Appellate Court noted that the easement agreement required ATI to provide "drainage facilities" and held ATI responsible for costs related to road repair and maintenance. The Court stated that such a finding was consistent with the provision requiring ATI to indemnify Plaintiff against any damages suffered by reason of, among other things, "maintenance" of the roadway. The Court agreed with the lower court that ATI was obliged to maintain the roadway's drainage facilities in a manner that would prevent erosion damage to the adjacent farmland and thus responsible for damages that may result from its failure to do so. The Court also noted that ATI's "perpetual right" to use the demised premises should be accompanied by an equal duty to do so responsibly.
The language in the easement agreement may be invoked to overcome the longstanding principle that a dominant estate owner is responsible for maintenance of the easement premises.