Utah Supreme Court
November 29, 2018
2018 UT App 221, cert. denied (Click for text of opinion)
The Utah Court of Appeals held that a trial court abused its discretion in denying a landowner the opportunity to present expert testimony that a proposed highest and best use of condemned land is legally feasible.
Seeking to construct an electric transmission line, Rocky Mountain Power filed a condemnation action to obtain easements across approximately 453 acres of landowner’s property. At the time of condemnation, the landowner possessed two small mining permits and had applied for another, large mining permit. Because of the condemnation project, the landowner claimed he intended to relocate two existing utility lines to facilitate his mining plans and claimed damages for the lost value of potential mining that depended on their location. Rocky Mountain opposed the proposed damages and filed two motions to exclude evidence, (1) seeking to exclude evidence of losses that depended on landowner’s ability to relocate the utility lines, as he lacked the unilateral authority to move the lines, and (2) seeking to exclude evidence of losses that depended on landowner’s ability to obtain authorization to mine areas where he had not yet received approval at the time of condemnation. The motions to exclude were filed before the end of fact discovery, and expert discovery had not begun. The court granted the motions to exclude. The landowner appealed.
The Court of Appeals held that the district court had abused its discretion in granting the motions to exclude. In condemnation proceedings, fair market value is not determined by a “snapshot” of the land’s value at the time of service of the condemnation proceedings, but is based on the highest and best use to which the land could have been put at the time. To show that a proposed “highest and best use” of condemned land is legally feasible, a landowner must offer the testimony of a properly qualified expert. While courts have discretion over the admissibility of evidence, to grant an exclusion of an expert witness prior to the beginning of the expert discovery period, the court denied the landowner the ability to develop the essential elements of his claim.