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Real Property – Easements – Abandoned Railroad – Reversion – Laches

Real Property – Easements – Abandoned Railroad – Reversion – Laches

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After a railway was abandoned in 1980, the adjacent property owners waited 30 years to assert that the railroad’s easement reverted to them. Although the railroad had purported to transfer the easement land to defendants’ predecessors, and although defendants had made some improvements towards converting the land into a walking trail, since defendants failed to present evidence of their expenditures, debt incurred, or other liability related to the trail, the trial court lacked a basis – beyond mere conjecture – for finding plaintiffs’ delay had prejudiced defendants. Laches did not bar plaintiffs’ claims.

We affirm the trial court’s judgment declaring plaintiffs the property owners in fee simple of their respective properties, which were each subject to an easement held by Seaboard System Railroad, Inc. (Railroad)

Defendants challenge the trial court’s subject matter jurisdiction on the ground that the federal Surface Transportation Board’s jurisdiction preempts the jurisdiction of the trial court. We disagree.

Even though preemption involves subject matter jurisdiction, the party claiming preemption bears the burden of proving it. Therefore, defendants bear the burden of proving Railroad’s abandonment of the line was incomplete. We find it failed to do so.

On March 2, 1979, Railroad received a certificate of abandonment from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC, predecessor of the Surface Transportation Board). In compliance with abandonment requirements, Railroad sent a letter to the ICC on February 25, 1980, including the docket number for the abandonment, a brief description of the line, and a statement indicating the line was officially abandoned on February 15, 1980. The record does not contain any evidence showing further involvement or communication from the ICC after the issuance of the certificate of abandonment. Thus, we hold the trial court did not err in exercising its subject matter jurisdiction and in finding Railroad abandoned the line in 1980.

Nothing in the record indicates Railroad failed to comply with the requirements of the certificate of abandonment. Thus, pursuant to our precedent, the easement rights Railroad held on plaintiffs’ properties reverted to plaintiffs at the time of abandonment. Therefore, the trial court properly granted plaintiffs declaratory relief as to the rights of the properties abutting the former railway line.


Myers v. Town of Calhoun Falls (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-045-23, 9 pp.) (Bruce Williams, C.J.) Appealed from Abbeville County Circuit Court (Eugene Griffith, J.) Douglas Lamar Bell for appellants; Clarence Rauch Wise for respondents. South Carolina Court of Appeals

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