Residential subdivisions in Rhode Island often contain multiple lots that can only be reasonably accessed through a shared private driveway system, portions of which multiple residents or property owners are entitled to use for accessing their property. Disputes over which parts of a shared driveway are shared and which are private are common, and property owners sometimes obstruct or impede their neighbors from using a part of a shared driveway that the owner believes is entirely private. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently upheld a superior court decision that enjoined a property owner from impeding their neighbor’s use of a portion of such a shared driveway.
The plaintiffs in the recently decided case are a family who purchased a home adjacent to the defendants in an eight lot subdivision that was accessed by a shared driveway system. The plaintiff’s property was situated closer to the public road than the defendant’s property and had two entrances to the shared driveway, a paved one closer to the road, and an unpaved entrance adjacent to the defendant’s property. Because the plaintiffs had a son with disabilities, a large school bus would come directly to the plaintiff’s home early in the morning on weekdays to pick him up in accordance with federal law. Because the shared driveway was narrow and situated on a steep grade, the school bus (as well as other utility or delivery vehicles servicing the plaintiffs) would use a part of the defendant’s driveway to back into the plaintiff’s driveway or turn around to descend the hill safely.
The defendants were bothered by the traffic of large vehicles with bright lights using part of their driveway to turn around and claimed that the plaintiffs had no right to allow the school bus to do so. The defendants erected a fence and a chain to impede any vehicles from using that portion of the driveway to help them access the plaintiff’s property safely. As a result of the defendant’s actions, the school bus driver was required to back directly down the long steep part of the hill, which was extremely difficult and resulted in the bus occasionally slipping off the road. The plaintiffs ultimately brought a case in Superior Court, alleging that there was an implied easement for their use of the portion of the defendant’s driveway that was necessary to safely turn around a large vehicle such as a school bus.