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Rhode Island Supreme Court Sides with Plaintiffs in Shared Driveway Dispute

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.

The superior court heard testimony from the engineer who oversaw the permitting for the construction of the subdivision. The engineer testified that construction vehicles used the portions of the defendant’s driveway when preparing and constructing the plaintiff’s home and that use of the shared driveway system was necessary for all of the lots in the subdivision to be marketable. After hearing the engineer’s testimony, the court found an implied easement of use for the plaintiffs to allow vehicles onto the defendants’ driveway and that the defendants could not impede such use. The defendants appealed the ruling to the state supreme court, which rejected their arguments in turn. The high court found that the superior court properly considered the engineer’s testimony and that no express easement or reference to any easement in the deed was needed for the implied easement to be valid. As a result of the Supreme Court decision, the Defendants will no longer be able to impede the Plaintiffs from using or allowing others to use the upper part of the driveway to turn around.

Obtaining Legal Advice for a Rhode Island Property Dispute

If you are facing a dispute with a neighbor or municipality about an easement or other property use issue, retaining the right Rhode Island real estate attorney can make the difference in your case. The experienced Rhode Island real estate attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo understand the issues surrounding express and implied easements and can advise and represent you concerning how to move forward to meet your objectives in resolving a dispute. A full trial and appeal should not be needed to solve a simple dispute, so it is important to have a strong case from the outset, especially when neighbors are involved. Contact our offices today at 401-300-4055 to schedule a free consultation and discuss your case.

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