The Premcor Pipeline Co. v. Jim Wingate (No. 09-22-00117-CV; April 11, 2024) arose from a dispute between the pipeline, a subsidiary of Valero, and a landowner over the pipeline’s use of the landowner’s roads and bridges to access nine pipeline easements (originally granted in 1954) on the landowner’s property of doing in-line inspections and possible replacement. The landowner sued temporary and permanent injunctive relief and declaratory relief and damages, alleging that the pipeline intended to exceed the use granted in the easements. The pipeline answered that the easements do not specific a certain width of the right-of-way and that it had a blanket right, under the easements, to use existing roads and bridges to access its pipelines. Siding with the landowner, the trial court issued a TRO and order to show cause why temporary and permanent injunction should not issue. In response, the pipeline argued that “Texas courts have been reluctant to write fixed widths into easements when the parties never agreed to a particular width, and express general easements without fixed width imply a grant of unlimited reasonable use that is reasonably necessary and convenient and as little burdensome as possible to the servient owner.” The pipeline also counterclaimed for declaratory relief. After a hearing, the trial court granted a TI, limiting the pipeline to a right-of-way of ten feet in width and blocking access to anything beyond that. The trial court then conducted a bench trial on the permanent injunction, which it granted, along with the landowner’s attorney’s fees and court costs, including expert witness fees. The pipeline appealed.

The court of appeals reversed, vacating the trial court’s order granting a permanent injunction and reversing the award of attorney’s fees and costs. It further held that the trial court erred by granting the landowner declaratory relief and declaring a permanent fixed width of twenty feet for the right-of-way. First, the court construed the 1954 easements, which did not fix a particular width. As the court noted, SCOTX has “‘recognized the existence of general easements that do not require a fixed width[,]’ and due to that recognition, ‘courts have long been reluctant to write fixed widths into easements when the parties to the easements never agreed to a particular width’” (citations omitted). Because SCOTX has held that a general easement is not ambiguous, therefore, “the court is obligated to interpret the easement as a matter of law, and the plaintiff must rely on the instrument alone because ‘[t]he parole evidence rule bars consideration of evidence that contradicts, varies, or adds to the terms of an unambiguous agreement’” (citations omitted). Finding the 1954 easements unambiguous, the court had no trouble concluding that the trial court should not have rewritten the easements to impose a fixed twenty-foot width, and that the landowner knew they were general easements when he bought the property.

Still, as the court noted, the pipeline company must “utilize the land in a reasonable manner and only to the extent reasonably necessary” with as little burden to the landowner as possible. Here the 1954 easements, which were “forward-looking,” gave the pipeline “the rights of ingress and egress to and from the [land] for the purpose of, among others, ‘laying, maintaining, renewing, changing the size of, and restoring’ the pipelines” (citation omitted). The issue then became what a ”reasonable and necessary use” with “as little” burden to the landowner might be in this case. Though reversing the trial court’s declaratory judgment, the court remanded to the trial court to determine reasonable and necessary use. As to the permanent injunction, the court, having found that the trial court erroneously limited the easement to 20 feet, vacated the trial court’s order. Additionally, the court found, the landowner presented no evidence of irreparable injury or that the pipeline even committed an unlawful act.

The court finished up by throwing out the trial court’s assessment of the landowner’s expert witness fees as court costs payable by the pipeline. Although the trial court retrospectively “appointed” the landowner’s designated experts after trial so that it could charge the pipeline for them, the court of appeals was having nothing of it. Texas law does not generally consider expert witness fees as court costs to begin with, much less an expert designated by the plaintiff and who worked solely on the plaintiff’s behalf. Turning to the trial court’s award of $232,000 in attorney’s fees to the landowner, the court found that because the basis of the award—the 1954 general easements were limited to 20 feet—was erroneous, so was the award. The court remanded the issue back to the trial court to redetermine attorney’s fees in light of the court’s holding.

This case is a bit troubling in that the trial court, based on our reading of the court of appeals’ opinion, didn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to well-settled legal principles. It doesn’t appear that on remand there is much of the case left except to decide the reasonableness and necessity of the pipeline’s access to the right-of-way. The dec action, along with its access to attorney’s fees, is dead, so this case might not be worth carrying on. On the other hand, the pipeline, having prevailed on its dec action, could pursue its attorney’s fees with this ruling in hand. It might be better for everybody just to call it a day.

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