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Neighbor Sues Land Trust for Landslide Damage

December 14, 2011 | Washington, D.C.

When a large landslide damaged a neighbor’s property adjacent to a conservation easement held by the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM) in California, the neighbor claimed breach of contract, alleging the land trust caused the landslide and thus failed to meet its stewardship obligations.

The neighbor was not a party to the conservation easement but contended that he was a third party beneficiary. The conservation easement provided that a prevailing party was entitled to recover attorney fees and costs. The court found for the land trust. CNLM then filed a motion for an award of attorney fees and costs as the prevailing party under the conservation easement.

The neighbor opposed the motion on the ground that he could not be liable for attorney fees because the court had concluded he was neither a party nor a third party beneficiary of the conservation easement. The court awarded attorney fees to CNLM in the amount of $68,236 concluding that the mutuality of an attorney fee clause in a contract must be enforced even when the defendant prevails on a theory that the plaintiff was neither a party to the contract nor a third party beneficiary.

The court reasoned that a contrary result would defeat the public policy of mutuality of attorney fee provisions. Even though the case has no precedential value it provides the analytical framework for recovering attorney fees as the prevailing party where a third party unsuccessfully seeks to establish standing to sue on a conservation easement or any other contract.

See Carrillo v. Center for Natural Lands Management, et al, Santa Cruz County Superior Court, Case No. CV162827, California, 2011.

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