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Lewis v. New York Harlem R.R. Co.

Court of Appeals of the State of New York
Feb 27, 1900
56 N.E. 540 (N.Y. 1900)


In Lewis v. New York Harlem Railroad, 162 N.Y. 202, 222, 56 N.E. 540 (1900), the New York Court of Appeals held that where a railroad structure had impaired a light and air easement for the prescriptive period, the owner of the easement could no longer object to the presence of the original structure or to any new structure erected in the same place which inflicted no more injury than the old.

Summary of this case from Landgray Associates v. 450 Lexington Ven.


Argued January 25, 1900

Decided February 27, 1900

J.C. Bushby and L.M. Berkeley for plaintiff, appellant and respondent.

Henry G. Atwater and J.C. Thomson for Alice I. Birrell and others, intervening. Ira A. Place, Samuel E. Williamson and Alexander S. Lyman for defendants, respondents and appellants.

The plaintiff claims that the trial court erred in refusing to allow her damages for the effect of the new structures, both temporary and permanent, without considering the effect of the old structure. The defendants claim that the court erred in awarding any damages, or giving any relief whatever, to the plaintiff, because, as against her, they had the right to erect any railroad structure in the street, of any height, within the lateral lines of the old embankment.

The defendants' appeal rests mainly upon the proposition that, by virtue of the Benson deed to the Harlem Company, in 1832, and possession thereunder for more than twenty years under claim of title exclusive of any other right, the defendants acquired title to the land upon which the steel viaduct now stands. (Code Civ. Pro. § 369; Baker v. Oakwood, 123 N.Y. 16. )

The situation, when the Harlem Company entered Fourth avenue and took possession of the strip of twenty-four feet covered by the Benson deed, was as follows: The section had been mapped under the act of 1807, as well as by Benson, and Fourth avenue had been laid down on both maps as one of the streets of the city. Benson had conveyed the entire avenue to the city for street purposes, reserving certain rights, and after thus conveying to the city had assumed to convey said strip to the Harlem Company exclusively for railroad purposes, but the conveyance was effective only as to his reserved rights. After conveying to the city, but before conveying to the company, he had conveyed, by reference to said maps, certain abutting lands to the plaintiff's predecessor in title. The avenue was not opened or built upon, as such, but was a street on paper only. The state and city had given the Harlem road the right to enter the avenue and lay down tracks on said strip, subject to certain drastic conditions, which gave the city supreme control, and to which the company had expressly assented, and, finally, the city had authorized the company "to take possession of the ground owned by the" former and had ordered the latter to construct its road thereon, with leave to use the street for "the purpose of a railroad and for that purpose only." The situation differs from that considered by us in a late case, as Benson had conveyed the street to the city and the abutting land to plaintiff's predecessor before he conveyed to the company, whereas in that case the first conveyance was to the company itself. ( Conabeer v. N.Y.C. H.R.R.R. Co., 156 N.Y. 474.)

There is no evidence as to the character of the original entry into the street by the Harlem Company, or the nature of its claim when or after entering, except as it may be inferred from the facts above mentioned and the subsequent occupation and use for railroad purposes of a portion of the avenue, which was a street in posse only and did not become a street in esse until twenty years later. Under these circumstances the entry and occupation by the company must be "deemed to have been under and in subordination to the legal title" of the city. (Code Civ. Pro. § 368; Code Pro. § 81; 2 R.S. 293, § 8.) Occupation must not only be hostile in its inception, but it must continue hostile, and at all times, during the required period of twenty years, challenge the right of the true owner in order to found title by adverse possession upon it. The entry must be strictly adverse to the title of the rightful owner, for if the first possession is by permission it is presumed to so continue until the contrary appears. If the occupation begins with recognition of the real owner's estate it is presumed to be subservient, and that the one making the entry intends to hold honestly and not tortiously. The character of the possession depends on the intention with which entry is made and occupation continued. There is no disseisin until there is occupation with intention to claim title, and the fact of entry and the quo animo fix the character of the possession. The burden of proving all the facts necessary to constitute adverse possession is upon the one who asserts it, for in the absence of such proof possession is presumed to be in subordination to the true title. ( Brandt v. Ogden, 1 Johns. 156; Smith v. Burtis, 6 Johns. 197; Jackson v. Johnson, 5 Cow. 74; Jackson v. Brink, 5 Cow. 483; La Frombois v. Jackson, 8 Cow. 589; Humbert v. Rector, etc., of Trinity Church, 24 Wend. 587; St. Vincent Female Orphan Asylum v. City of Troy, 76 N.Y. 108; Doherty v. Matsell, 119 N.Y. 646; Kneller v. Lang, 137 N.Y. 589; DeLancey v. Piepgras, 138 N.Y. 26; Heller v. Cohen, 154 N.Y. 299, 311; Tyler on Ejectment, 860; Buswell's Lim. Ad. Poss. 380; Am. Eng. Encyc. of Law [2nd ed.], 778.)

The entry by the Harlem Company was by the express permission of the city, under a resolution which recited that the land entered upon was at the time owned by the city. The occupation was permissive from the outset, and, as there is no adequate evidence to the contrary, is presumed to have so continued ever since. The company recognized the title of the city by assenting to resolutions passed by the common council both before and after it accepted the deed from Benson. There was no open or notorious assertion of title under that deed, and no evidence of intention to claim title thereunder, except the deed itself, which was not recorded until after the railroad was built. There is no evidence that the city had notice, either actual or constructive, of that deed until the condemnation proceedings of 1850, when a nominal award was made to the company for its interest in the fee of the street. By an agreement duly executed under its seal, the company expressly covenanted that if permitted to occupy Fourth avenue, it would remove its railroad from the street whenever the city required it. It entered under a license and remained under a license. Its unbroken continuity of possession from that day to this has never been accompanied with the assertion of any claim hostile to the city, for its deed from Benson, under the circumstances, is no evidence of a hostile claim, but simply that it had acquired Benson's reserved rights, which cut no figure in this controversy. Possession to be effective must be hostile to the rightful owner, and if the company intended to base a claim upon its deed in hostility to the city, the circumstances required it to make the fact known to the city, as otherwise its possession is presumed to be in accordance with its agreement. ( Treadwell v. Inslee, 120 N.Y. 458. ) The city did not know that the company had repudiated its agreement and stood on the Benson deed, exclusive of any other right, if such were the fact. It did not know of the existence of that deed, for the record was no notice, as a landowner is not compelled by the Recording Act to watch the records for conveyances of his own property. To authorize the presumption of a grant, the enjoyment "must not only be uninterrupted for the period of twenty years, but it must be adverse, not by leave or favor, but under a claim or assertion of right, and it must be with the knowledge and acquiescence of the owner." ( Flora v. Carbean, 38 N.Y. 111; Bedlow v. N.Y.F. Dry Dock Co., 112 N.Y. 263; Parker v. Foote, 19 Wend. 313.) When the occupant is in possession under two instruments, one subservient and the other hostile to the true owner, such possession, in the absence of positive notice to the contrary, will be regarded as subservient only, for the law raises a presumption in favor of an honest and against a dishonest purpose. This disposes of the appeal brought by the defendant, so far as it requires discussion apart from the claim of the plaintiff.

The plaintiff's appeal rests upon the proposition that she is entitled to the same relief that she would have been if there had been no railroad structure in the street prior to the erection of the steel viaduct. It would be sufficient to say in answer to this claim that as she asks aid from a court of equity, she can enforce her claim only so far as it is equitable, in the sense of being just. When she crosses the line of equity and good conscience to ask for compensation on the same basis as if Park avenue had never been a railroad street and seeks to recover damages which she has not suffered, on the ground of an alleged technical right, she must withdraw from a court of equity and seek relief at law. Since she or her predecessors submitted without complaint or question to the erection of two railroad structures in front of her property, each of which stood there for more than twenty years and wholly occupied the central portion of the street to the exclusion of all traffic therefrom, it would not be just to claim the same damages for injury to her easements by the third structure that she could properly have claimed if those easements had not been impaired by the previous structures. She has been awarded all that is equitably her due, which is the net difference, measured in money, between the effect of the old and the new structure, while in actual use, less the benefits conferred by the latter. She has also been granted an injunction to protect her hereafter, unless her permanent damages are paid upon the same basis. A court of equity will give her no further relief.

But we will not stop here, for we wish to place our decision upon grounds equally tenable in either jurisdiction. While the defendants acquired no right by adverse possession, as against the city, they acquired certain rights by prescription as against the abutting owner.

The leading facts bearing upon the subject may be summarized as follows: The lands embraced within the lines of Fourth avenue, as originally laid out upon the maps of the city and of Benson, were, by various conveyances, resolutions of the common council and acts of the legislature, so devoted to street purposes that they could not lawfully be used for any inconsistent purpose. ( Matter of Vil. of Olean v. Steyner, 135 N.Y. 341, 345; Lord v. Atkins, 138 N.Y. 184, 191; Haight v. Littlefield, 147 N.Y. 338, 342.) The easements of light, air and access, so far as they had any practical existence prior to 1853 when the avenue was opened, were encroached upon by the first railroad structure, which, in front of plaintiff's premises, was a solid embankment 28 feet wide at the bottom and 10 or 12 feet high, walled in with stone. From 1853 until 1873, when the first improvement required by statute was made, the avenue was open and used as a street on either side of the railroad structure in the center, which continued to encroach upon the easements of the abutting owners. From 1873, when the embankment was converted into a viaduct 56 feet wide and 7 feet high in front of the locus in quo until 1894, when the last improvement required by statute was begun, the same encroachment continued. As to the plaintiff and her grantors there was an open, continuous and exclusive possession and enjoyment by the railroad company of the easements in question to the extent of the user during the periods named.

Prescription rests upon the presumption of a lost deed, after adverse use and enjoyment for twenty years, which has been adopted by the courts as the prescriptive period from analogy to the Statute of Limitations. ( Woodruff v. Paddock, 130 N.Y. 618, 624; Snell v. Levitt, 110 N.Y. 595; Nicholls v. Wentworth, 100 N.Y. 455; Ward v. Warren, 82 N.Y. 265; Parker v. Foote, 19 Wend. 309, 312; Goddard on Easements, 90; Washburn on Easements [4th ed.], 123; 19 Am. Eng. Encyc. of Law, 7; Jones on Easements, § 160; Gerard on Titles, 745.) What the primary owner loses by his laches the other party gains by continued possession without question of his right. ( Campbell v. Holt, 115 U.S. 620, 623.) The adverse use must be of the same character and duration as the adverse possession required to give title to real estate, which has already been considered. If the presumption as to a lost deed may be rebutted, still it presents a question of fact which, in this case, has been determined in favor of the defendants. The possession of the defendants was not subordinate to the plaintiff's title, nor permissive as to her, but openly hostile and necessarily known to be such, to her and her grantors, who made no objection until 1897. It was exclusive, definite and uninterrupted, for it absolutely excluded all from the part of the avenue occupied by the railroad structures. The obstruction was not out of view or knowledge, but in plain sight of the abutting owners, who, by making no objection, acquiesced in the situation. The question does not arise between the railroads and the city, which had consented in advance to the occupation, but between the railroads and the abutting owners, who had not so consented.

Under these circumstances the old structures had stood in the street so long that the railroads acquired a prescriptive right to have them stand there forever, so far as the plaintiff is concerned. The situation was the same in effect as if one of her grantors, while he owned her property, had conveyed to the defendants the right to permanently keep the stone viaduct where it stood and to use it indefinitely for railroad purposes. To the extent of the user by the companies the plaintiff, through the acquiescence of herself and her grantors, had parted with her rights when the present structure was erected. She could claim no damages on account of the old structure, so long as it stood there. She could claim no damages on account of any new structure erected in the same place, within the same lines, and for the same purpose, which inflicted no more injury upon her property than the old. She could raise no question except such as she could have raised had she given a deed expressly assenting to the erection of the old structure. ( Conabeer Case, supra.) Had the new structure been no higher than the old, in front of her property, none of her rights would have been invaded, and she would have been entitled to no relief. These views are not inconsistent with but are in accordance with the principles of a case relied upon by the plaintiff, where the defense of prescriptive right failed because the facts failed, as adverse user was not found to have existed for the requisite period. ( American Bank Note Co. v. N.Y.El.R.R. Co., 129 N.Y. 252. )

The reason why possession of the same structure was adverse to the plaintiff but not to the city, is that the former never consented to the occupation, except by acquiescence during the prescriptive period, while the latter consented to the occupation in advance, and renewed the consent by subsequent acts at frequent intervals, while the railroad company never gave notice, direct or indirect, that it claimed to occupy under its deed or otherwise than by the consent of the true owner.

Prescriptive rights, however, are measured by the user, and the defendants could make no further encroachment without liability. ( Prentice v. Geiger, 74 N.Y. 341; Baldwin v. Calkins, 10 Wend. 169; Bealey v. Shaw, 6 East, 208; Stiles v. Hooker, 7 Cow. 266.) As was said by Judge ANDREWS in Prentice v. Geiger ( supra): "The right is supposed to have had its origin in a grant, and the grant being lost, the user is the only evidence of the right granted, and as the presumption of a grant only exists where there has been an adverse, continuous and uninterrupted user, according to the nature of the easement claimed, for the period of twenty years, the prescriptive right is confined to the right as exercised for that period of time." The plaintiff, therefore, was entitled to recover for the additional injury to her property so far as it was caused by the defendants.

We now reach the question whether the defendants were liable for any part of the damages caused by the effect of the steel viaduct while it was in process of construction.

That structure was not erected by the defendants but by the state, as appears from the facts already stated. South of 125th street it gave them no facilities which they did not have before. The stone structure of 1872 did away with grade crossings and gave them four tracks, and this is all they have now. The change of grade north of 125th street, in order to cross the Harlem river at the height required by the general government, has no bearing upon the change of grade south of that point. The defendants are liable for what they did, but not for what the state did. ( Atwater v. Trustees, etc., 124 N.Y. 602.) The state created a board of experts and required them to make the improvement for the benefit of the public, giving them absolute control with no right on the part of the defendants to let or hinder. The board made the plans and did the work, letting their own contracts, employing and discharging their own men, without supervision or interference by the companies, which did not and could not set the board in motion, for the want of power, if for no other reason. The change of grade in front of the plaintiff's premises was not only for a public purpose, but was wholly in the interest of the public and not for the benefit of the defendants who had no power to prevent it. They simply paid one-half of the expense by command of the statute, and, hence, under compulsion of law. They are not liable for the acts of the Park avenue board, which was not their agent, but a governmental agency of the state. ( Benner v. Atlantic Dredging Co., 134 N.Y. 156, and cases cited on page 162.) Their offer in advance to obey the statute did not affect its compulsive force, for obedience was their duty. As was tersely said in a late case, the railroad company "had no choice left to it. The state intervened and directed that a work, which it had the power to require to be done, should be done, not by the railroad nor even by the city, but by an independent board in the creation of which the defendant had no voice, over whose selection of employees it had no control, with the discharge of whose functions it could not interfere and whose operations it was powerless to prevent." ( N.Y., N.H. H.R.R. v. Baker, 98 Fed. Rep. 694.)

When the work was completed, if the defendants had not used it, they clearly would have been under no liability to the plaintiff. This is a decisive test, not only as to the permanent structure, but also as to the temporary trestles, which were part of the same scheme of the legislature, acting under general power, as well as that reserved when it incorporated the Harlem Company. They were erected by the same board, in the same way and under the same authority, but for the double purpose of aiding in the principal work of the state, and at the same time affording temporary relief to the defendants in the operation of their trains. The statute "authorized and directed" the defendants to operate their trains on the structures "when completed." Accordingly they laid their tracks, at first on the trestle work, which they used for a short time, and then on the steel viaduct, which they have used ever since. In thus using the work of the state they doubtless accepted it as their own, but they accepted it as a completed structure, and did not thereby become parties to the process of construction. Their acceptance did not reach back and adopt the previous acts of the state, but the effect was the same as if they had purchased it from the state on the day they commenced to use it.

Thus we strike the time when the liability of the defendants began. When they commenced to use the steel viaduct they started a new trespass upon the rights of the abutting owners. While they had a prescriptive right to use a railroad structure standing in the same place and of the same height as the stone viaduct, which was about 7 feet, they had no right, as against the plaintiff, to use the steel viaduct, which reached upward 35 feet until it was on a level with the windows of her fourth story. The new structure, so far as it stood within the lines of the old, was not a trespass, for it lessened instead of adding to the burden, but so far as it extended above the space which it had to occupy, it was a trespass, for which the defendants have properly been held liable during the time they used it. The trestle work, which stood wholly without the lines of the stone viaduct, was a trespass without mitigation, for it substantially closed the avenue and conferred no benefit whatever upon the adjacent property. As to that structure, the liability of the defendants was absolute during the period of user.

The permanent structure, however, was not an unmitigated trespass, for upon the surface of the street it was a great improvement upon the stone viaduct, which it displaced. Before the change was made Park avenue was virtually two streets, each 42 feet wide, separated by a solid and impassable embankment 56 feet in width. Now it is 140 feet wide, with no obstruction to traffic except the columns which support the elevated roadbed. Never before could the plaintiff, or her predecessors, cross the street in front of her property, or even cross by the nearest lateral streets. For the first time in the history of the avenue its central portion is open, paved and capable of being used as a street. A substantial benefit was thus conferred, which, in assessing the damages inflicted upon the owner's easements, when no part of his land is taken, should in justice and according to authority be regarded. The basis of assessment is the difference in value of the easements as they now are and as they were with the old, and before the new viaduct was erected. ( Newman v. M.E. Ry. Co., 118 N.Y. 618, 624; Bohm v. M.E. Ry. Co., 129 N.Y. 576, 591; Sutro v. M. Ry. Co., 137 N.Y. 593; Bischoff v. N.Y. El. R.R. Co., 138 N.Y. 257.) The courts below followed this rule and held the defendants liable for the net difference only.

The claim that the defendants abandoned their prescriptive rights by removing the old structure cannot be sustained. The old structure was not removed by the defendants, but by the state, of its own motion and through an independent agency created by itself. Moreover, the removal of one railroad structure, followed immediately by the erection of another, in the same place and for the same purpose, is no evidence of an intent to abandon the prescriptive right to have a railroad structure in the street. If the new structure had not been a greater burden than the old the plaintiff would have been entitled to no relief whatever.

The effect of the condemnation proceedings of 1850, which widened the avenue, created no new easements for the benefit of the plaintiff or her predecessors, so far as the original width of the avenue was concerned. This was passed upon in the Conabeer Case ( supra), and requires no discussion.

We have reached the conclusion that the learned trial judge awarded and withheld relief precisely as the law requires, and that his judgment should stand. In reaching this conclusion we have been materially aided by the opinions delivered in the Supreme Court in this and other cases affecting the locality in question, although we have not adopted all of the grounds upon which that learned court proceeded to judgment. ( Taylor v. N.Y. H.R.R. Co., 27 App. Div. 190; Welde v. N.Y. H.R.R. Co., 28 App. Div. 379 and 29 Misc. Rep. 13; Birrell v. N.Y. H.R.R. Co., 41 App. Div. 506; Sander v. N.Y. H.R.R. Co., 42 App. Div. 618.)

We have decided the case before us and have not tried to decide other cases, which, although arising in the same section, rest upon different facts, and may be controlled by different principles of law. While we have carefully read the argument presented by learned counsel in behalf of the intervenors, we have limited its effect, so far as we have followed it, to the facts of this case.

The judgment should be affirmed, but as both parties appealed, without costs to either as against the other.

PARKER, Ch. J., BARTLETT, MARTIN, CULLEN and WERNER, JJ., concur; GRAY, J., not sitting.

Judgment affirmed.

Summaries of

Lewis v. New York Harlem R.R. Co.

Court of Appeals of the State of New York
Feb 27, 1900
56 N.E. 540 (N.Y. 1900)

In Lewis v. New York Harlem Railroad, 162 N.Y. 202, 222, 56 N.E. 540 (1900), the New York Court of Appeals held that where a railroad structure had impaired a light and air easement for the prescriptive period, the owner of the easement could no longer object to the presence of the original structure or to any new structure erected in the same place which inflicted no more injury than the old.

Summary of this case from Landgray Associates v. 450 Lexington Ven.

In Lewis v. New York Harlem R.R. Co. (162 N.Y. 202) the court said at page 223: "Prescription rests upon the presumption of a lost deed, after adverse use and enjoyment for 20 years [15 years since 1932; Civ. Prac. Act, §§ 34-37] which has been adopted by the courts as the prescriptive period from analogy to the Statute of Limitations."

Summary of this case from Soma Realty Co. v. Romeo

In Lewis v. N.Y. H.R.R. Co. (supra) defendant acquired a prescriptive right to have certain structures which it had erected in Park avenue, in New York city, remain there forever, so far as the plaintiff, an abutting owner, was concerned.

Summary of this case from Hammond v. Antwerp Light Power Co.
Case details for

Lewis v. New York Harlem R.R. Co.

Case Details

Full title:MARY J. LEWIS, Appellant and Respondent, v . THE NEW YORK AND HARLEM…

Court:Court of Appeals of the State of New York

Date published: Feb 27, 1900


56 N.E. 540 (N.Y. 1900)
56 N.E. 540

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