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National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. One 25 900 Square Foot More or Less Parcel of Land

decided: June 27, 1985.

NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION, A DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CORPORATION, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
ONE 25,900 SQUARE FOOT MORE OR LESS PARCEL OF LAND IN THE CITY OF NEW LONDON, COUNTY OF NEW LONDON, STATE OF CONNECTICUT; IDA A. DENOIA, AND JUNE D. BARROWS, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF VITO J. DENOIA, DEFENDANTS. IDA A. DENOIA AND JUNE D. BARROWS, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF VITO J. DENOIA, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, CROSS-APPELLEES



Appeal from judgment entered in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut after a five day jury trial before Goettel, J., sitting by designation, on a verdict valuing appellants' condemned land at $122,450. The landowners appealed, claiming error in the court's instructions to the jury. National Railroad Passenger Service Corporation cross-appealed.

Author: Meskill

MESKILL, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut after a five day jury trial before Goettel, J., sitting by designation. Federal jurisdiction is based on section 305(d) of the Rail Passenger Service Act, 45 U.S.C. § 545(d) (1982).

The jury's verdict valued appellants' condemned land at $122,450. Appellant landowners appealed, claiming that the trial court erred in its instructions to the jury. National Railroad Passenger Service Corporation (Amtrak), the condemnor, cross-appealed.

We reverse the judgment of the district court because the trial judge erroneously submitted to the jury issues that were for the judge to determine. Furthermore, we determine that, as a matter of law, appellants' land at the time of condemnation had access to the public road. The cause is remanded to the district court for a new trial in accordance with this decision.

I

This is an eminent domain proceeding which was instituted by Amtrak in February 1982 pursuant to section 305(d) of the Rail Passenger Service Act, 45 U.S.C. § 545(d). The litigation involves the proper valuation of a parcel of waterfront land in New London, Connecticut. The land is bordered on the north-northwest by an Amtrak right-of-way. The remainder of its perimeter fronts on the Thames River. The primary dispute at trial concerned whether the parcel had, at the time it was taken, access to a public road.

The waterfront parcel (Tract 2) was owned by Ida and Vito DeNoia, appellants herein.*fn1 The DeNoias had previously owned, as well, the adjacent piece of land to the north of the railroad right-of-way. This parcel (Tract 1) fronted on a public street. In April 1977, Tract 1 was taken by the Redevelopment Agency of the City of New London. The action of the Redevelopment Agency spawned two lawsuits in the Connecticut Superior Court for the New London Judicial District. The first, decided by the Honorable Abraham S. Bordon, State Referee, awarded to the DeNoias, in addition to just compensation for Tract 1, an amount to compensate for the diminution in value of Tract 2 caused by the taking of Tract 1. DeNoia v. Redevelopment Agency, No. 050055 (Conn. Super. Ct. June 13, 1979) (DeNoia I), reprinted in J. App. at 10. The second, which was filed before but not resolved until after Amtrak took Tract 2, was decided by the Honorable Paul J. Driscoll, State Referee. DeNoia v. City of New London, No. 62532 (Conn. Super. Ct. Oct. 12, 1982) (DeNoia II), reprinted in J. App. at 25. Explicitly adopting Judge Bordon's prior decision in DeNoia I "as appropriate to and determinative of the issues" in DeNoia II, J. App. at 31, Judge Driscoll awarded to the DeNoias and against the City of New London damages for the deprivation of access to Tract 2 from April 1977, when the Redevelopment Agency condemned Tract 1, to February 1982, when Amtrak condemned Tract 2. J. App. at 34.

Amtrak filed its Declaration of Taking covering Tract 2 on February 23, 1982. It subsequently filed a motion in limine. Amtrak sought to preclude appellants from claiming or attempting to prove at trial that Tract 2 had access to a public highway. Amtrak contended that DeNoia I and DeNoia II had conclusively determined that no such access had survived the Redevelopment Agency's taking of Tract 1. Further, Amtrak claimed, the state courts had fully compensated the DeNoias for the taking of Tract 2's access to the public way. Judge Clarie, who did not later preside at the trial, denied the motion, reasoning that DeNoia II "le[ft] open the possibility that contractual rights of access had been created and [were] attached to [the] contested property" when Amtrak filed its Declaration of Taking. National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. One 25,900 Square Foot More or Less Parcel of Land, No. H-82-221 (D. Conn. June 6, 1984) (order denying plaintiff's motion in limine), reprinted in J. App. at 3. The order explicitly directed that the DeNoias "should be allowed to develop this theory at trial." Id.

The central issue -- access vel non -- was thus apparent early in the pretrial stages of the litigation. The value of a waterfront parcel without access to a public way would obviously be much below the value of that parcel with access. This self-evident correlation was reflected in the appraisals commissioned by the parties. Those appraisers who made a distinction assigned substantially higher values to the parcel with access. For example, Norman Benedict, who testified for Amtrak and presented the lowest appraisal by far, valued Tract 2 at $67,500 without access and one and one-half times that amount, $103,500, with access. Ronald Glendinning, who was commissioned by Amtrak but was unable to testify at trial, valued the tract with access at almost four times its value without -- $405,000 as against $104,000. Finally, James Platt, who appraised the property at Amtrak's request in 1980 and was subpoenaed by the DeNoias to testify at trial, valued the land at $567,000 with and $165,000 without access.

In addition to the appraisals, the parties presented considerable evidence on the issue of Tract 2's access. A major focus of the parties' proof involved the two prior state court decisions, specifically, their meaning and their impact on the issue of access. The parties agreed that the question of access was a question of law and for the judge to decide. Accordingly, Amtrak requested the court to instruct the jury that Tract 2 had no access to the public road and the DeNoias moved for a directed verdict on the issue of access. Tr. at 935.

From the very outset it seems to have been clear that the parties and the trial judge had conflicting approaches to how the access question should be resolved. In his opening remarks, the judge indicated to the members of the jury that in determining the value of Tract 2 they would have to decide whether or not the land had access to a public road. Tr. at 7. Thus, it was no surprise when he denied both Amtrak's requested access charge and the DeNoias' motion. In making the latter ruling, the judge stated that he was "going to leave the question of access, just like the issue of value, to the Jury." Tr. at 938. Although Amtrak urges us to conclude otherwise, we believe that the trial judge was true to his word. The charge viewed in its entirety, Tr. at 1018-58, and the judge's responses to the parties' exceptions to the charge, Tr. at 1060-61, as well as the statements quoted above, clearly reveal that the issue of access was sent to the jury. In addition, both counsel vigorously argued the access question in their closing arguments to the jury.

Concomitantly, the judge instructed the jury to interpret the prior state court decisions, DeNoia I and DeNoia II, and to follow them in determining the existence and nature of Tract 2's access, if any, to the public way. To guide the jurors in this task, after instructing them to follow the decisions of the state courts, Tr. at 1038, and before reading aloud the pertinent parts of those opinions, Tr. at 1039-46, the court briefly explained the system of the common law, emphasizing its dependence on precedent.

The jury deliberated for less than forty minutes before delivering its general verdict finding the fair market value of Tract 2 at the time of condemnation to be $122,450. Amtrak having already deposited $104,000 towards the ...


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