American Oil Co. v. State Highway Bd., s. 367-369

Citation122 Vt. 496, 177 A.2d 358
Case DateJanuary 02, 1962
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

John B. Harrington, Robert K. Bing, Burlington, for plaintiff.

Louis P. Peck, Legal Asst. to Atty. Gen., for defendant.


BARNEY, Justice.

The State Highway Board condemned, for interstate highway system construction purposes, a certain parcel of land and the filling station on it owned in fee by appellees Robert and Elizabeth Krupp. Appellee American Oil Company also has an interest in this land by virtue of a longterm lease from the Krupps. Appellee Roscoe Campbell is a sublessee from year to year from American Oil Company. There also appears to be a mortgage interest in this same parcel whose holder has not appealed. A single award of damages was made by the highway board for the land taken. The owner in fee, the tenant and the subtenant all filed separate appeals from the award.

Prior to hearing on the merits the county court was confronted with two motions made by the highway board. The first relates to the claim of the condemnees that the highway board is required to separately compensate each of the interests in the property. This question is sought to be raised by the mechanics of a motion by the highway board to strike from the appeal notice the language to the effect that the legal interests in such property have not been separately compensated. The second motion by the highway board asks that the three appeals be consolidated for trial before the county court. Both motions were denied. Permission was granted to the highway board by the lower court to pass these causes to this Court before final judgment. By agreement of the parties, the appeals were consolidated here for the purposes of briefing and argument.

The motions reflect the two principal points argued by both sides before this Court:

1. Is it required of the highway board to award damages to each of the separate holders of interests in a single condemned parcel, adjudging the proportionate share of each?

2. Does 19 V.S.A. § 232 accord to each holder of an interest in such parcel who is dissatisfied with the highway board's award the right to a separate jury trial on appeal to county court?

The first question deals with proceedings before the highway board. The statutory section governing awards is 19 V.S.A. § 230, and the pertinent portion reads as follows:

'Within twenty days after the board's hearing, it shall by its order fix the compensation to be paid to each person from whom land or rights are taken, and shall file such order in the office of the clerk of the town where such land is situated, to be recorded therein and shall deliver to each person or persons a copy of that portion of the order directly affecting such person or persons and shall pay or tender ninety-five per cent of the award to each person entitled thereto which may be accepted, retained and disposed of to his own use without prejudice to such person's right of appeal as hereafter provided. At the expiration of the period for taking an appeal from the amount of the award the board shall pay the remaining five per cent to each person entitled thereto who has not appealed from said award. Upon the payment or tender of ninety-five per cent of the award as above provided the board may proceed with the work for which such land is taken.'

The attention of the parties is directed to the phrase 'paid to each person from whom land or rights are taken.' The holders of the various interests in the land, collectively the appellees here, contend that the plain mandate of the statute requires the highway board to make individual awards to them. The appellees say that the language used is so clear as to admit of no other construction, and, indeed, needs no judicial interpretation. Although this is not the whole ground of their justification of the lower court's ruling, we feel it needs some separate comment.

The concern of courts in considering statutory meaning is directed at determining the corrective action the legislature sought to accomplish by the enactment. This is legislative intent. It is our sole concern. Noble v. Fleming's Estate, 121 Vt. 57, 59, 147 A.2d 889. Literal construction operates as a starting point. Marshall v. Brattleboro, 121 Vt. 417, 419, 160 A.2d 762. But so long as the meanings of words are not absolutes, so long as the content of words varies according to context, custom and usage, interpretation is implicit whenever a statute is read, even though the interpretative function is unexpressed. 2 Sutherland, Statutory Construction, §§ 4502-3 (3d ed. 1943).

The appellees say that the equity, fairness and public policy considerations of their version of the statute's meaning supports their view of the legislative purpose. Any other interpretation is criticized as forced, artificial, unnatural and strained. The procedure endorsed in the lower court is urged as being more expedient, simpler and fairer than the present single award system.

The highway board counters with the argument that requiring it to make adjudications of the value of all interests subordinate to the fee in a single parcel will complicate and delay highway condemnation litigation and multiply appeals beyond all reason, in many cases. In effect, the hearing before the board, instead of being a single valuedetermination proceeding, will become a series of proceedings to value the various types of property interests involved, coupled with the prospect of separate appeals from each. This, it says, is neither simple nor expedient. The board claims that, of necessity, it will be called upon to adjudicate, in the midst of condemnation proceedings, all manner of complex and involute collateral questions of title, possession, inheritance, trust terms, contract conditions, paternity questions, domestic relations issues, to name only a few. The highway board says it is not a tribunal appropriate for making, or empowered to make, definitive and binding adjudications on such matters between parties. To require them to submit such issues to it for decision is contended to be unfair to all concerned.

These are telling and persuasive arguments. The potential questions to be resolved by the board encompass the competence of the probate court and a large measure of that of the county courts of law and chancery. To accept the appellees' position we must say, for example, that the highway board is empowered to render a judgment binding on all parties in a complex estate, interpreting the will, determining descent and the rights of remaindermen, vested and contingent, heirs born and potential heirs unborn, presence or absence of fraud and undue influence, and all the other knotty questions not reserved to probate law. So also with divorce, contract and property law.

Moreover, the highway board cannot qualify as a forum for trying these issues properly. For example, the board does not have power to summon witnesses, compel the production of documents, or to punish for contempt. These rudiments of judicial power are absent. Compare this with the careful statutory pattern of authorization of probate courts in 4 V.S.A. §§ 271-369. Certainly the broad jurisdiction claimed for the highway board by the appellees need to be founded on something more than the inferences to be drawn from the 'each person' phrase in the statute involved. The intent to create such a tribunal requires positive expression and clear language from the Legislature, for protection of the many interests concerned. Rutland Cable T. V. v. City of Rutland, 122 Vt. 1, 4-5, 163 A.2d 117.

Moreover, to read the statute as the appellees would have us would mean that the Legislature had completely lost sight of the basic concept of condemnation as expressed in the Vermont Constitution, Chapter I, Article 2:

That private property ought to be subservient to public uses when necessity requires it, nevertheless, whenever any person's property is taken for the use of the public, the owner ought to receive an equivalent in money.

The proceedings focus on the property, and partake of the nature of in rem proceedings. The phrase 'compulsory purchase' has been used to describe them. In re Barre Water Co., 62 Vt. 27, 31, 20 A. 109, 9 L.R.A. 195; 29 C.J.S. Eminent Domain § 1, p. 776. Previous to 1957, condemnation procedures followed what might be termed the 'orthodox' view pretty closely. Demers v. Montpelier, 120 Vt. 380, 387, 141 A.2d 676; Nelson v. State Highway Board, 110 Vt. 44, 53, 1 A.2d 689, 118 A.L.R. 915. In 1957, however, the Legislature, by the enactment of No. 242 of the Acts of 1957, made substantial changes in our condemnation law, now 19 V.S.A. §§ 221-236. These changes were in part procedural and in part a substantive liberalization of the rule as to business loss associated with the taking of property. Penna v. State Highway Board, 122 Vt. 290, 291-2, 170 A.2d 630. Nothing in the new statutes indicated an abandonment of the constitutional call for replacement of the property taken by an equivalent in money, however. The interpretation urged by the appellees departs from this theory completely and would substitute a system of recompensing all persons who could demonstrate a loss personal to them deriving from any interest in the property taken. As we have said, this is too sweeping a change to be grounded merely on the interpretation of the phrase 'each person.' This becomes even more striking when that phrase is compared to the more precise language used by the same Legislature to make the relatively smaller extension of damages to include associated business loss.

From this it follows that we find no legislative intent to set up the highway board as a trial body of extended jurisdiction, nor to overturn the basic theory of compensation deriving from our...

To continue reading

Request your trial
11 cases
  • Town of Stockbridge v. State Highway Bd., No. 1222
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • December 14, 1965
    ...since it was the one who is able to validly convey title to these 'lands and rights' taken. American Oil Co. v. State Highway Board, 122 Vt. 496, 177 A.2d 358; City of Winooski v. State Highway Board, 124 Vt. 496, 207 A.2d Thus, we are confronted with the facts shown by the evidence in deci......
  • Senders, In re, No. 69470
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Ohio)
    • April 1, 1996
    ...however. Because their meanings may vary according to context, custom and usage (American Oil Co. v. State Highway Board [1962], 122 Vt. 496, 177 A.2d 358), statutory language cannot be declared clear or ambiguous until the context in which it appears or the connotation which it may carry a......
  • State v. Hooper, No. 78-668
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • March 21, 1979
    ...however. Because their meanings may vary according to context, custom and usage (American Oil Co. v. State Highway Board (1962), 122 Vt. 496, 177 A.2d 358), statutory language cannot be declared clear or ambiguous until the context in which it appears or the connotations which it may carry ......
  • Mazza v. Agency of Transp., No. 97-130
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • June 19, 1998
    ...Bd., 124 Vt. 496, 498, 207 A.2d 255, 257 (1965). Because of the nature of the action, we held in American Oil Co. v. State Highway Bd., 122 Vt. 496, 504, 177 A.2d 358, 364 [W]e take the view that the legislative intention is correctly interpreted as contemplating a single proceeding against......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT