When is your neighbor entitled to an easement of right of way?
“A good neighbor is a fellow who smiles at you over the back fence, but doesn’t climb over it,” said American journalist Arthur Baer.
The Philippine law, however, may force you to destroy that fence to ensure your neighbor’s access to a public highway.
In the cases of spouses Williams v. Zerda, Rainero Zerda owned a parcel of land, which was surrounded by a swampy mangrove area owned by the Republic of the Philippines and properties owned by, among others, spouses Larry and Rosita Williams.
Zerda filed against spouses Williams a complaint for easement of right of way. In his complaint, Zerda alleged, among others, that: (a) he could only access the public highway from his property by passing through spouses Williams’ property; (b) he did not cause his property to be isolated as such, as it was the natural consequence of its location; and (c) he claimed a right of way least prejudicial to the Williams’ property.
Spouses Williams countered that Zerda had failed to establish the requisites for the existence of a right of way. They alleged that: (a) Zerda caused the isolation of his property; and (b) his requested right of way would cause them great damage and prejudice.
The Regional Trial Court (RTC) ruled in favor of spouses Williams and held that Zerda indeed caused the isolation of his property.
When he bought it, he was supposedly aware that spouses Williams already started introducing improvements on their own property. Moreover, he intervened in the earlier sale of his property by its former owner and spouses Williams and bought it for himself, despite knowing that it was surrounded by other immovables.
Upon appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and set aside the RTC’s ruling. It found that Zerda did not cause said isolation and to deny him the right of way simply because of his prior knowledge that his property was surrounded by immovables would render the law on easements nugatory. To be sure, Zerda merely filled in the shoes of the property’s previous owner in the exercise of his right to demand an easement of right of way.
According to the Court of Appeals, Zerda’s proposed right of way was the shortest distance to the national highway and the least prejudicial to spouses Williams’ property. It relied on spouses Williams’ admission that they did not intend to build houses on that portion and that the proposed right of way would only affect a small portion of their property.
These developments constrained spouses Williams to file the instant petition before the Supreme Court.
In denying spouses Williams’ petition and affirming the Court of Appeals’ decision, the Supreme Court held at the outset that the Civil Code confers the legal easement of right of way.
Thus, this easement may be demanded when the following requisites are present: (a) the estate necessitating its establishment or the dominant estate is surrounded by other immovables and has no adequate outlet to a public highway; (b) there is payment of proper indemnity; (c) the isolation is not due to the acts of the proprietor of the dominant estate; and (d) the right of way claimed is at the point least prejudicial to the estate subjected to this easement or the servient estate and insofar as consistent with this rule, where the distance from the dominant estate to a public highway may be the shortest.
Should this easement necessitate a permanent passage, the indemnity shall consist of the value of the land occupied and the amount of the damage caused to the estate subjected to this easement or the servient estate.
The Supreme Court found that all requisites are present in this case.
First, Zerda’s property was undoubtedly surrounded by other immovables owned by different individuals, including spouses Williams. Second, Zerda was deemed to have fulfilled the requisite of proper indemnity when he formally asked spouses Williams to provide him with a right of way, for which he was willing to pay a reasonable value or swap a portion of his property, but to which the latter refused.
Third, he did not cause the isolation of his property since the presence of other immovables already prevented him from adequate ingress or egress to a public highway when he purchased it. Fourth, Zerda’s proposed right of way was found to be the least prejudicial to spouses Williams’ property and is of the shortest distance to the national highway.
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