Rumpza v. Zubke

Rumpza v. Zubke, 900 N.W.2d 601 (S.D. 2017) (holding that: (i) Zubke’s installation of drainage systems changed the natural flow characteristics of the water draining from the dominant landowner’s property to the subservient landowner’s property; and (ii) the relative-hardship test was irrelevant because Zubke willfully installed the drainage systems and Rumpza had no duty to clear naturally occurring obstructions in the watercourse).

On July 24, 2013, Robert and Nancy Rumpza (“Rumpza”) and Zubke Brothers LLC (“Brothers”) sued David and Marilyn Zubke (“Zubke”) seeking an injunction and damages. The Zubke’s property is dominant, draining onto the Rumpza’s property in two areas and flowing further onto the Brothers’ property. In 2012 and 2013, Zubke installed drainage systems that modified the established flow characteristics of the drainage areas. The modifications affected the amount of water discharged onto the Rumpza property and extended the time the properties stayed wet. Consequently, Rumpza and Brothers claimed they were unable to plant and harvest crops in previously usable areas. Zubke argued in response that they were compensating for an obstruction located on the Rumpza property that caused water to collect.

At trial, the court returned judgment in favor of Rumpza and Brothers and entered an injunction against Zubke, requiring them to stop the use of the drainage systems. Zubke appealed, arguing that the court erred in finding Zubke caused the damage and that the injunction created undue hardship for Zubke that outweighed any benefits received by Rumpza and Brothers.

First, Zubke contended that the modifications were necessary to overcome the obstruction on the Rumpza property. The Court rejected the argument because a dominant landowner cannot drain water onto a servient property in a way that unnaturally changes the watercourse, and a servient landowner has no duty to clear natural obstructions for the benefit of the dominant landowner. The Court held the drainage systems changed the timing and amount of water drained onto the servient properties, making them perpetually wet. Additionally, Zubke did not establish that they had a right to overcome the obstruction on the Rumpza property with modifications or establish that Rumpza had a duty to remove the obstruction. Therefore, the trial court was not clearly erroneous in concluding that Zubke caused the alleged damages.

Second, Zubke argued that the injunction created a disproportionate hardship. Zubke asserted that Rumpza and Brothers would have been unable to farm the land regardless of the drainage modifications. The Court regarded this argument to be lacking. In any event, the Court held the relative-hardship test to be irrelevant in this case because Zubke willfully and knowingly made the modifications and was aware that the modifications would alter the amount of water discharged into the watercourse.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the injunction and found the trial court was not clearly erroneous in determining that Zubke caused the damages to the Rumpza and Brothers’ properties.

Andrea Hagler