Friendswood Development Co. v. Smith-Southwest Industries, Inc.

Case Name: Friendswood Development Co. v. Smith-Southwest Industries, Inc.
Plaintiff/Appellee:  Smith-Southwest Industries and other landowners
Defendants/Appellant: Friendswood Development Company and Exxon Corporation (parent company)
576 S.W.2d 21 (Tex. 1978)

Key Facts: Smith-Southwest Industries alleged that Friendswood Development Co. pumped large amounts of subsurface waters from its own property which resulted in the subsidence of the plaintiff’s land. They alleged that the wells were negligently spaced too close together and too near the common boundary of lands owned by the plaintiffs and that the defendant produced the wells with knowledge that this could cause subsidence and flooding of the plaintiff’s land. Furthermore, the plaintiffs allege that the defendant’s continued use for the withdrawal and sale of large amounts of fresh water constitutes a continuing nuisance and permanent loss and damage to their property.

General Rule: A landowners has a duty not to use his property so as not to injure others. However, this court has held that this general rule does not apply to withdrawals of underground water because that right is absolute and not subject to the “reasonable use” rule.

Plaintiffs contend that the “reasonable use” doctrine should apply to ground water the same.

Issue: Whether Friendswood Development Co. is liable for nuisance and negligence when it pumped large amounts of subsurface waters from its own property causing subsidence of the plaintiff’s land.

Holding: Friendswood Development Co. is not liable for nuisance and negligence (following the English rule and Restatement of Torts).

Rule: For future subsidence cases, a landowner who withdraws ground water and is negligent, willfully wasteful, or tries to cause malicious injury, and is the proximate cause of subsidence to other landowners, will be liable for negligence.

Judgment: The plaintiffs cannot recover on this future rule because, in property, the parties should be able to rely on the law which existed at the time of their actions

Dissenting: Although, according to Texas law, a landowner has an absolute right to pump water; the plaintiffs also have an absolute right to the lateral support for his land.
I would hold that an owner of land may assert an action against one who destroys the later of subjacent support to his land when:

  1. He engages in conduct knowing that it will cause damages to another’s land by loss or destruction of the subjacent support
  2. The plaintiff proves negligence; or
  3. The plaintiff proves a nuisance

Also, it is unfair to treat the parties unequally by recognizing that they possess an action, but denying them the remedy.

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