Tuesday, October 03, 2006

South Carolina Supreme Court reverses summary judgment in SCE&G easement case

In Gressete v. SCE&G, landowners granted easements to SCE&G giving SCE&G "the right to construct, operate, and maintain electric transmission lines and all telegraph and telephone lines . . . Necessary or convenient in connection therewith. " Sometime in the 1990s, SCE&G began installing fiber optic communications lines on its existing poles in these easements. Fiber optic lines do not carry electricity but transmit digital signals. After setting up this communications network, SCE&G began conveying excess fiber optic capacity to third-party telecommunications companies without notice or compensation to Landowners.

Landowners filed suit, alleging that the easements granted to SCE&G do not include the right to apportion any part of these easements to third parties for general telecommunications purposes. The trial judge concluded that utility easements "confer a broad right to use the utility easement for additional purposes" and therefore SCE&G's conveyance was authorized as a matter of law. The Supreme Court reversed.

The Supreme Court recognized that the easements do state a conveyance to SCE&G and "its successors and assigns," but that the language limiting the use of the easement to communications necessary to SCE&G's business appears to restrict that assignability. This ambiguity required construction of the written easements themselves by the trial court.

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