August, 2020 | The Law Offices of Gregory D. Jordan

Texas Appellate Court Rules Against Pipeline Company in Condemnation Hearing

Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Texas oil and gas case discussing a pipeline company’s condemnation claim against a landowner based on the parties’ inability to reach an agreement regarding an easement. Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the landowners, finding that the pipeline company failed to prove that it was a “common carrier” with eminent domain power. The court also held that one of the property owners should not have been prevented from testifying as an expert regarding the value of the easement. 

The Facts of the Case

In the early 2000s, the Hlavinkas purchased 15,000 acres in Brazoria County for the primary purpose of generating income by acquiring additional pipeline easements. At the time the family purchased the land, there were about 25 pipelines already traversing the property. A pipeline company, HSC Pipeline Partnership (HSC), wanted to obtain an easement across the property to build a pipeline from Texas City to Brazoria County. 

The Hlavinkas and HSC could not agree on the terms of the easement, so HSC filed for a condemnation hearing. Essentially, HSC was attempting to use its purported eminent domain power to compel the Hlavinkas to grant HSC the easement. The Hlavinkas challenged HSC’s ability to exercise eminent domain powers, arguing that propylene, the product HSC intended on transporting through the pipeline, was neither crude petroleum under the Texas Natural Resources Code, nor an oil product or liquefied mineral under the Texas Business Organizations Code. The Hlavinkas also argued that the pipeline was not for public use, which prevented HSC from exercising eminent domain powers. The trial court rejected the Hlavinkas’ arguments, granting HSC’s motion for summary judgment and subsequently awarded HSC the easement. The court ordered HSC to pay the Hlavinkas $132,293.36 for the easement. In calculating this figure, the court precluded one of the Hlavinkas from testifying to the value of the easement. The Hlavinkas appealed. 

On appeal, the case found in favor of the Hlavinkas on both issues. First, the court held that HSC was not a “common carrier” as a matter of law, and summary judgment should not have been entered in favor of HSC. The court also held that the Hlavinkas should have been allowed to present testimony regarding the value of the easement. 

Regarding the “common carrier” issue, the court began by noting that the burden rests with a company to establish that it is a common carrier. To do this, the company must serve a public purpose, which requires the company show that “at or before the time common-carrier status is challenged, that the pipeline will serve the public by transporting gas for customers who will either retain ownership of their gas or sell it to parties other than the carrier.” The court explained that whether a pipeline serves a public purpose is a judicial question. In finding that there was conflicting evidence regarding whether the HSC pipeline served a public purpose, the court noted the following:

  • The pipeline did not have any interconnections, and there was no evidence that HSC advertised other companies could use the pipeline. 
  • There was no evidence of the pipeline’s capacity. 
  • The pipeline was designed to serve only one customer. 

Taking all this into account, the court held that the lower court erred when it ruled, as a matter of law, that the pipeline served the public and that HSC was a common carrier. 

Moving on to the issue regarding the Hlavinkas’ ability to testify to the value of the easement, the appellate court ruled that the lower court was wrong to prevent the Hlavinkas’ testimony. The court explained that, generally, an expert testifies regarding the value of the condemned property. However, in certain situations, a landowner can testify to the value of their property. 

Here, the court noted that Terry Hlavinka would have testified that he bought and sold property and negotiated pipeline easements and oil and gas leases for over thirty years, and that the “main driver” behind purchasing the land was the opportunity to generate income through pipeline development. He was also planning on testifying that the income derived from pipeline development exceeds the income he could get from any other use of his property. Additionally, he would have explained that there were at least twenty-five pipelines located on the property before HSC expressed its interest in the easement, and that he relied on this fact when determining that the best use of the property was for pipeline development. Terry used comparable sales from other deals to arrive at a value for the easement. 

Ultimately, the court concluded that Terry Hlavinka’s methodology for calculating the value of the easement was sound and should have been presented to the jury. The court also noted that “the sale of easements to private pipelines who are not common carriers, and, therefore, do not have the power to acquire property by eminent domain are necessarily voluntary.”

The issues presented in this case, especially landowners’ ability to testify regarding the value of their property, is a hot-button issue in Texas oil and gas law. This case represents one of the few times a property owner was able to do so.  

Are you dealing with a Texas oil and gas issue?

Oil and gas disputes can be complicated. Choosing an attorney to represent you or your business is a crucial decision that can save months or even years of litigation, and tens of thousands of dollars. At the Law Offices of Gregory D. Jordan, we have been effectively handling Texas oil and gas cases for over 30 years. To learn more, and to schedule an initial consultation, call 512-419-0684. You can also contact me online.

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