Face Challenges Confidently

092 Landreth v. Melendez

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Richard F. Brown

The following is not a legal opinion. You should consult your attorney if the case may be of significance to you.
Landreth v. Melendez, 948 S.W.2d 76 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 1997, n.w.h.) considers whether the “accommodation doctrine” applies to a conflict between the surface owner and the mineral owner over surface usage when the mineral owner has an express prior easement that there shall be no liability on the part of the mineral estate owner for damages to the surface estate in connection with the testing, drilling, producing and marketing of oil, gas and other minerals. The surface estate owner was a farmer who grew irrigated cotton. Lessee advised the farmer that he would drill two new wells on the land. The farmer requested that Lessee accommodate his irrigation system by installing low profile pumping units for the wells so that the irrigation system could still pass over the pumps. Lessee wanted to use, and later did install, conventional pump jacks because neither the low profile units nor directional drilling would have been practical for his operation. The farmer then sued and was awarded both injunctive relief and damages caused by the failure of Lessee to accommodate his interests based on the accommodation doctrine.
Held: reversed and remanded. Until about 1972, the mineral estate as the “dominant” estate was believed to enjoy the right to use so much of the surface as was reasonably necessary without liability to the surface owner. Beginning in 1972, Texas courts began to follow the accommodation doctrine, which generally requires a balancing of the interests of both surface owner and mineral owner. The prior cases articulating the accommodation doctrine have arisen in the context of construing the implied easement in an oil and gas lease.
However, in this case, the mineral estate owner’s easement was not merely implied; it was expressly written into a deed that was in the farmer’s chain of title. The deed declared that there would be no liability on the part of the mineral estate owner for damages to the surface estate in connection with the testing, drilling, producing and marketing of oil, gas and other minerals as long as usual, necessary and convenient methods were used to obtain those minerals. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded this case back to the trial court to consider whether the methods of production were “usual, necessary and convenient methods” as described in the deed. If so, and absent negligence, the farmer would not be entitled to damages or to injunctive relief.
This case is significant because it holds that the accommodation doctrine does not apply when there is an express easement to go upon the land of the surface estate owner to develop the mineral estate. There are many mineral reservations in old deeds in which the draftsman (in reserving the mineral estate) went on to elaborately define the easement rights reserved. Although many attorneys would have then considered it to be poor draftsmanship and redundant to describe the easement rights attached to the “dominant” mineral estate, it now appears that the poor draftsman was the careful (or perhaps prescient) draftsman. If the scope of the rights turns on express, rather than implied, easement rights, then oil, gas and mineral lessees who hold under leases with elaborate grants of easement rights in the granting clause of the lease may be in a superior (dominant?) position, compared to other lessees who hold under leases with a simple grant of the right to explore, develop and produce.