Most aspiring homeowners understand owning property involves a great deal of responsibility. When you own property, all of the maintenance and liabilities which would otherwise be taken care of by a landlord are taken on by you. A leaky faucet, faulty appliances, or an unstable foundation is no longer someone else’s obligation, but yours.
As a result, homeownership usually involves an endless number of replacements, maintenance, and improvements. You prioritize based on what you can live with and what you can afford. Every now and then, however, homeownership presents a unique problem which demands an inordinate amount of attention and energy in order to fix. The case of Mannillo v Gorski (1969) is one example of such a problem.
Mannillo v Gorski: The Case
Gorski (the defendant and appellant) acquired possession of a piece of land in 1946. Mannillo (the plaintiff and respondent) possessed a piece of land which was adjacent to Gorski’s land. Gorski’s son made various improvements to Gorski’s property in the summer of 1946. One of these improvements encroached on Mannillo’s property.
The encroachment was quite small and not easily visible to the casual observer. By the time Mannillo brought suit against Gorski to remove the encroachment, the statutory period of time required for adverse possession had been satisfied. Gorski argued that he had lawfully gained title to the disputed land because his encroachment satisfied both the element of time as well as the other statutory requirements of adverse possession.
The question before the court was: did Gorski gain title to the disputed section of land by way of adverse possession according to the state (in this case, the state of New Jersey) statute?
What’s the Law Say?
In order to gain title by way of adverse possession, the possession must be exclusive, continuous, uninterrupted, visible and notorious, and it must satisfy the statutorily defined period of time.
This sounds extensive, and it is! Adverse possession is not automatic — or there’d be a whole heap of problems we’d be dealing with today. Typically, it requires a conversation between both property owners, but in this case, the encroachment had been there long enough to warrant satisfying the rule.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the court in Mannillo v Gorski determined that there doesn’t needs to be an element of intentional hostility on the part of the adverse possessor. In this case, “hostile” doesn’t inherently mean malicious, but if it’s done without the true owner’s permission, it can be considered hostile. This is why they changed the meaning in the case of Mannillo v Gorski where the new stairs Gorski had built had been there for a substantial amount of time, and the addition hardly encroached on the property by more than 15 inches.
Court Ruled In Favor of Gorski
The court (the Supreme Court of New Jersey) remanded the case and ordered a new trial. Mannillo had succeeded at the trial court level because the trial court included intentional hostility as part of the requirements for adverse possession. Gorski had been under the impression that the disputed section of land was within his territorial boundary, so clearly the encroachment could not be said to be knowingly hostile. The Supreme Court threw this requirement out.
Furthermore, the court found that Gorski’s encroachment did barely constituted adverse possession because the encroachment was so minor; practically unnoticeable without focused scrutiny.
In cases involving a minor encroachment across adjacent properties, the true owner must have actual knowledge of the encroachment in order for the requirements of adverse possession to be met. The court ordered the new trial to utilize this updated standard. The court wound up ordering an injunction against the Mannillos.
Continued Relevance Today
Adverse possession is a term that was meant to mitigate unused land from becoming uninhabitable. If someone owned several acres of property and let it become unkempt, you could wind up with problems that extend well beyond their property line. For instance, in New England where ticks carrying lime disease are a real issue, if someone let their yard become overrun, it could lead to a propagation of deer which comes with an infestation of ticks and that can lead to additional health crises.
The point is, adverse possession is a way to ensure property and land is being used. Where it becomes a point of contention is when you find out a fence has narrowed your property line without your knowledge, permission, and (especially) by a substantial square footage. Same thing if someone is pumping their water into your yard. While it’s best to work these things out by communicating with your neighbors, the law can provide some legal guidance when it comes to your property line and others encroaching on your land.
The case of Mannillo v Gorski is not likely to be replicated often; but the case is still something homeowners should be aware of because it illustrates the sort of bizarre difficulties that occasionally arise during the course of homeownership.
Photo by Fineas Anton