Virginia Federal Court Decision: East Tennessee Natural Gas Company v. Thomas

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Aside from giving individuals’ farms and private property to the private corporation before the corporation paid the owners just compensation, the court’s other actions cost many landowners a great portion of the compensation to which they were constitutionally entitled. For example, in the case of ETNG v. Thomas, Mr. Thomas asked for a jury trial. The court denied Mr. Thomas’ request and handpicked a three-person commission to determine the value of the property ETNG took. After the commission issued its opinion of value in other ETNG cases that were heard prior to Mr. Thomas’ case, the court determined that the commission’s opinion of value was too high. The court thereafter disbanded the commission, ordered new trials in those cases already heard by the commission, and decided that juries would determine value in all future cases, just as the owners had requested in the first place. Mr. Thomas did receive his jury trial. Although ETNG offered Mr. Thomas approximately $14,000, the jury awarded Mr. Thomas approximately $770,000 for the property ETNG took and damaged. Just as it had done with the commission’s determination of value, the court determined that the jury’s opinion of value was too high, so the court struck the jury’s award and ordered a new trial with a new jury. Thus far, the court was neither satisfied with the opinion of its own handpicked three-member commission (a retired judge, an appraiser, and attorney) nor with the jury’s opinion.

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Lost in this whole process is the impact the continued litigation had on Mr. Thomas and his constitutional right to just compensation. Solely because the court believes the jury’s value to be too high, Mr. Thomas must pay for two trials. Even if the second jury also vindicates Mr. Thomas and proves that ETNG’s offer is well below market value, Mr. Thomas will never be reimbursed for the great expenses of the first trial, or the second trial, or for the costs related to his attempt to obtain a jury trial after the court originally denied him a jury. Mr. Thomas should not have to forfeit a portion of the compensation to which he is constitutionally entitled simply because the court thought the jury’s award was too high, especially when the jury’s opinion of value was well within the evidence and opinions presented at trial.

Owners must be increasingly wary of takings by the judiciary—the very branch that exists to protect individual rights and to act as a check on the other two branches. The court in this case not only unilaterally took Mr. Thomas’ property and gave it to ETNG before ETNG paid Mr. Thomas just compensation, but the court then stripped a large portion of the just compensation Mr. Thomas ultimately recovered from a jury of his peers.

Taken from “The Real Story of Eminent Domain in Virginia: The Rise, Fall, and Undetermined Future of Private Property Rights in the Commonwealth” – a Virginia Institute for Public Policy Report authored by Jeremy P. Hopkins, Esq. The text is reproduced with the permission of Jeremy Hopkins and the Virginia Institute for Public Policy.