A class-action lawsuit by property owners seeking compensation for easements along the railroad between Port Royal and Yemassee has been settled for more than $33 million, according to court documents and a lead attorney in the case.
The settlement was completed after a fairness hearing Wednesday. The 260 property owners, with a total of 303 parcels of land, will receive payments ranging from about $5,000 to $1 million, according to attorney Tom Stewart of Baker, Sterchi, Cowden & Rice LLC of Kansas City.
The lawsuit was filed against the federal government in March 2010 by Sharon Raulerson and other property owners. It claimed the easements along the Port Royal Railroad should have been returned to property owners after the railroad was abandoned. Instead, the railroad and easements were sold to the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority, which is working with local and regional agencies and governments to build a walking and biking trail there.
The case moved relatively swiftly through the court system, Stewart said, because the federal government said the railroad from Port Royal to Yemassee was an easement, and therefore the attorneys did not need to prove that. The attorneys from both sides spent about a year conducting a joint appraisal to determine the value of the land involved in the case.
The federal government has agreed to pay the fair-market value of the property, as of May 2009, along with interest and attorney fees. The attorneys for the case will receive 33 percent, or almost $11 million, of the property owners’ awards.
Stewart said property owners should receive their payments within 60 days.
Three other lawsuits related to property owners along the trail are still pending:
- A second, smaller lawsuit filed by attorney Thor Hearne from Arent Fox LLP, of Clayton, Missouri, is also moving ahead. Hearne said the appraisal process started about nine months ago, and he expects appraisals to be ready in about a month. He expects “sizable” payments to his clients.
“Once that's done, I expect the government to settle based on those values,” he said.
The suit claims the authority only had rights to use the surface of the railroad track, but was acting as if it had the right to allow utilities installed above and below ground.
The lawsuit says BJWSA should reimburse property owners for the land under the surface and for any money the authority received for allowing above-ground utilities such as power lines.
A spokesman for BJWSA could not be immediately reached for comment.