SCOTUS rules Texas ranchers can sue state over flood damages

SCOTUS rules Texas ranchers can sue state over flood damages
SCOTUS rules Texas ranchers can sue state over flood damages

By Shelby Shank
Field Editor

The US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Texas ranchers can sue the state over flood damages caused by highway construction.

The case stemmed from the Texas Department of Transportation’s renovations to Interstate 10 to widen the highway, raise it and add a concrete barrier. These changes altered the natural flow of water, causing flooding on ranchlands that had not previously experienced such issues.

Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda made the situation worse, turning ranchlands into lakes and causing significant losses of livestock and property. Chambers County rancher and Texas Farm Bureau member Richie DeVillier lost 60 heads of cattle and several horses after the hurricane.

DeVillier’s ranch has been in his family since the early 1900s, and within that time, their 900 acres had never flooded. In 2020, DeVillier sued the state after his land repeatedly flooded following the renovations of Interstate 10.

The lawsuit claimed DeVillier had a right to damages under state law and the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, prohibiting governments from taking private property for public use without compensation.

“These ranchers filed a claim against the state of Texas, arguing that construction resulted in a taking of their private property,” Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, associate professor and Extension specialist in agricultural law, said.

Texas initially argued the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause did not apply, as it does not explicitly indicate a state government must provide compensation for property it seizes or damages.

Texas officials moved the case to federal court, then sought to dismiss it, suggesting it was not a Fifth Amendment issue. US 5th Circuit Court Appeals said they have no jurisdiction to hear taking claims against state governments because the Fifth Amendment doesn’t create such jurisdiction, and there is no federal statute establishing it either, prompting the US Supreme Court to take up the case.

The Supreme Court’s ruled the ranchers have the right to pursue their claims under the Takings Clause through Texas state law.

“This case therefore does not present the circumstance in which a property owner has no cause of action to seek just compensation. On remand, DeVillier and the other property owners should be permitted to pursue their claims under the Takings Clause through the cause of action available under Texas law,” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.

The Supreme Court’s decision allows ranchers like DeVillier to seek compensation for property damages but also opens the door for any Texan whose property is damaged by state actions.

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