A Bridge (Over Troubled Waters) Does Not Justify Contempt Punishment

By harley erbe

On June 30, 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a decision in what has to be one of the more fascinating contempt of court proceedings that Iowa's courts have ever seen.  The dispute had its origins in the construction of a railroad bridge in 1872.  Over the course of the following 145 years, ownership of the bridge and the lands around it changed hands several times and the bridge was the subject of multiple legal proceedings.  It's very rare, even in cases involving land and property, to see a case that stretches back nearly to the beginning of Iowa's statehood.  

The case began with a railroad right-of-way originally owned by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad (CRI&P).  In 1872, CRI&P built a bridge to allow the railroad tracks to pass over a stream.  At times in the past, a dike turned the creek water under the bridge and across farmland until it drained into a drainage system.

In the 145 years since the bridge was constructed, the creek water has not consistently passed under the bridge and drained to the south.  Especially during heavy rains, the creek carries significant quantities of sediment and debris that plug the channel under the bridge, causing water to flood and damage fields north of the bridge.  In addition, the dike constructed to direct water under the bridge has repeatedly failed, causing water and debris to move parallel to the bridge, instead of under it, until it eventually drained into the drainage slough.  Silt and debris flowing through the creek are deposited in the drainage slough, inhibiting the flow of water into and through that waterway.  Over the course of a season or occasionally after a single substantial rain, the silt and debris plug the drainage slough, causing water to flood and damage crops in fields north of the plugs.  The local drainage district has repeatedly cleared the plugs and enabled the water to again empty into the slough.

Over the 145-year history of the bridge, it, along with the creek, dike, and surrounding land has been the subject of several legal actions.  In 1907, CRI&P closed the channel under the bridge, which had gradually been filling with sediment and debris, forcing the creek water to change course and travel east, parallel to the railroad right-of-way.  As a consequence of this change in the channel of the creek, land to the north of the railroad right-of-way occasionally flooded. 

In 1911, CRI&P filed an action against landowners on both sides of the bridge, seeking a declaration that CRI&P was no longer obligated to maintain the flow of water under the bridge because the natural flow of the creek had changed.  The courts disagreed with CRI&P and determined that the creek's natural court was under the railroad bridge.  CRI&P was ordered to clear the creek bed so that the water would again flow naturally under the bridge.  CRI&P was also required to maintain the creek such that it would no longer be obstructed and would adhere to outs natural channel under the railroad bridge.  

More court action came in 1976.  The railroad's dike had again failed, the stream had filled with silt and sand, and flooded neighboring lands.  CRI&P was ordered to to stop allowing the creek to flow onto neighboring lands and to reconstruct the collapsed dike so that the water again flowed under the railroad bridge.

Ownership of the railroad right-of-way was assumed by a railway known as Milwaukee Road.  CRI&P had begun construction on the dike per the 1977 court order, but the dike was washed out again before it could be completed.  In 1984, a court ordered Milwaukee Road to rebuild the dike now that had ownership of the railroad right-of-way.  The dike was again repaired, and then failed yet again.

That then brought the case to 2008, at which time the railroad right-of-way was owned by Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad (DM&E).  At this point, the dike was still in disrepair and the drainage problem in the vicinity of the bridge had not been solved.   DM&E didn't do anything to address the issues with the dike.

Litigation thus ensued again over the railroad bridge, the stream, and the dike in 2013.  This time the drainage district tried to have DM&E held in contempt of court for failing to maintain the dike and otherwise comply with the 1977 court order issued against CRI&P, which now applied to DM&E since it was the current owner of the railroad right-of-way.  The issue before the Iowa Supreme Court was whether DM&E could be subject to a court order entered against a different company decades earlier.

The court concluded that DM&E was not subject to the 1977 court order.  The court referenced Iowa Code 614.1(6), under which an action founded on a judgment of a court of record must be brought within twenty years.  It concluded that the drainage district’s application for order to show cause filed in February 2013 was an action seeking enforcement of the judgment entered in 1977.  It was therefore an action subject to the twenty-year statute of limitations on enforcement of judgments under Iowa Code 614.1(6).  The twenty-year period commenced when the judgment was entered in 1977.  Because the 1977 judgment was not renewed, it expired in 1997, well before the attempt to enforce it against DM&E was commenced.  The drainage district's contempt proceeding against DM&E thus failed.

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