Eminent Domain

Eminent domain litigation (also known as “condemnation litigation”) is a highly specialized area of law. Typically, an eminent domain case arises when a governmental entity needs to acquire private property for a public use. Common examples are the acquisition of right of way for a road or utility project, or even land needed for a school or park. The power of eminent domain is also available to certain utilities who operate as common carriers, such as pipeline, railroad, and electric transmission line companies. No matter what entity is using the power of eminent domain, the land must be used for a public purpose and the landowner must be paid for the value of the property acquired.

Of paramount importance for any condemning authority is that the landowner be paid just compensation for their property, as required by Article I, Section 17 of the Texas Constitution. The most common dispute in an eminent domain case is how much compensation a landowner is due and how the acquisition affects the use of any remainder property that is not acquired. As a consequence, eminent domain relies heavily on the use of experts who determine the utility and value of property.

Eminent domain is a combination of property law, administrative law, real estate valuation, and litigation and is nuanced compared to other types of litigation. Bickerstaff attorneys have years of experience representing condemnors in eminent domain proceedings, including highway, pipeline, and utility projects throughout Texas.

Our attorneys assist clients with:

Pre-condemnation planning and negotiations

Planning the route and determining the right of way needed for a given project is extremely important. While engineers design schematics based on what they need to complete the project, at times it is necessary to adjust plans to avoid certain businesses or homes. The early engagement of an eminent domain attorney can help the condemning authority to review project plans and engineer ways to avoid potentially costly pieces of property.

Cooperation with appraisers, land planners, and engineers

Because eminent domain cases are fact specific and rely heavily on opinions of value, hiring the right expert for the right case is crucial. In some instances, only an appraiser may be required. In other cases, it may be necessary to hire an engineer, land planner, architect, or broker to provide the right information to determine just compensation. Bickerstaff can help you determine what experts are needed for your project and for any particular parcel.

Preparation of litigation documents

Bickerstaff attorneys have drafted eminent domain documents for entities all across the State of Texas. We can help you determine what property rights you need to complete your project, be it an easement or fee simple interest.

Attending Special Commissioners Hearings

An often-overlooked aspect of the eminent domain process is that trial court judges appoint three disinterested landowners who live in the county to serve as Special Commissioners. The Special Commissioners determine the just compensation due to the landowner. Both parties to the suit have the ability to “strike” one Special Commissioner and request the judge appoint a replacement.  Our years of practice allow us to advise you on who is likely to be appointed as a Special Commissioner by a given judge and who should be struck.

Jury trials in the appropriate court of jurisdiction

If either party does not agree with the compensation determined by the Special Commissioners, they can object to the award and convert the case into a de novo jury trial. Under the Texas Property Code, District Courts and County Courts at Law (if there is one in the county) have concurrent jurisdiction over eminent domain cases. However, some counties have specific laws that dictate certain courts have exclusive jurisdiction. In other counties, the judges have local administrative rules that determine what court hears eminent domain jury trials. Our experience allows us to advise you on what court will preside over the trial and how they have ruled in past cases.

Appeals of trial court decisions to the appellate courts and Texas Supreme Court

Should there be an error of law committed in the jury trial, either party can appeal to the Court of Appeals for that jurisdiction, and later to the Texas Supreme Court. For example, if an expert is allowed to give testimony on an issue for which they are unqualified, it may cause harmful error and result in an incorrect jury verdict. Bickerstaff attorneys have experience in eminent domain appellate litigation and can argue the nuances of eminent domain law to help you obtain a just result.