A judge won’t allow a real estate agent’s opinion to be used in determining damages in a civil trespass case that seeks some $7.75 million from hunters who passed through a ranch’s airspace.
U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl on Friday disallowed part of the opinion of James Reinhart, who said the value of the $31-million Elk Mountain Ranch could be diminished by “at least 30%” if corner crossing were legal. Skavdahl signed an order stating the agent’s opinion “is not relevant to the issues of damages in this case.”
Reinhart is an expert witness for ranch owner Fred Eshelman, who sued four Missouri hunters for corner crossing — stepping from one piece of public land to another. Eshelman claims the four trespassed in 2021 by passing through ranch airspace at the common corners of two pieces each of public and private property arranged in a checkerboard pattern.
The men never set foot on Elk Mountain Ranch in Carbon County, instead using a ladder to climb over fence posts blocking the corner. A six-person jury found them not guilty of criminal trespass in 2022 but Eshelman’s civil case continues to advance in federal court.
In reaching his conclusion to exclude the agent’s opinion regarding damages, Skavdahl unraveled the logic behind Reinhart’s claim. The agent states that a 30% loss in value would result “[I]f a court were to declare that [the ranch] must allow corner crossing,” according to court papers.
But if Skavdahl or any other court were to find that corner crossing is legal, “then defendants will have done nothing wrong,” the judge wrote.
And if the Missouri hunters are found to have done nothing wrong, “plaintiff will have no legal basis on which to hold them liable” for corner crossing, the judge wrote.
Some testimony allowed
A decision in the case could have implications for public access to 8.3 million acres of public land across the West, according to one estimate. In Wyoming alone, there are 2.4 million acres that are “corner locked” according to calculations made by the online mapping company onX.
The judge’s order responded to a request by the hunters’ lawyers to exclude Reinhart’s testimony, a request Eshelman’s attorneys opposed.
While Skavdahl ordered the real estate agent’s opinion on the amount of damages to be irrelevant, he said Reinhart could testify on other matters, including about boundaries and fencing, elements that could be important in the case.
The role of fences on the ranch property could be a significant issue because the hunters have asserted that a federal law allows them access to the public property. Their attorneys have repeatedly referenced the federal Unlawful Inclosures Act of 1885 that generally guards against fencing the public out of public property.
Skavdahl has already determined that the placement, purpose and extent of Elk Mountain Ranch fences “could be a significant factor” in determining the applicability of the UIA.
The real estate agent’s testimony “may be relevant to the limited issue of helping a factfinder understand the physical placement, purpose, and extent of plaintiffs fencing and other property boundary control,” Skavdahl wrote.
Eshelman sued Bradly Cape, Zachary Smith, Phillip Yeomans and John Slowensky after they corner crossed to hunt on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property and other public land interspersed with 22,042 acres of the Elk Mountain Ranch. He is asking the court to declare that the men trespassed and to have a jury decide only how much they owe him in damages.
Attorneys for the ranch and Eshelman’s Iron Bar Holdings LLC listed Reinhart as an expert witness who would testify to the loss of 30% in ranch value were it listed for sale and if corner crossing was determined to be legal.
The ranch was appraised in 2017 at $31.1 million making a 30% loss in value equal to $9.39 million. Reinhart’s assertion would boost the alleged devaluation from $7.75 million Eshelman had previously asserted.
Further court proceedings in the case are expected later this year.