Vantage Point: Stay in Your Own Lane

After presenting a webinar recently, the sponsor forwarded feedback from the audience. One comment that had me shaking my head stated very specifically (and not too politely) that surveyors have no business talking about court cases and that I should “stay in [my] own lane.”

Really? Surveyors have no right to discuss cases in which we or our colleagues are involved? Cases that have set precedent and guide us in our practices? Cases that illustrate lessons for surveyors? I wonder if that commenter believes surveyors should not even read statutes and regulations for fear that we might be straying outside our “lane” into the dangerous territory of understanding what it is that we are and are not allowed to do, and how we are to perform our work to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

One sad day years ago, I tried to educate a judge about easements. We were in Chancery court, which is a court of equity rather than a court of law. There was no jury, just a single judge. As is often the situation, this judge had no understanding of anything relating to real property, and outright denied that there could possibly be such a thing as a landlocked parcel. The focal point of the case, however, was just that – a landlocked parcel. Very specifically, it was the access easement that was disputed, based on language in the deed from the 1920s that created it and the 1940s tax map that erroneously showed it as part of a public street.

To support my explanation of the meaning of the word “reserve” (as in “the grantors reserve a right of way over the lands herein conveyed…”), I had brought my copy of “Black’s Law Dictionary” to read the definition. The opposing attorney immediately objected, saying that as a surveyor I was not permitted to practice law, and that reading from a law dictionary would cross that bright line. The judge wavered, but finally let me read aloud. Admittedly, it didn’t help at all, as he ultimately decided the case based on the tax map rather than any recorded deeds, but at least he let me read from the dictionary.

When I think of cases featuring surveyors, two that immediately come to mind as lessons for surveyors everywhere are Rozny v. Marnul (250 N.E.2d 656, Illinois Supreme Court, 1969) and Bell v. Jones (523 A.2d 982, District of Columbia Court of Appeals, 1987). There are countless others, but these are cited throughout our country. The first case drives home the message that surveyors should recognize that a developer for whom a lot survey is prepared is not the ultimate user of that work, and that the home-buying purchaser of that lot has an interest in what that plan has to say. It also berates poor record keeping and warns against making an “absolute guarantee of accuracy,” as surveyor Marnul did.

The second case also presents multiple lessons for surveyors. As in Rozny v. Marnul, Bell v. Jones addresses the certification that a surveyor places on a plan and reiterates that the client has a right to rely on that certification. In this instance, there was no “absolute guarantee,” but Jones did certify that he had done a full survey when in fact he had only performed what amounted to spot checks. Other big lessons from this case relate to the fact that there was no written agreement as to the services to be provided, which resulted in an apparent misunderstanding of the purpose for which the survey was needed and how the work was performed. Both parties were found to have been guilty of some level of negligence, reminding us that we really need to discuss why our clients want a survey so we can advise them as to what they really need. Once we have had that conversation, then the agreement as to services to be rendered and the cost must be committed to writing—and signed—to memorialize the understanding of all parties involved.

If we are consigned to “stay in our own lane,” apparently we must not read the cases cited in “Skelton on Adjacent Boundaries,” “Boundary Control and Legal Principles,” “Evidence and Procedures for Boundary Location,” or any number of other revered textbooks, and we must not ponder, discuss, or be guided by them in our work. Perhaps the authors of those treatises should not even have mentioned any cases in the first place?

What a ridiculous premise. Of course, we can—and must!—study and absorb the lessons from the past so that we can be guided in our practices today and tomorrow. Courses and seminars must broaden our perspectives and teach us how to ask deeper questions of ourselves, our clients, and our regulators. Our “lane” is wider than the shoulder where some want to confine us.