County of Ocean v. DeDreux

A-498-98T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2000) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: February 10, 2000

CONDEMNATION; PROOFS—In a condemnation matter, neither party has the burden of proof; a jury is required to resolve contested issues by a preponderance of the believable evidence.

In determining just compensation in a commercial condemnation setting, “[w]here ... a building and industrial machinery housed therein constitute a functional unit, and the difference between the value of the building with such articles and without them, is substantial, compensation for the taking should reflect that enhanced value.” This principle is incorporated in N.J.S. 20:3-2(d). Consequently, items that are found to be furniture, fixtures or equipment within the statutory definition must be considered as a part of the just compensation that a landowner is guaranteed by the New Jersey Constitution. Here, there was a dispute between a landowner and the condemning authority as to whether particular furniture, fixtures, and equipment were movable property (and therefore not included within a compensation award) or whether they were part of the property’s value as a functioning unit. In addition, there was a disagreement as to whether the property owner removed some of the furniture, fixtures, and equipment after the appraisal had been done. Had he done so, it would have been indicative of their status as movable property (and, therefore, not part of the value of the building). At trial, the lower court judge charged the jury on the issue of “burden of proof,” as follows: “where each party is attempting to prove - ... - just compensation, they both have that burden of proof, if you will. Both sides are attempting to prove to you by a preponderance of the credible evidence what they say outweighs what is said by the other side.” In appealing the jury verdict, the property owner argued that from those instructions the jury could well have believed that the property owner had the burden of proving all matters pertaining to its furniture, fixture, and equipment claim. The governmental entity argued that the judge’s instructions actually assigned the burden to both parties and was harmless under the circumstances. In addition, it argued that even if the instruction could have been interpreted as the property owner contended, it was appropriate to place the burden of proof on the property owner because several issues were raised about the furniture, fixtures, and equipment including missing items, items valued twice, “and the erroneous description of certain items.” The Court sided with the property owner, finding that the single issue before the jury was to ascertain the total just compensation for the property as of the date of taking. Therefore, in a condemnation matter, neither party has the burden of proof. Because issues regarding the furniture, fixtures, and equipment were relevant to the value of the property at the time of taking, the burden of proof was irrelevant and the possibility that the jury could have thought that it was the property owner’s burden to prove a value of the furniture, fixtures, and equipment could have affected the verdict. With respect to allegedly missing items, the Court’s view was the same. To it, the obvious purpose for the condemning authority to introduce such evidence was to create the inference that the property owner removed the missing items. If that were true, it would have meant that the items in question were not part of the enhanced value of the property because they could be used elsewhere. Consequently, the issue of whether any equipment was removed was held to be proper before the jury, but there should be no burden placed on the property owner to prove that it did not take the items claimed to be missing. In sum, this issue was no different than the other issues of the case. “Since it pertained to valuation, assigning a burden of proof was improper. The jury should have simply been asked to resolve this contested issue, as any contested issue, by a preponderance of the believable evidence.”