Eighth Circuit Affirms Jury Verdict and Remands for Further Proceedings on InjunctiveRelief in Takings by Flooding Case —Update from PPGMR, PLLC

For over twenty-five years, a group of farmers have complained that a bridge spanning the Cache River, installed by Lawrence County, Arkansas (“the County”), acts as a dam, flooding their properties and destroying their crops. On May 28, 2024, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that flooding caused by the bridge rose the level of a compensable taking and ordered the District Court to reconsider its order denying the farmers’ request for an injunction to remove the bridge.

The County previously maintained a wooden bridge across the West Cache River Slough. The wooden bridge was set on timber pilings that allowed water, sediment, and various debris to pass downstream unimpeded. However, in 1997, the County installed a new bridge with a culvert structure that restricts downstream flow. The culvert bridge effectively dams up the Slough, pushing water back into the Cache River proper and onto the farmers’ properties, significantly impairing their row crop operations.

On October 10, 2017, the farmers filed suit in the Eastern District of Arkansas, alleging that flooding caused by the County’s culvert bridge had unlawfully taken their properties without just compensation, in violation of the United States Constitution and the Arkansas Constitution. Watkins v. Lawrence Cnty., Arkansas, No. 3:17-CV-00272-KGB (E.D. Arkansas). The famers also sought an injunction to remove the bridge pursuant to U.S.C § 1983. At trial, each of the farmers testified that their farms had experienced more flooding since the county replaced the wooden bridge with the culvert bridge, that it now takes less rain to flood their properties, and when their properties do flood, the water remains longer than it had before. The landowners also presented expert testimony from a hydraulic engineer name to support their contentions.

On November 22, 2021, after a week-long trial, the jury found for the farmers and awarded a collective $346,456.65 in damages as just compensation for the taking. However, the District Court, subsequently denied the famers’ request for an injunction to remove the bridge because it harbored “doubt” that the flooding would continue in the future. The County appealed the jury verdict, and the farmers cross-appealed the denial of their requested injunction to the Eight Circuit Court of appeals. Watkins v. Lawrence Cnty., Arkansas, Case No. 23-1939; 23-2110 (8th Cir.). The three-judge panel consisting of Hon. Morris S. Arnold, Hon. Duane Benton, and Hon. David R. Straus, upheld the jury verdict and remanded the case for a “more focused consideration” of the farmers’ request for injunctive relief.

The Eighth Circuit’s opinion in Watkins comes on the heels of the tenth anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. United States of America, 133 S. Ct. 511 (2012) where PPGMR successfully established that the Fifth Amendment requires just compensation to be paid for a temporary taking caused by government-induced flooding.