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2004-UP-007 - Davis v. Gravley

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In the Court of Appeals


Douglas G. Davis and Brenda F. Davis,        Respondents,

v.

Eddie R. Gravley,        Appellant.


Appeal from Pickens County
Charles B. Simmons, Jr., Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2004-UP-007
Submitted December 8, 2003 – Filed January 14, 2004


AFFIRMED


W. Grady Jordan, of Easley, for Appellant.

James C. Alexander, of Pickens, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM:  Eddie R. Gravley appeals the trial court’s order extending a right-of-way across his property and granting an easement by necessity.  We affirm.

FACTS

Douglas G. Davis and Brenda F. Davis commenced this action against Eddie R. Gravley requesting the court reform their deed to establish a right-of-way across Gravley’s land or, in the alternative, grant an easement by necessity. 

The Davises purchased a 15.8-acre tract of land from Gravley in 1973.  This tract was part of a larger parcel owned by Gravley along Highway 11 in Pickens County.  At the time of the transfer, the tract was intentionally conveyed without means of access and did not connect with a public road.  The deed stated that it was “[u]nderstood that Grantee herein will secure right-of-way from tract herein above described to highway from property owners other than grantor.”  To facilitate the sale, Gravley financed part of the purchase price for the Davises. The parties do not dispute the terms and conditions of this original conveyance.

In 1976, the parties entered into an agreement whereby the Davises would pay off the balance of the purchase price early in return for a right-of-way across Gravley’s property.  The Davises asserted Gravley sought the payoff in order to build a shop on his land.  Gravley, on the other hand, testified that the Davises were behind on the mortgage and he sought the payoff in lieu of foreclosing. 

To finance the early termination of their mortgage with Gravley, the Davises obtained a loan from First National Bank of Pickens County by mortgaging the 15.8-acre tract.  Mr. Davis stated the loan was conditioned on the tract having access to a public road.  Mr. Granthem, the vice president of the bank at the time the loan was issued, supported this testimony by stating that it was the bank’s policy not to issue loans on property unless there was clear access to a public road.  Gravley also acknowledged he was aware the Davises would be unable to get the loan unless they had “a right-of-way from Highway 11 all the way to [their] property.” 

Pursuant to this agreement, on February 9, 1976, Gravley executed a deed conveying a right-of-way to the Davises.  The deed states:

WHEREAS, on Jan. 29, 1973, the grantor herein did covey certain property to the grantees herein by deed recorded in Book 12-P, page 263, Pickens County Records, and WHEREAS, said deed stipulated that grantee therein would secure a right of way from property owners other then grantor and WHEREAS, grantor now has decided to convey an easement and right of way to the grantees.

The deed then sets forth a metes and bounds description for the right-of-way to run from Highway 11 across Gravley’s land up to another point on his land.  Based on this metes and bounds description, however, the right-of-way falls short of connecting the highway to the Davises’ property.  The Davises had the land surveyed in 1996 as an attempt at resolving a dispute with Gravley about a driveway he was building.  According to the Davises, it was at this time that they first learned the easement did not extend all the way from Highway 11 to their property. 

The primary dispute among the parties is whether the right-of-way was intended to extend all the way to the Davises’ property.  The Davises assert that the parties intended it to connect their property with Highway 11.  Gravley contends that the easement was never meant to extend from Highway 11 to the Davises’ property.  Gravley testified that the Davises wanted to use this partial right-of-way along with a right-of-way they were planning to get from the abutting property owner, Mr. Davis’ brother, to access their land. 

The trial judge reformed the 1976 deed based on a mutual mistake by the parties, thereby extending the right-of-way from Highway 11 to the Davises’ property.  In the alternative, the court also held that the Davises were entitled to an easement by necessity over Gravley’s property.  Gravley argues these ruling were in error.

ISSUE

Did the trial court err by reforming the deed based on a mutual mistake by the parties?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

“The determination of the existence of an easement is a question of fact in a law action and subject to an any evidence standard of review when tried by a judge without a jury.”  Slear v. Hanna, 329 S.C. 407, 410, 496 S.E.2d 633, 635 (1998).  However, the question of the extent of the easement is equitable.  Tupper v. Dorchester County, 326 S.C. 318, 323, 487 S.E.2d 187, 190 (1997).  “Thus, this court may take its own view of the evidence on the latter issue.”  Id.  “[T]his broad scope of review does not require us to disregard the findings of the trial judge nor does it relieve the appellant of the burden of convincing us that the trial judge erred.”  Calcutt v. Calcutt, 282 S.C. 565, 569, 320 S.E.2d 55, 57 (Ct. App. 1984).  “The trial judge, who saw and heard the witnesses, was in a better position to evaluate their credibility.”  Id.

LAW/ANALYSIS

Gravley first contends the trial court erred by reforming the 1976 deed to extend the right-of-way to the Davises’ property.  We disagree. 

For equity to reform an instrument, “it must be shown by clear and convincing evidence not simply that there was a mistake by one of the parties, but that there was a mutual mistake.”  Timms v. Timms, 290 S.C. 133, 137, 348 S.E.2d 386, 389 (Ct. App. 1986).  “A mutual mistake is one whereby both parties intended a certain thing but because of a mistake in drafting did not get what they intended.”  Id.

Based on the testimony and evidence presented at trial, the trial court found the parties intended for the right-of-way to extend completely to the Davises’ property, and we agree.  It is undisputed that the original deed conveying the 15.8-acre tract to the Davises did not provide for a right-of-way across Gravley’s property.  In fact, the 1973 deed specifically stated that it was understood “Grantee herein will secure right-of-way from tract herein above described to highway from property owners other than grantor.”  However, in 1976, as part of an arrangement with the Davises to pay off the balance of their mortgage, Gravley granted a right-of-way across his property.  The grant provided in pertinent part that the “grantor now has decided to convey an easement and right of way to the grantees.”  The purpose of the right-of-way, as stated in the deed, was to provide “ingress and egress over lands located in the State of South Carolina.”  As the trial court noted, the deed fails to indicate the parties intended only a partial right-of-way.  Although Gravley testified the right-of-way was never intended to completely traverse his property because the Davises were going to use the neighboring property, the bulk of evidence presented at trial belies this assertion.  For instance, both Mr. Davis and Mr. Granthem testified the bank would not lend the money necessary to pay off Gravley without a right-of-way connecting the parcel to a public road. Gravley even acknowledged that he was aware of this requirement at the time of the conveyance.  Because there is more than enough evidence in the record to support the trial court’s order, we agree the parties intended the right-of-way to extend completely from the public road to the Davises’ property.  Therefore, we affirm the trial court’s order reforming the 1976 deed based on the doctrine of mutual mistake.

Furthermore, because we affirm the trial court’s decision on the grounds of mutual mistake, we do not need to address Gravley’s remaining issue.  See Futch v. McAllister Towing of Georgetown, Inc., 335 S.C. 598, 613, 518 S.E.2d 591, 598 (1999) (ruling appellate court need not review remaining issues when disposition of prior issues are dispositive).

Accordingly, based on the foregoing, the trial court’s decision is

AFFIRMED.

HEARN, C.J., HOWARD and KITTREDGE, J.J., concur.