In a landmark ruling, the RMI Supreme Court upheld a High Court ruling that land created by government landfill on submerged areas below the high water mark are owned by the government.
The order was issued last week in the case brought by the late Jurelang Zedkaia and Tolbwij Toring against the Marshalls Energy Company and the RMI government.
The case involved a dispute over land that was originally submerged below the ordinary high water mark in Delap. In 1979, the RMI government began to fill the submerged land and erect fuel tanks and other structures on ocean side land that is now in use by the Marshalls Energy Company for its fuel farm and other facilities.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Cadra and Justices J. Michael Seabright and Barry Kurren explained in their ruling that the government later leased the property to MEC and MEC in turn mortgaged its interest in the property to the US Rural Utilities Service. Zedkaia and Toring filed suit in 2006 against MEC and the RMI government claiming ownership of the disputed land, and asserting claims of unlawful taking and trespass.
The High Court granted summary judgment in favor of MEC and the government. “The court held that 1) to the extent the disputed land was created by the government on submerged areas below the high water mark, the government owns that land, and 2) to the extent the disputed land was not below the high water mark when the government entered the land, Plaintiffs’ claims are time-barred,” wrote the Supreme Court in its order affirming the High Court’s decision.
After a detailed discussion about laws and court rulings governing ownership of submerged land, the Supreme Court said: “The government owned the previously submerged areas and continues to own it even after it filled the submerged land and built atop it.”
The statute of limitations for filing lawsuits in “trespass” cases is six years. Since the government began work at the MEC site in 1979, the case filed in 2006 “falls outside the six-year limitation window” and is “barred by the statutes of limitations.”