Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Snake House" Might Generate a Case for the Courthouse

The Idaho snake house

An Idaho family has been forced to vacate a house because it is infested with snakes. The story has an icky, squirm-inducing quality, but we see a different angle to it. That's because our Legal Schnauzer nose sniffs a lawsuit in the making.

The house is about 125 miles from Yellowstone National Park, but the owners were not planning on getting this close to nature. Mrs. Schnauzer and I feel for the Idaho family because our legal headaches started over issues related to real property. In our case, the problems did not even involve our own house, but rather the house next door.

Still, we know how trying it can be to deal with any issue involving your home, the place where you supposedly can peacefully rest your head--without interference from intruders. either the two-legged variety or those who slither around on their bellies.

How bad was the snake problem in Idaho? Reports Associated Press:

They slithered behind the walls at night and released foul-smelling musk into the drinking water. And they were so numerous that Ben Sessions once killed 42 in a single day.

Shortly after buying their dream home, Sessions and his wife discovered it was infested with thousands of garter snakes. For the next three months, their growing family lived as if in a horror movie. More than a year after they abandoned the property, the home briefly went back on the market, and they fear it could someday attract another unsuspecting buyer.

Sessions and his wife thought they were getting an awfully good deal on the house. Turns out there was a reason for that:

The five-bedroom house stands on nearly two pastoral acres in rural Idaho, about 125 miles southwest of Yellowstone National Park. Priced at less than $180,000, it seemed like a steal.

But the young couple soon learned they would be sharing the home with reptiles at least two feet long that had crawled into seemingly every crevice.

Garter snakes are not poisonous, and I've always been told that they try to avoid humans. In other words, they are the "good guys" in the snake world. But the Sessions family, understandably, did not want to share their house with hundreds of them.

What caused the snake infestation? From AP:

The home was probably built on top of a winter snake den or hibernaculum, where snakes gather in large numbers to hibernate, said Rob Cavallaro, a wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

In the spring and summer, the reptiles fan out across the wilds of southeastern Idaho to feed and breed. But as the days get shorter and cooler, they return to the den in search of warmth.

Why do we suspect that litigation could be in the future? Well, the house already has generated at least one lawsuit:

In 2007, another couple named Neal and Denise Ard sued the couple who sold them the home and the real estate agent who negotiated the $189,900 deal. The complaint was dismissed a year later.

Since the Sessions moved out, other people have looked at the house. One day, when a real estate agent was showing the property, a farmer who lives down the road stopped by to warn them, Chambers said.

"Now, if anybody sees anybody, they kind of will let them know," he said. "Just so that somebody else doesn't get caught in the same trap."

The real-estate agent must have been thrilled with the farmer's helpfulness.

We're not sure why the earlier lawsuit was dismissed; it probably has to do with a legal concept known as caveat emptor, which is Latin for "let the buyer beware." Based on our updated translation, caveat emptor actually means "you're screwed."

Under the doctrine, a buyer has no recourse against a seller for defects on real property that render it unfit for normal use. Caveat emptor, however, does not apply in cases where the seller actively conceals latent defects or made material misrepresentations amounting to fraud.

We addressed caveat emptor in the following post. We tied it to our home state of Alabama, but the doctrine applies pretty much across the country:

Buyer Beware in Alabama

How did a "buyer beware" issue next door come to affect us? I explained it in a post about a 65-year-old woman named Vinnie Orene Fennell, who lives in Chickasaw, Alabama:

Fennell says a realtor falsely assured her that the house already had been inspected, so Fennell went ahead and closed on the purchase. She then discovered rotted flooring, a leaky roof, and faulty wiring.

This story hits home here at Legal Schnauzer because I've long suspected that Mike McGarity, my new neighbor in 1998, might have been unhappy with something about his house, leading to major legal headaches for my wife and me. I know the house had problems with water coming in the basement before McGarity bought it. The previous owner had a B-Dry System installed in an effort to address the problem, but I wonder if it was truly fixed.

Evidence in the discovery process of the bogus lawsuit McGarity filed against me indicated that he had neither an inspection nor a survey performed on the house prior to purchase. As the real-estate expert notes above, that is just asking for trouble in Alabama--buyer beware!

We're not sure about all the factors driving the nuttiness we've experienced from next door. But consider the legal possibilities:

If water still was coming in the basement when McGarity bought it, would that qualify as a health or safety issue that could expose the seller to major liability? I think a good lawyer might have been able to make that case. In other words, I think McGarity might have had a legitimate case against the seller. But it seems someone steered him toward becoming angry at, and eventually suing, me--someone he most definitely did not have a case against.

What did this accomplish? If my theory is correct, it protected the seller, who was Fred Yancey, football coach at Briarwood Christian School, a ministry of Briarwood Presbyterian Church. We already have noted the strong ties that key figures in McGarity's lawsuit against me have to Briarwood. And we have noted Briarwood's involvement in seeing that the real-estate transaction with McGarity was done quickly--and possibly recklessly.

Is it possible that Briarwood faced serious liability had McGarity sued them for structural problems with his house? That question remains unclear. But this much is clear: He never had a case against me, but his lawyer and a Shelby County judge let the case unlawfully go on anyway.

What about the situation in Idaho? One report in the press indicates that a certain real-estate agent might have stepped in doo-doo:

The last owners of the home were Ben and Amber Sessions. They bought the house at what they thought was a great price.

"We were told that the previous owners in there didn't want to make their payment because they made up a story that there were snakes there, that they didn't want to pay their mortgage so they made up a snake story," Ben Sessions said.

The couple was also informed that every precaution was taken to ensure there wasn't a snake problem. They trusted the real estate agent that the information they had been told was true.

Later, the Sessions learned that the story of the snakes was not made up, and there was a problem.
The Sessions were forced to file for bankruptcy and the house was foreclosed.

We're guessing that the real estate agent might want to start looking for counsel. And we hope the Sessions family gets some justice out of their house-buying ordeal.

This also reminds us that buying a house is one of the riskiest moves many of us will ever make. When we described our ordeal to friends and acquaintances, a common response has been, "Well, why don't you move?" They say this as if moving is a snap, with no costs or risks involved.

In our case, we really liked our house. We had worked hard to find it, pay for it, and care for it--and it fit our needs and budget. We had lived in it for almost 10 years, with no significant problems, until Mike McGarity moved in next door. Laws are supposed to protect you from a thoughtless and intrusive neighbor--after all, we have this concept called "private property"--and they would have if our system was not infested with corrupt judges and lawyers.

The people who suggested that we move were good folks who meant well. But they didn't know what it was like to be in our shoes. We had a significant financial and emotional investment in our property. It was not just a house; it was our home. We knew that home ownership came with serious responsibilities--and rights. And we knew that, under the law, we were entitled to "the quiet enjoyment" of our property.

Little did we know the "justice system" was going to screw us at every turn. But we still feel good about the decision to stand our ground. Running away from things might solve certain problems, but it would not have solved this one--especially after McGarity sued me. Lawsuits are like bad rashes--they follow you wherever you go. If we were going to move, the time to do it was early on. Once a lawsuit was on the table, we had to dig in for a fight.

Here's a Schnauzer lesson for those who might be experiencing some type of property-related problem: Think twice before you try to solve the issue by moving, especially if you really like your home. Moving might resolve one issue but lead to many others--structural problems, drainage problems, even snake problems.

As for bad neighbors, they can be anywhere. Unless you can afford a farm, a ranch, or an estate-sized lot, it's almost impossible to ensure that you will never have a bad neighbor. In our view, it was better to stay and fight the problem we knew, rather than leave a house we loved for other potential problems on the horizon, those we didn't know.

Speaking of snakes--real ones, not the human kind--want a close-up look at what the Idaho family was living with? Check out the video below, which features one of the previous owners of the house. Maybe they are the ones who "made up" the stories about snakes:

1 comment:

Redeye said...

"Little did we know the "justice system" was going to screw us at every turn."

Should read, little did we know the InJustice system was going to screw us at every turn.