Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lake disputes…

In the attached, diagram, we see the relative location of Lot 1, Lot 3, Lot B, and Gleason’s Lake in Plymouth, Minnesota.

What we do not get to see is the Sterling dock that, Sterling, the owner of Lot 1 built across Lot B to access Gleason Lake. Ren Xu and Baiqing Liu, owners of Lot 3 and Lot B brought a lawsuit for trespass against Defendant Scott Sterling on account of the Sterling dock to Gleason Lake.

At issue on appeal was whether to uphold the district court’s decision in favor of Sterling.

To prove trespass Xu and Liu had to prove that Sterling (Lot 3) did not have “riparian rights” over Lot B to reach Gleason Lake or, in order to prove “no trespass,” Sterling had to prove he did have riparian rights over Lot B.

Riparian Rights

“[O]ne may have rights to the use and enjoyment of the water, rights exclusive of the general public, through ownership of lakeshore or lakebed. These rights the law calls riparian. One does not own the water; one owns riparian rights to the use and enjoyment of the water.” Pratt v. State, Dep’t of Nat. Res., 309 N.W.2d 767, 772 (Minn. 1981) (footnote omitted). “The riparian owner may, to facilitate access to the water, build and maintain wharves, piers, landings, and docks on and in front of his land and extend the same into the water, even beyond low-water mark, to the point of navigability.” State ex rel. Head v. Slotness, 185 N.W.2d 530, 532 (Minn. 1971).

Xu v. Sterling

Burden of Proof

One simple concept that many non-lawyers do not fully appreciate or understand is the burden of proof. If Individual #1 for Party #1 offers testimony that “The light was red,” and the Individual #2 for Party #2 offers testimony that “The light was green,” and each witness is equally credible, who is the fact-finder supposed to believe?

By definition (that is, because each is equally credible), there is no way to decide who to believe. The evidence on each side is the same. And the question, then, will be which side bears the burden of proof. Whichever side that is, would lose. The evidence is “in equipoise,” courts say. (Baseball rules solves the common impasse by adopting a default rule: a tie “goes to the runner.”)

In Xu, et al. v. Sterling, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, after a trial, in favor of Sterling. Xu appealed, arguing that the district court had improperly placed the burden of proof on Xu to prove no riparian rights rather than placing the burden of proof on Sterling to prove that he had riparian rights.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals, over a dissent, found, that Sterling’s evidence “tend[ed] to demonstrate” that Sterling had riparian rights so, their reasoning went, if Sterling had the burden of proof, he met that burden (see here at p.8). In other words, it would appear that both the district court and the court of appeals “punted” as to which side had the burden of proof, finding that, either way, the Plaintiff lost. (Judge Matthew Johnson, dissenting, argued that “the erroneous burden of proof is baked into all of the findings of fact, making them invalid and unreliable”).

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