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Jeff W. Sojka and Rhonda V. Sojka v. Vicki Breck and William Breck

April 10, 2013


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Benton County, Robert E. Sosalla, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Tabor, J.

Jeff and Rhonda Sojka appeal the dismissal of their nuisance claim. AFFIRMED.

Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Tabor and Mullins, JJ.

Jeff and Rhonda Sojka filed a nuisance action against their neighbors, Vicki and William Breck, claiming the Brecks' home reconstruction altered the drainage between their properties. The district court dismissed their action, finding any water damage to the Sojkas' property would have occurred regardless of the Brecks' alterations. The Sojkas argue the court erred by disregarding expert testimony and additional evidence showing the Brecks' construction caused the Sojkas' property to flood.

In our de novo review, we agree with the district court's finding that, aside from one unusually hard rainfall, water accumulation did not harm the Sojkas' property. The court was entitled to reject any portion of the expert's opinion- especially if it was based on incomplete information. Because the Brecks' building did not cause the Sojkas' claimed damages, the Brecks did not unreasonably interfere with the Sojkas' reasonable use and enjoyment of their property. Accordingly, we affirm.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings

In 1990, Jeff and Rhonda Sojka purchased Lots 5 and 6 of the Yerkes addition in Vinton, Iowa. Both lots abut Riverside Drive, a road that follows the southwestern bank of the Cedar River. For the next decade, the Sojkas lived in a home that straddled the two lots and sat partially in the Cedar River 100-year flood plain. In 2000, the couple demolished the home, elevated the foundation by five feet to bring it above the flood plain, and built a new house.

In 2006, Vicki Breck bought Lot 7, located directly east of the Sojkas, and move into the home on the property. Her son, William Breck, who was attending college at the time, used part of the house as storage and visited on weekends.

In July 2008 the Cedar River swelled beyond the 100-year flood plain and reached both homes, causing damage so substantial that neither could be salvaged. The Sojkas were the first to rebuild, again elevating the foundation by nearly five feet and altering the grading in their yard. They equipped their new home with flood vents along the foundation and a crawl space beneath to allow future flood water to enter without causing harm. The crawl space, which in some areas reaches a nearly nine-foot clearance, opens to an alleyway behind the Sojkas' house.

The aftermath of the 2008 flood eroded what was once a cordial relationship between neighbors. Vicki discussed selling Lot 7 to the Sojkas, but opted against the sale because she believed the Sojkas' offering price was too low. When the city declined to purchase Vicki's lot, the Brecks decided to demolish and rebuild the home. The Sojkas did not take the news well, and advised the Brecks that they would sue if the Brecks rebuilt.

Despite the Sojkas' threat, the Brecks launched their building plans in fall 2009. The Brecks proposed constructing a new home, one foot higher than the previous house, with a detached garage in back. In October 2009, the city issued the Brecks a building permit, and they demolished the existing house. The Brecks contracted with workers to compact sand, dirt, and rock to bring the basement filling to grade.

The Brecks' contractor poured twelve-foot foundational walls and placed dirt fill against them to prevent shifting until workers constructed the house atop the foundation. The contractor repeated the process with the garage foundation and walls. The Brecks planned to remove the dirt after building was completed. The following topographical image, prepared by the Sojkas' expert, depicts the location of the Sojkas' current home and Vicki's construction project.

The Sojkas remained displeased throughout construction. At a Vinton city council meeting on February 25, 2010, they attempted to stop the Brecks' progress by voicing concerns the home was not being built safely. The council responded that because the Brecks' project had passed city scrutiny, any cause of action would be between the neighbors.

On March 17, 2010, the Sojkas filed suit against the Brecks, alleging the new home created an unlawful alteration of the natural flow of water constituting a nuisance.*fn1 The Brecks ...

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