In the past I have blogged about the doctrine of proprietary estoppel in the context of an estate dispute over ownership of a farm (See Breakfast with Gus).
The Ontario Court of Appeal in Schwark Estate v. Cutting 2010 ONCA 61 summarized the law of proprietary estoppel in this way:
“ The law with respect to proprietary estoppel is well-settled. This court has accepted that Snell’s Equity properly discloses the elements necessary to establish proprietary estoppel as:
1. encouragement of the plaintiffs by the defendant owner,
2. detrimental reliance by the plaintiffs to the knowledge of the defendant owner, and
3. the defendant owner now seeks to take unconscionable advantage of the plaintiff by reneging on an earlier promise.”
Now I have come across another farm case where the doctrine of proprietary estoppel was applied.
Sabey v Beardsley , 2013 BCSC 642 is a BC case in which the judge relied on the doctrine of proprietary estoppel to turn over ownership of a dressage horse farm to the claimant and in so doing appears to have expanded the scope of the doctrine by ruling that detriment does not only mean financial detriment.
In Sabey the parties disputed the ownership of a horse farm in Langley named Sansoucci. The farm was owned by Kim von Hopffgarten, who died in May 2011. In her will, Ms. von Hopffgarten left the farm to the defendant Burgi Rommel. The farm had previously been owned jointly by Ms. von Hopffgarten and her husband Dietrich von Hopffgarten, who died in February, 2006.
The von Hopffgartens were both well-known dressage riders, trainers and coaches. They took the plaintiff, Jesse Sabey, under their wings. He spent a good deal of time living and working on the farm. Both of the von Hopffgartens executed codicils to their wills changing the gift of the farm from Ms. Rommel to the plaintiff. However, the codicils were only witnessed by one person, and hence were invalid because the Wills Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 489, requires two witnesses to a testator’s signature.
Ms. von Hopffgarten also had a U.S. will in which she left Mr. Sabey $100,000.
Mr. Sabey’s primary claim was founded on proprietary estoppel, based for the most part on statements made to him by the von Hopffgartens. He claimed alternatively in unjust enrichment and trust. Throughout his time on the farm Jesse did the following work at Dietrich’s request and under Dietrich’s supervision:
• Trimming trees
• Mowing fields and grass;
• Laying gravel;
• Diverting a creek;
• Laying hog fuel paths;
• Harrowing and raking the footing in the indoor and outdoor arena;
• Scrubbing fibreglass in the arena;
• Redoing the footing in the arena;
• Clearing land;
• Digging ditches;
• Building French drains;
• Scrubbing the barns;
• Cleaning gutters on the barn and on the main house;
• Clearing blackberry bushes;
• Spraying for buttercups;
• Taking down trees;
• Planting trees;
• Cleaning out the footing in the paddocks;
• Installing new footing in the paddocks;
• Trimming hedges;
• Maintaining the gravel in the driveway;
• Landscaping the three garden areas known as Jesse’s Park I, Jesse’s Park II and Jesse’s Park III;
• Sanding and painting the deck on the main house;
• Cleaning moss off the roof of the main house;
• Sanding and painting the deck on the trailer house;
• Scrubbing the driveway with bleach;
• Tractor work;
• Scrubbing the outside of the barn;
• Staying at and managing the farm when Kim and Dietrich went away for their annual vacation;
• Riding Kim and Dietrich’s horses for them; and
• Riding and training other people’s horses through arrangements made between the horses’ owners and Dietrich.
The trial judge had no difficulty accepting Jesse’s evidence and found that the deceased and her husband had indeed promised the farm to Jesse. The trial judge held that the defective codicils corroborated the plaintiff’s evidence but did not seem to be overly concerned about the issue of corroboration.
The more difficult issue was whether Jesse had relied on the assurances of the von Hopffgartens to his detriment. The Defendants argued that Jesse did not suffer any detriment because he had chosen a well-paid professional career as an accountant. But Jesse had always dreamed of being a professional dressage rider. The trial judge wrote:
“ A financial loss is certainly one type of detriment, but I do not think it is the only type or a necessary element of detriment. Jesse gave up something he wanted, to become a professional dressage rider. Whether he would have made more or less money doing that is beside the point. Further, Jesse oriented his accounting career so that he would not have to travel and so he could work as close as possible (within the United States) to the farm. I do not think it is incumbent on him to prove a resulting financial loss. As stated above, reliance and detriment are often one and the same.”
The judge held that Jesse had proven his case based on proprietary estoppel and awarded the farm to him with costs.
In conclusion, the doctrine of proprietary estoppel seems to be gaining more acceptance in estate disputes. The Sabey case might result in more claimants coming forward even when they have not suffered any financial detriment.