It is often said that possession is 9/10 of the law. While that’s a catchy phrase, possession does not always mean that you have a right to do whatever you wish with another’s property.
Most business owners rely on the services of other businesses to make their operations run smoothly. For instance, many companies lease printers, copiers and other technology. Some businesses, like mechanics, builders, manufacturers, and restaurants, need to dispose of large quantities of hard waste, and as a result, engage a vendor to remove that waste on a regular basis. As we have all seen, those waste disposal companies leave their dumpsters (which represent a significant initial investment) on the property of the business owner, and make frequent stops with their own equipment to haul the waste away.
In commercial relationships, as in all relationships, circumstances change and relationships, with vendors and others, end. Sometimes, as in the case of the waste removal contract discussed above, one party will leave personal property on the real property of the other party. While it’s certainly tempting to simply remove the property, care must be taken to avoid infringing on the rights of the interloper.
In Maryland, there are several different legal relationships which can develop when a landowner allows another to place property on their land. In some instances, an easement can be created which allows another to build on or have use of the property. Such relationships are usually created by a formal legal document. In other scenarios, such as the case of the dumpster, a landowner will grant permission for another to store their personal property on the owner’s land. In that case, a “license,” or permissive use, is established. A license does not need to be written, and is often times implied from a contract or business dealing which necessitates one storing their personal property on the real property of another. Just like a driver’s license, a license to store property on land of another can be revoked. It is the process of the revocation of the license and the removal of the then-offending property that can create legal issues for the landowner.
There are several legal considerations at play. First, once a land owner revokes its license or terminates its business relationship with the owner of the stored property, then the person storing the property is effectively trespassing on the land of the owner. The land owner, however, does not automatically have the right to simply dispose of or remove the trespasser’s property. In fact, courts have routinely held landowners liable for unlawful or improper removal of such property.
To avoid this risk, landowners should almost never resort to “self-help” (i.e. removing trespassing property on their own). Instead, a landowner should sue for trespass (seeking damages for the unwelcome storage of the property) or ejectment (seeking a court order that the property must be removed).
While that level of formality might at first seem unnecessarily expensive, proactively seeking help from a court will likely prove less expensive than defending against a claim for damages brought by a vendor.
The best risk avoidance mechanism, of course, is communication, agreement, and documentation. Before allowing a customer, vendor, or other third-party to store personal property in or around your land or property, discuss the terms for delivery, storage, maintenance, and removal. Reach agreement on as much as possible, and document (with assistance from qualified counsel) any agreement that is reached. Without a agreement in advance, you will be best protected by seeking court intervention before resorting to self-help to get rid of unwelcome personal property.