Georgia Supreme Court Blog

February 19, 2010

Court Decides Heirs Dispute over Former Governor’s Land

Filed under: Harris Hines, property law — bce30064 @ 2:33 pm

The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld a White County court’s decision in a dispute over mineral rights among cousins who are descendants of a Georgia governor.

Lamartine G. Hardman, a physician, served as Georgia’s governor from 1927 to 1931. He was known as one of the wealthiest people in North Georgia and at one point owned land in seven counties, according to briefs filed in the case. The father of four, Hardman left various farms to his children. This case involves a tract of land he left to his daughter, Emma Hardman Thomson, and the one-half interest in mineral rights on her property acquired in 1939 by his son, Lamartine G. (“L.G.”) Hardman, Jr. After L.G., Jr. died in 1978, his wife – and eventually his children and grandchildren – inherited his one-half interest in the mineral rights. After Emma died in January 2007, her heirs inherited the other one-half interest along with the land.

In February 2008, Emma’s descendants, including Caroline Wilson, sued Shell Hardman Knox and other heirs of L.G., Jr., claiming that under state law, they had acquired L.G.’s portion of the mineral rights. Under Official Official Code of Georgia § 44-5-168, a property owner may gain title to another person’s mineral rights if the owner of those rights doesn’t conduct any mining activity or pay taxes on the rights for a period of seven years. In March 2009, the court granted “summary judgment” to Emma’s heirs, finding there was no need for a trial because the law was on their side.

In their appeal to the state Supreme Court, lawyers for L.G., Jr.’s descendants argued the trial court misinterpreted the statute and ignored the doctrine that prevents a party from taking advantage of another when that other party has been led to rely on certain behavior. For 37 years, they argued in briefs, “all went smoothly” between Emma, L.G., Jr. and his heirs until she died in 2007. Until then, L.G., Jr. and his heirs always respected Emma’s control over the property by agreeing to leave the initiation of mining activities on it to Emma. In return, they trusted her to turn over to him and his heirs their one-half interest of any proceeds she received from mining activity. Over the years, the land had been mined for gold, gravel and sand.

In a decision written by Justice P. Harris Hines (data), the Supreme Court pointed out that according to Knox, Emma used to deliver “vials of gold” to L.G., Jr.’s wife, even after his death. The evidence shows “recognition on Emma Thomson’s part to respect that ownership,” the opinion says. But it is undisputed that L.G., Jr. and his descendants never paid taxes on their mineral interest, and there is no evidence they tried to work the mineral rights in the seven years prior to the filing of the lawsuit. Furthermore, “there is no evidence of an agreement by which Emma Thomson undertook to relieve L.G. Hardman, Jr., and later his heirs, of the obligation to comply with the requirements of OCGA § 44-5-168,” the opinion says, “and there is no evidence that Emma Thomson ever made any promise or commitment intended to influence the holders of the one-half mineral interest to neglect their obligations under OCGA § 44-5-168.”

More Information
Georgia Supreme Court Opinions Database: KNOX ET AL. V. WILSON ET AL. (S09A1490)
Georgia Real Estate Law Reference Page

Attorneys for Appellants (L.G., Jr. heirs): Robert Marcovitch, Dennis Cathey
Attorneys for Appellees (Emma heirs): Samuel Oliver, Jason Dean

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