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Appellate ruling closes Branson Landing legal saga

Scott Lauck//December 19, 2019

Appellate ruling closes Branson Landing legal saga

Scott Lauck//December 19, 2019

After three trips to the Court of Appeals, a long-running land dispute at a Branson development appears to be at an end.

The litigation began in 2003 regarding ownership of a peninsula on Lake Taneycomo that became the site of a multimillion-dollar retail and entertainment development known as Branson Landing.

Branson Landing
Construction on the Branson Landing project along the Lake Taneycomo waterfront in downtown Branson is shown in this March 2006 photo. Associated Press file photo

Empire District Electric Co. claimed title to much of the land, stemming from the original construction of the lake. The city of Branson said it owned other portions. Business owner Douglas Coverdell, however, alleged that he owned pieces of the peninsula.

In a pair of rulings on Dec. 5 that came 15 months after the case was argued, the Court of Appeals Southern District affirmed a lower court’s earlier ruling against Coverdell’s claim.

“After more than 15 years of protracted litigation, it is evident that Coverdell cannot establish ownership of [the property] by deed, adverse possession, or otherwise,” Judge Jeffrey W. Bates wrote. Judges William W. Francis Jr. and Mary W. Sheffield concurred.

Barring review by the Missouri Supreme Court or the full Southern District, the ruling appears to remove any potential cloud on the title to the Branson Landing development. Dan Welsh of Summers Compton Wells, an attorney for the project’s primary developer, HCW Development Co., said the case “is over at this point.” HCW, an intervenor in the case, was Coverdell’s primary adversary in the appeal.

“We’re quite pleased that the Southern District seemed to adopt all of our arguments and reject all of Coverdell’s arguments, and then issued what I consider to be a clear, concise and remarkably well-reasoned opinion. We’re grateful for that,” Welsh said.

Robert Cockerham of Cockerham & Associates, an attorney for Coverdell, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

After Empire filed the original quiet title action to resolve the ownership dispute, a Taney County jury in 2010 ruled in Coverdell’s favor for part of the peninsula. The following year, however, the Southern District sent the case back because the judgment covered a larger portion of the land than Coverdell had claimed at trial, including the part where the Branson Landing development is located.

Following that ruling, Coverdell claimed the full 27 acres, referred to as Property A. But a Taney County judge ruled against Coverdell in those suits. In 2015, the Southern District again sent the case back after finding that the trial court should not have dismissed Coverdell’s claim for adverse possession of some of the land.

Several lienholders for the Branson Landing development, including HCW, had filed separate litigation to protect their interests in the property. After the 2015 appellate ruling, HCW successfully intervened in the original lawsuit and moved for summary judgment. Judge Timothy Perigo, a Newton County circuit judge who took over the case, ruled against Coverdell’s adverse-possession claim in 2017. In a 28-page ruling in Coverdell’s case and a separate four-page opinion involving a related entity, Coverdell Enterprises Inc., the Southern District upheld Perigo’s order.

Among other things, a party seeking to prove adverse possession has to show that it has “continuously occupied, repaired, maintained and improved” the land for 10 years. According to court records, the city of Branson had possessed portions of the peninsula since 1937 and had acquired all of it by the end of 2002. Public property cannot be lost through adverse possession.

In 1999, the property’s previous owner conveyed his interest to Coverdell. The prior owner, however, also had been in litigation over title to the land, and his final suit was dismissed with prejudice in 1993. The Southern District said that effectively barred the prior owners’ adverse-possession claim as a matter of law, so Coverdell couldn’t tack that claim onto his. And because Branson had acquired all of the land within 10 years of the 1993 suit’s dismissal, the court said it was impossible for Coverdell to have possessed any of it for the statutorily required time.

The Branson Landing dispute was at the center of the third-largest plaintiffs’ wins of 2014, as tracked by Missouri Lawyers Media. That year, HCW negotiated a settlement with two insurers regarding title insurance coverage for the Branson Landing project. Despite the ongoing litigation, the insurers agreed to provide a $90 million leasehold insurance policy for the Branson Landing project, which allowed for new building to occur in the development.

The case is The Empire District Electric Co. et al. v. Coverdell et al., SD35226.

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