United States v. Causby Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Respondents claim that their property was taken, within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment, by the regular army and navy aircraft flights over their house and chicken farm.

Facts of the case

Thomas Lee Causby owned a chicken farm outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. The farm was located near an airport used regularly by the United States military. According to Causby, noise from the airport regularly frightened the animals on his farm, resulting in the deaths of several chickens. The problem became so severe that Causby was forced to abandon his business. Under an ancient doctrine of the common law, land ownership extended to the space above and below the earth. Using this doctrine as a basis, Causby sued the United States, arguing that he owned the airspace above his farm. By flying planes in this airspace, he argued, the government had confiscated his property without compensation, thus violating the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The United States Court of Claims accepted Causby’s argument, and ordered the government to pay compensation.

Question

Has the Respondents’ property been taken within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment?

Answer

Yes. But the case is remanded for a determination of the value of the easement and whether the easement was permanent or temporary.
The court noted the common law doctrine of ownership of land extending to the sky above the land. However, the court notes that an act of Congress had given the United States exclusive national sovereignty over the air space. The court noted that common sense made the common law doctrine inapplicable.
However, the court found that the common law doctrine did not control the present case. The United States had conceded in oral argument that if flights over the Respondents’ property rendered it uninhabitable then there would be a taking compensable under the Fifth Amendment. The measure of the value of the property taken is the owner’s loss, not the taker’s gain.
The airspace is a public highway. But it is obvious that if the landowner is to have the full enjoyment of his land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere. If this were not true then landowners could not build buildings, plant trees or run fences.
The airspace, apart from the immediate reaches above the land, is part of the public domain. The court does not set the precise limits of the line of demarcation. Flights over private land are not a taking, unless, like here, they are so low and frequent as to be a direct and immediate interference with the enjoyment of the land. The Court of Claims must, upon remand, determine the value of the easement and whether it is a temporary or permanent easement.

Conclusion

“The court agreed with the finding that there had been a taking of respondents’ property within the meaning of U.S. Const. amend. V. The court held that a physical invasion of the property was not necessary where there was an intrusion so immediate and direct as to subtract from respondents’ full enjoyment and use of the property. Further, the damages were not merely consequential

  • they were the product of a direct invasion of respondents’ domain. The United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded the action, however, on the basis that the record was not clear whether the easement taken was temporary or permanent. The court remanded the cause for a determination of the necessary findings regarding the nature of the easement.”
    • Case Brief: 1946
    • Petitioner: United States
    • Respondent: Thomas Lee Causby et al.
    • Decided by: Stone Court

    Citation: 328 US 256 (1946)
    Argued: May 1, 1946
    Decided: May 27, 1946