Check out the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC v. 8.37 Acres of Land, No. 23-1532 (May 14, 2024).

The caption tells you it is a federal eminent domain case, specifically the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a very controversial and much-objected-to natural gas pipeline in the Virginias. The issue was one of the amount of compensation.

One appraiser testified to a certain use and a certain high-low range. Another appraiser testified to different uses and a different high-low range. The jury reached a just compensation verdict that wasn’t based on one appraiser’s testimony or the other’s, but on some amalgamation of the two. 

As we know, a oft-applied rule is that a jury’s just comp verdict must be “inside the range of credited testimony.” The trial judge concluded the verdict violated this rule because the jury had apparently picked-and-chosen. Slip op. at 10. (“It reasoned that to reach that amount, the jury must have combined Gruelle’s valuation of the property prior to the taking with another expert’s diminution percentage. And because Gruelle valued the land as a wind farm, applying any other expert’s diminution percentage, which were each based on a residential use, was improper.”). The District Court entered JNOV (sorry kids, JMOL).

The Fourth Circuit reversed, and held that the verdict was based on the evidence presented at trial, it was not the trial judge’s place to second-guess the jury. It might have been “mixed” testimony from two different appraisers based on differing uses,

[b]ut the jury may accept or reject any part of an expert’s testimony and remain within the range of credited testimony even if it does not adopt any one expert’s testimony wholesale. Smoot, 248 F.2d at 829. Moreover, when a jury views a property itself, as it did here, it has “a wide latitude” to apply its own judgment of the property’s value. Id. And, significantly, although Appellee argues that the jury here could not have come up with the award that it did without improperly mixing commercial and residential valuations, Appellants explain that the verdict can, in fact, be calculated without doing so.

Slip 14-15.

For sure, the jury can’t just make stuff up. So what might the jury have done to reach its conclusion?


Slip op. at 16 (for a narrative of that calculus, start on page 15).

Essentially, as long as there is some plausible explanation that would support the jury’s verdict, the court should enter it, not overrule it. The court should not substitute its sense of methodology. See slip op. at 16 (“We agree with Appellants that the jury clearly could have reached its verdict using residential values alone without the need to venture beyond the credited testimony. And in doing so, the jury could accept or reject any part of each expert’s testimony — its verdict did not have to conform to the just compensation of any one witness. Because the jury’s verdict can be supported using residential values alone, it is unnecessary for us to decide whether it is improper for a jury to mix commercial and residential valuations in just compensation cases.”).

Stick with the jury: a good trend.

Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC v. 8.37 Acres of Land, No. 23-1532 (4th Cir. May 14, 2024)