“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” said Yogi Berra, supposedly.
Judge Perigo did something similar in a boundary dispute case, McLallen v. Tillman, arising on the Elk River in McDonald County, which occupies the southwest corner of Missouri. Like all streams in the Ozarks, the Elk River meanders through its floodplain, splitting and recombining, with seasonal floods shifting the arrangement of channels.
Several deeds said that the boundary of the property was a part of a quarter-section “lying North and West of Elk River.” The trial judge, taking the whole fork, said that these deeds were not ambiguous, sustaining a motion for summary judgment.
The McLallens weren’t happy, because they thought that the eight acres lying between the north and south fork of the Elk River was theirs. Their neighbors claimed the same land. The McLallens appealed, claiming that the deed may be clear enough on its face, but that this language ignored the reality about the Elk River.
At that point, the Elk River splits into two channels, one carrying more water than the other. In 1984, at the time of one conveyance, the southern channel carried the most water. Sometime in the 1990s, the northern channel began to carry the most water. It’s safe to guess that one of the channels may even go dry during droughts.
The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment, sending the case back for a trial. The basis of the reversal is that the appeals court thought McLallen’s deed, while plain on its face, had a latent ambiguity, one that could be discerned from facts outside the words of the deed. The trial court should have heard evidence about which fork of the Elk River constituted its northern boundary, to determine which of two plausible interpretations of the deed would prevail.