Lid shuts on 11-year lawsuit over outhouse

lawsuit Outhouse Photo by Shutterstock/stbar1964

As if pulled from the pages of a Mark Twain novel, two families have spent the past decade fighting a legal battle over an outhouse at Moore’s Beach in Renfrew County, Ontario. The 11-year lawsuit finally concluded on January 13, 2020 after the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed two appeals launched against a judge’s 2018 decision.

The trial involved Bill and Teresa Armstrong, both politicians from London, Ont., who bought a cottage in 2003 on the Ottawa River near Pembroke for $38,000. The cottage had no indoor plumbing and was only accessible via an access road that traversed land owned by Howard and Margaret Moore.

For a toilet, the Armstrongs used an outhouse on a non-travelled portion of the access road that had been there for over 40 years. A shed stood next to the outhouse and both were sheltered by cedar trees. Technically, the shed and outhouse were on the Moore’s land, but the Armstrongs used them as though they were part of their cottage.

Trouble started in 2007 when Robert Moore, Howard and Margaret Moore’s son, dumped a large amount of fill on a property he’d purchased uphill from the Armstrongs the year before. When Bill Armstrong voiced his concerns about the fill potentially seeping onto his property, Robert said to him, “Sucks to be at the bottom of the hill,” and suggested he get sandbags.

Later that year, a washout caused mud and water from Robert’s property to flood the outhouse. After the incident, the Armstrongs consulted an engineer who told them they were at risk of future washouts and should consider building a retaining wall.

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Instead, the Armstrongs abandoned their cottage and in 2009 launched a lawsuit against Robert for $250,000. They claimed the washout made the outhouse unusable, and, as a result, their property uninhabitable, particularly because they didn’t think they could get a permit to build a new outhouse.

The situation escalated further when Howard Moore discovered that the Armstrongs were making a claim of adverse possession—or squatter’s rights—over the outhouse, arguing that it legally belonged to them. To achieve a successful claim of adverse possession, the Armstrongs needed to establish that their possession of the outhouse was openly known, continuous, and peaceful throughout a 10-year period. Strangely enough, it also hinged on the Armstrong’s ability to show that they had taken possession of the outhouse without permission from the Moores.

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In response to the claim, Howard Moore cut down the cedars sheltering the outhouse, removed their stumps, and posted warning signs, telling other residents in the area that they might lose the use of the Moore’s access road if the adverse possession claim succeeded. Not long after this, the outhouse and shed were destroyed when someone dumped snow and gravel on them.

In 2011, the Armstrongs launched a second lawsuit against Howard, Margaret, and Robert Moore, asking for $100,000 to compensate for the destruction of the outhouse which they claimed to have adverse possession over.

The two lawsuits were heard together by trial court judge Justice Calum MacLeod and dragged on for seven years until 2018 when MacLeod ruled the Armstrongs did not have adverse possession of the outhouse. He said this was because the people who owned the cottage before the Armstrongs had moved the outhouse to a different location with permission from the Moores. According to MacLeod, for adverse possession to be legitimate, the claimant has to be in possession of the property without the permission of the true owner.

In the end, MacLeod awarded the Armstrongs $10,000 to clean up and repair the outhouse, and another $5,000 because Howard Moore had exacerbated the conflict by removing the cedars. The Armstrongs appealed this decision, but the Ontario Court of Appeal determined it would stand, finally closing the lid on what could possibly be the most contested outhouse in Canadian history.

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