Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos means "whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell." This property right principle asserts that a person who owns a particular piece of land owns everything directly above and below that piece of land, no matter the distance, and can prosecute trespassers who violate their border on the surface, underground and in the sky. But has that held up in court over the years?
Despite the Latin phrasing, the principle was not a part of classical Roman law, and is usually attributed to the 13th-century Italian scholar Accursius. It made its way to England and was first used in the English-speaking world by Sir Edward Coke, an Elizabethan-era lawyer/judge/politician. It gained wider popularity in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1766), a treatise by judge and jurist William Blackstone.
Commentaries was highly regarded as a leading work on the development of English law and was influential in the development of the American legal system. It was said that "no other book except the Bible has played so great a role" in shaping American institutions, and many of Blackstone's ideas, including Cuius est solum... were quickly adopted and repeated by American courts and legal scholars.
Beginning with the 1797 decision in State v. David (Mr. David was indicted in Delaware for stealing two barrels of herrings after the barrels were found buried on his land) and continuing for the next hundred years, the American legal system maintained that landowners' rights extend over a tract of space that stretches from the center of the earth out into the atmosphere. Sometimes this space is described as a straight column with dimensions that match the property's surface-level boundary lines. The column sometimes began at a theoretical point at the very center of the earth, continues through the surface of the earth and upward into the sky. Other times, it was described as being shaped like an inverted pyramid. The tip is at the center of the earth and the space widens to meet the property's surface boundary lines.
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The doctrine worked well enough in the U.S. for a little more than a century, but in 1903 the Wright brothers shook things up when they got their powered Wright Flyer I airborne. From there, air travel expanded quickly and by the late 1930s, commercial airlines were carrying mail and passengers across the country.
Those magnificent men in their flying machines, of course, were violating countless borders as they crisscrossed the U.S., and the property owners began to sue the trespassing airline companies. Having to get permission from, or pay a settlement out to, anyone whose house they wanted to fly over would have caused major headaches for the airlines, the courts and federal regulators, and the doctrine began to fall out of favor.
The courts turned on their beloved Blackstone’s idea and began to regularly reject the ad coelum approach to airspace rights. Instead, they interpreted the maxim as giving property owners rights to the sky “within the range of actual occupation,” and use of airspace “to such an extent as [they are] able.” Congress, meanwhile, passed the Air Commerce Act in 1926, and gave the government jurisdiction over “navigable air space,” or the sky above “minimum safe altitudes of flight” as determined by the federal government.
In 1946, the United States Supreme Court heard United States v. Causby. Their decision in the case proved to be the final nail in the ad coelum doctrine's coffin and established new common law to replace the generally-accepted-but-made-up rule.
Causby owned 2.8 acres of farmland near Greensboro, North Carolina. During World War II, the U.S. government started using a nearby airport for military aircraft and fighter planes began flying over Causby's property at altitudes low enough to blow the leaves off the tops of Causby's trees. The noise from the flyovers scared Causby's chickens so much that they would panic, run into walls and kill themselves. Some 150 chickens died like this in a small span of time and Causby was forced to give up chicken farming entirely. He sued the government, claiming that their trespassing left his property commercially worthless and that his land had, in effect, been taken from him.
The Supreme Court ruled the air was a "public highway" and rejected Causby's claim that his airspace had been taken from him. Justice William O. Douglas wrote, in his opinion for the majority, that the cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos doctrine and the idea that "ownership of the land extended to the periphery of the universe...has no place in the modern world. To recognize such private claims to the airspace would clog these highways, seriously interfere with their control and development in the public interest, and transfer into private ownership that to which only the public has a just claim."
Douglas did, however, concede that "if the landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere." He concluded that "flights so low and so frequent as to be a direct and immediate interference with the enjoyment and use of the land" did constitute a taking of the land and left it to the lower court to figure out how Causby should be rewarded.
What Lies Beneath
While the ad coelum part of the doctrine fizzled pretty quickly with the birth of air travel, the ad inferos part soldiers on in some cases, if only because subsurface property rights are still being figured out. Without an underground equivalent to Causby, the courts have yet to establish law that addresses subsurface rights and the legislation that some states have adopted is vague enough that some courts will still uphold the ad inferos doctrine, while others regard it as nonsense.
A look at decisions in subsurface ownership disputes reveals that the courts tend to side with the surface property owner if the case involves the near subsurface (disputes about tree roots or other intrusions within 100 feet or so of the surface), and hundreds of them have cited ad inferos in their decisions. Cases involving disputes a few hundred feet below the surface, though, are generally less likely to go in the landowner's favor or bring up the ad inferos doctrine.
Complicating matters are the number of federal, state, and local statues regarding particular uses of subsurface areas. In many cases, if oil, natural gas, hard rock minerals, objects embedded in the soil or waste disposal are involved, these statutes usually supersede traditional property rights.