Oral argument: Dec. 7, 2011
Appealed from: Montana Supreme Court (Mar. 30, 2010)
After a lawsuit against hydroelectric company PPL Montana was dismissed in federal court, PPL Montana sought a declaratory judgment in state court to determine the ownership of riverbeds along three Montana rivers. The State of Montana asserted that it owned the riverbeds under the equal footing doctrine, and sought compensation for PPL Montana’s use of the land. The Montana Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to Montana, holding that the State of Montana owned the riverbeds and that PPL Montana owed the State of Montana $40,956,180. The issue of title largely turns upon whether the river is “navigable.” PPL Montana argues that navigability for title purposes should be determined by looking at individual segments of rivers and the actual commercial use of rivers at the time statehood was obtained. Montana contends that the proper navigability test is the susceptibility of travel through longer river stretches, which can be informed by current uses. The Supreme Court’s decision may affect rivers’ public benefits and the reliance interests of riverbed owners.