Owners win fight over land empire

A 120-YEAR-OLD legal fight over a huge Texas ranch has finally been put to rest with a decision by the Texas Supreme Court favoring the present owners.

The subject of the suit was the King Ranch, an agricultural empire larger than Rhode Island that was founded in 1853 by a colorful ex-soldier and riverboatman named Richard King.

In 1879, King was sued by Helen B. Chapman, the widow of his deceased business partner, who sought to establish title to half ownership of the land.

King settled the dispute in 1883, with a payment of $5,800 and 240 acres of land. The Chapman heirs rekindled the suit in 1995 after learning that Helen Chapman’s lawyer, Robert J. Kleberg, had also been retained by King. The dual representation was referred to in a book, The King Ranch, by Tom Lea, and subsequent research reported in a news story.

Twenty plaintiffs, described in court papers as the heirs or devisees of the Chapmans, sued 208 defendants who are alleged to own interest in the disputed portion of the ranch, located in Rincon, Nueces County, just south of Corpus Christi. Chapman v. King Ranch, No. 13- 98-163-CV (Nueces Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.). [NLJ, 3-12-01.

The plaintiffs argued that Kleberg’s dual representation calls into question the validity of the 1883 settlement. Kleberg joined the King family just a couple of years after the settlement, marrying King’s daughter and taking over management of the ranch after King’s death in 1885.

In the current case, the trial court originally threw out the plaintiffs’ claims on a defense motion for summary judgment. A three-judge appellate panel reversed and remanded the case for trial, finding sufficient evidence to support the plaintiffs’ allegations that the actions of King and Kleberg may have amounted to fraud.

‘Tidbits and folklore’

King Ranch sought review from the Texas Supreme Court, which reversed. The high court said that the Chapmans had “cobbled together a series of interesting historical tidbits and Texas folklore to regain title.” The court upheld the 1883 settlement, noting that it had provided more than three times the price of the land 30 years earlier.

The court wrote that “we cannot conclude that conspiracy theories— fascinating but unsupported by evidence—may be used to upend a one hundred and twenty year old judgment quieting title to the property.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Williams R. Edwards of the Edwards Law Firm in Corpus Christi, did not return phone calls. John Thomas, defense counsel for King Ranch, said that the high court’s decision was the right one.

“The matter about who owns the land was in dispute in 1879,” said Thomas of Houston’s Hicks Thomas & Lilienstern. “That very lawsuit was resolved once before and then 120 years expired and [the plaintiffs] wanted to do it over again. The Supreme Court said you can’t get a do-over after 120 years.”

Thomas, who has represented King Ranch in other matters, was brought into the case after the ranch lost in the appellate court. He and a colleague, Laura Rowe, also of his firm, worked with Michael A. Hatchell, a solo practitioner out of Tyler, Texas, who argued the case to the state Supreme Court.

The defense asserted that the widow Chapman was represented by two law firms, so Kleberg was not the only lawyer counseling her. Thomas further maintained that courts have said there is nothing inherently wrong with a lawyer’s dual role and it is impossible to know what discussions the parties may have had in 1883 that might have disclosed it.