DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/15/95 TRIAL JUDGE: HON. W. M. O'BARR, JR. COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: FORREST COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sullivan, Presiding Justice
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI
NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - OTHER
DISPOSITION REVERSED AND RENDERED; JNOV IS REINSTATED
MOTION FOR REHEARING FILED:
¶1. This appeal originated from the Circuit Court of Forrest County, which heard the matter on an appeal by Enterprise Products Company, hereinafter Enterprise, from a decision of the Board of Supervisors of Forrest County to back assess certain property that it had determined had "escaped taxation" under the meaning of Miss. Code Ann. § 27-35-155 (1972) as amended. The jury empaneled to hear the matter before the special Judge found in favor of Enterprise. The trial court, finding the matter to be an issue of law, not fact, set aside the jury verdict and granted the county's motion for JNOV. On appeal, the matter was assigned to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals found that the property had not "escaped taxation" under the statute by application of prior decisions of this Court, primarily Miller v. Copeland's Estate, 139 Miss. 788, 104 So. 176 (1925), and reversed the JNOV , reinstating the jury verdict. This Court having granted Writ of Certiorari, finds the Court of Appeals' majority analysis to be in error, and accordingly, we reverse.
¶2. Enterprise Products Company (hereinafter "Enterprise") owns certain tracts of real property in Forrest County, Mississippi which are situated on geologic formations known as salt domes. A practice of injecting water into these domes to dissolve the salt leaves the caverns suitable for storage of liquified petroleum products and has been in use for a number of years. The caverns were already in existence and in use when Enterprise acquired the property. The only visible evidence of these structures from the surface are "injection wells" which resemble, to some degree, any other oil or gas well or salt water disposal wells. Prior to 1993, the tax assessor had been under the impression that they were to be treated as gas wells which are not taxable.
¶3. However, in 1993, the Mississippi Attorney General issued an opinion stating that the caverns were taxable as permanent improvements to real estate within the meaning of Miss. Code Ann. § 27-35-49 (1995). *fn1 The opinion also stated that the caverns were subject to back assessment under Miss. Code Ann. § 27-35-155 (1995). After reassessment, the value of the subject property increased from $6,780.00 to more than $4,700,000.00. Enterprise does not contest the reassessment. *fn2 However, it contests the authority of the assessor to retroactively assessor "back assess" for prior years under that section of the code. *fn3 Enterprise claims that its property, though it may have been erroneously assessed, did not escape taxation by virtue of not being assessed within the meaning of the statute.
¶4. The Forrest County Board of Supervisors ruled that the back assessment was proper, and Enterprise appealed that decision to the circuit court. The matter was tried before a jury, and the jury ruled in favor of Enterprise. The special Judge appointed to hear the matter, granted a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the county and school district ruling that the only issue submitted to the jury, that of the application of the term "escape taxation" to the uncontroverted facts of the case, was one of law which should never have been submitted to the jury, and that under the facts, the property of Enterprise had, as a matter of law, escaped taxation for the years 1987 through 1992. The matter was then appealed to this Court and assigned to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial Judge and reinstated the jury verdict, while acknowledging the issue was one of law, not fact.
¶5. The sole issue remains whether the salt dome caverns "escaped taxation" under the meaning of Miss. Code Ann. § 27-35-155 (1995) and thus are subject to assessment of back-payments on unpaid taxes. Neither the amount of the new assessment, nor the validity of current and ...