I CAN SEE FOR MILES
We were recently returning home from another part of the state when my wife, who loves exploring country byways, encouraged me to take a narrow township road. It was well worth it, with pastoral autumn views that put a state route – let alone an interstate highway – to shame.
At one corner on a township road, we happened on an excellent example of what we Ohioans call “corn to the corners,” the practice of planting right up to the edge of a field. We can hardly blame the farmer, who has to maximize the land’s yield in order to stay in business (and to cover the payments on a $200,000 tractor). But corn to the corners – like planting trees and shrubs near the road – can play havoc with sightlines and can pose a real hazard to motorists.
When an accident does happen, lawyers scramble to find as many defendants as possible, because usually, each defendant comes with his or her own insurance policy. As one old lawyer we practiced across from years ago, you have to “get the money flowing.” Nothing makes it flow like a whole passel of deep-pocket insurance companies lined up on the defendants’ side of the room.
But what duty does a landowner have to people traveling by? After Margaret Sheley was killed when her automobile collided with Kimberly Cross’ vehicle at an intersection, her family decided to test those limits. They sued Cross, the County and Buryl and Hazel Grossman, who owned the land by the intersection. The Sheley family argued the Grossmans negligently planted crops on their land such that a motorist’s view of oncoming traffic at this intersection was impaired. The trial court held for the Grossmans, finding they owed no duty to Margaret Sheley.
The Court of Appeals agreed, drawing a distinction between a landowner who creates hazardous conditions on the roadway, as opposed to conditions – hazardous or not – . wholly contained on the landowners’ property. Like corn to the corners, or perhaps big, bushy trees.
Sheley v. Cross, 680 N.E.2d 10 (Indiana Ct. of Appeals, 1997). On October 15, 1992, Margaret Sheley was killed when her car ran into Kimberly Cross’ vehicle at an intersection. Margaret’s survivors sued Kimberly Cross, the County, and Buryl and Hazel Grossman, the farmer who owned the land next to the intersection. The Sheley family argued that Grossmans, as owners of the land next to the intersection, negligently planted crops on their land such that a motorist’s view of oncoming traffic was impaired. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Grossmans, finding that they owed no duty to Margaret. The family appealed.
Held: The Grossmans owed no duty to Margaret Sheley. Admittedly, the planting of vegetation is considered to create an artificial condition, not a natural one. A “natural” condition is limited to land unchanged by humans. The difference is significant since there are differing duties for natural versus artificial conditions.
Nevertheless, to recover under a theory of negligence, a plaintiff must first establish that the defendant had a duty to conform his or her conduct to a standard of care arising from a relationship with the plaintiff. Absent a duty, there can be no breach and, therefore, no recovery in negligence
The Court said that an occupier of land abutting on or adjacent to a public highway owes a duty to the traveling public to exercise reasonable care to prevent injury to travelers from any unreasonable risks created by such occupier. The landowner has no right to use the property to interrupt or interfere with the exercise of the traveling public’s right by creating or maintaining a condition that is unnecessarily dangerous.
The issue, the Court said, is whether the scope of this duty extends to refraining from creating conditions wholly on a landowner’s property which may impair a traveler’s vision of oncoming traffic at an intersection. The Court ruled that the landowner does, but “that duty is limited to refraining from creating hazardous conditions that visit themselves upon the roadway. Where an activity is wholly contained on a landowner’s property, there is no duty to the traveling public.
The corn may have extended to the corners, but those corners remained on the Grossmans’ property. Thus, the Sheley family got nothing from the Grossmans.