Case of the Day – Monday, January 9, 2017

IT DEPENDS ON WHAT KIND OF TREE …

 

Horrific crashes. They happen everywhere. Someone blasts through a stop sign late at night and slams into another car. One driver dies. A lawsuit ensues.

Stopsignobsc140411It’s an all-too-frequent tragedy. In today’s case, however, the inevitable lawsuit by the next-of-kin has an unusual twist. Named as a defendant is the property owner at the corner, who is accused of contributing to the accident by having overgrown trees and shrubs that obscured the stop sign.

There was testimony by the investigating highway patrol officer that the sight lines were not so obscured that the offending driver couldn’t have seen the traffic sign. But the Court of Appeals decided that it wasn’t necessary to sort that out, because Georgia law resolved the issue.

It turns out that a Georgia statute made it unlawful for a property owner to place any unauthorized device or structure in such a location as to obscure traffic signs. Over the years, the courts had defined the statute to include trees and shrubs planted by the owner as among the prohibited devices. But the catch is that the owner must have planted the trees and shrubs himself or herself: it the overgrowth was natural, it could be a rainforest for all Georgia law cared.

The sign's obscured by a rainforest? That's fine with Georgia, as long as you didn't plant it ...

The sign’s obscured by a rainforest? That’s fine with Georgia, as long as you didn’t plant it …

The Court held that because there was no evidence the landowner had planted the overgrown vegetation, it didn’t matter how bushy it was. The landowner couldn’t be liable. The lesson seemed to be that the less you do to take care of your place, the better off you are. So it really did depend on what kind of tree it was…

Rachels v. Thompson, 658 S.E.2d 890, 290 Ga.App. 115 (Ga.App. 2008). Around midnight on July 4, 2003, Rachels was driving his truck northbound on Kent Rock Road, approaching Emmitt Steel Road. There is a stop sign on Kent Rock Road at its intersection with Emmitt Steel Road, but no stop sign on Emmitt Steel Road. Around this same time, Ashley Grant was traveling westbound on Emmitt Steel Road in a Jeep. Grant did not see Rachels’s truck until immediately prior to the accident. The truck and Jeep collided.

The sign, it turned out, was covered with kudzu ...

The sign, it turned out, was covered with kudzu …

Rachels’ estate sued Thompson, the property owner adjacent to the road, on the grounds that the property was overgrown, thus hindering visibility. Rachels’s negligence claim was premised upon Thompson’s having violated O.C.G.A. § 32-6-51, which provides that “[i]t shall be unlawful for any person to erect, place, or maintain in a place or position visible from any public road any unauthorized sign, signal, device, or other structure which: … (3) Obstructs a clear view from any public road to any other portion of such public road, to intersecting or adjoining public roads, or to property abutting such public road in such a manner as to constitute a hazard to traffic on such roads[.]” The lower court dismissed the case, and Rachels appealed.

Held: The case was dismissed.

The Court noted that O.C.G.A. § 32-6-51 has been interpreted to include purposely planted trees and other vegetation, including an allegedly vision-obstructing row of trees planted by the defendant. But here, there was no evidence that the foliage at issue was purposefully planted by Thompson. The photos placed into the record by Rachels in opposition to the motion show a lot overgrown with kudzu.

Further, in his response to interrogatories, Thompson stated that “[t]here are no improvements on the property[,]” and [s]ince there were no improvements on the property, no maintenance was required.”

The Court held that Rachels has failed to show a breach of duty by Thompson, and summary judgment was correctly granted to the defendant. Therefore, the case was dismissed.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

2 thoughts on “Case of the Day – Monday, January 9, 2017

  1. But it was a matter of statutory interpretation—that was the only claim asserted. Would common law nuisance have worked instead to get a broader scope of duty?

    You haven’t commented on the recent outdoor wedding tragedy in California, where the mother of the bride was killed by a falling tree. But it was apparently a municipal or state park where the wedding was being held.

    • Excellent point. Negligence arising from breach of the statutory duty was all that was pled. This may be because Georgia law had already held that the proximate cause of a vehicle accident caused by obscured nightlines was the driver’a negligence in colliding with the other vehicle. The case cited precedent that seemed to hold this, Howard v. Gourmet Concepts Intl., 242 Ga.App. 521, 522(1), 529 S.E.2d 406 (2000) (plaintiff failed to come forward with evidence to counter defendant’s evidence that driver’s actions were sole cause of the accident.); see Nelson v. SilverDollar City, 249 Ga.App. 139, 144(3), 547 S.E.2d 630 (2001) (driver’s failure to yield to oncoming traffic while making left turn was sole proximate cause of accident, even if shrubbery obscured view). We think that you raise an interesting question, and we think we’ll explore these two cases in a subsequent post.

      As for the California wedding, that’s going to be some interesting litigation. We’ll follow it, but right now, there’s too little information to write anything that is not speculative.

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