Case of the Day – Monday, February 6, 2017

BUILDING A CASE

Trees falling on vehicles never work out well for the vehicle.

Trees falling on vehicles never work out well for the vehicle.

A family’s Christmas – and for that matter, its future – was ruined on a rural Ohio one dark December night (a night as dark and foreboding as last night, when football departed until next August). 

Mike and Traci Reed were driving their two kids home from a Christmas celebration, Traci and her 5-year old son in her car following her husband and their daughter in his, because they had picked up her car at her office, where she had left it earlier. When Mike and daughter Samantha got home, Traci – who had been following them – was no longer behind them. Mike backtracked to find her car crushed by a tree. An EMS worker at the scene told him that his wife was dead and son in critical condition.

The wheels of justice ground slowly after the accident. Four years after the accident, the Ohio Court of Claims – which decides questions of the State’s liability – finally decided the question of the Ohio Department of Transportation’s liability. The case is of interest not just because of the dry reduction of human tragedy into dispassionate allocation of responsibility (although it is interesting for that, too). The findings of fact and conclusions of law handed down by the magistrate (who is kind of an assistant judge) illustrate a well-structured case presented by the plaintiff and a poor rebuttal by ODOT.

One wonders why the State of Ohio didn’t just settle the case if it was going to make such a poor showing. Its own employees made the plaintiff’s case, and its expert pretty much just “phoned it in.” But from the plaintiff’s perspective, the case is a veritable “how to” try a claim of liability against a state agency in a “danger tree” case.

Reed v. Ohio Dept. of Transportation, 2012-Ohio-1244 (Ct.Cl., Mar. 23, 2012). Traci Reed and her young son, Conner, were driving northward through the hilly eastern Ohio countryside, when a tree fell on their car. Traci was killed and her son was badly injured.

The tree that fell on Traci had shown as “substantial ‘lean’” in the year prior to the accident, and other trees on the same embankment had fallen during that time. Traci’s husband had observed this, but he had never complained to the Ohio Department of Transportation himself. Rather, he assumed that ODOT knew about the condition because road crews maintained the area throughout the years.

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The Court noted that ODOT had a general duty to maintain its highways in a reasonably safe condition for the traveling public, but it is not an insurer of the safety of its highways. ODOT may be held liable for damage caused by defects, or dangerous conditions, on state highways where it has notice of the condition, either actual or constructive. Actual notice exists where, from competent evidence, the trier of fact can conclude the pertinent information was personally communicated to, or received by, the party. Constructive notice is that notice which the law regards as sufficient to give notice and is regarded as a substitute for actual notice. Under Ohio law, in order for there to be constructive notice of a nuisance or defect in the highway, that nuisance or defect must have existed for such length of time as to impute knowledge or notice.

The plaintiff (who was the husband of the deceased wife and mother) presented several ODOT employees responsible for vegetation management and hazard abatement along the road in question. He established that some of the employees knew of the tree and believed it to be dangerous, and others – while not recalling the tree ­ – agreed when studying the accident photos that it was dangerous. Plaintiff called a surveyor to establish that the tree had fallen within the state’s right-of-way on the highway, and put people on the stand who had lived close to the accident site, and who testified that they had seen the tree and thought it was a hazard.

Additionally, the plaintiff produced an urban forestry consultant who was certified by the International Society of Arboriculture as an arborist. The forester prepared for his testimony by reviewing court documents, photographs, visiting the accident site, and examining cut-up tree remnants. He testified that that the tree was a 50-year old red oak, and that it contained “reaction wood,” which forms to counter a lean of the tree. He observed that the pith, the biological center of the tree, was off-center, and that the tree’s roots in the embankment showed mild to moderate decay. He concluded that the tree was “hazardous” (as defined by the International Society of Arboriculture Hazard Rating System). His conclusion was based on the tree’s potential to fail and the potential to hit a target, because of its significant lean, its location in a sloped embankment with exposed roots, and the visually obvious deadwood in the crown of the tree. He testified that once a tree is “off vertical” with unstable soil, each progressive year increases the risk of failure. The tree was located on a steep slope, which compromised its stability.

The expert concluded that ODOT failed in its duty to remove a hazardous tree that had several significant defects, readily observable from the roadway. He said it was “not a question of if, but a question of when” the tree would fall on to the highway.

ODOT presented the testimony of one of its employees who said he had removed the tree from the road after it fell, and he had been familiar with it prior to that time. He said he had never seen any condition that concerned him, and if he had, he would have reported it. ODOT also presented its own expert, who prepared his testimony in the same manner as did the plaintiff’s expert. He said that the tree has a “classic natural lean,” due to the fact that the tree was on the edge of the woods and it grew toward the sunlight. According to ODOT’s expert, the center of the tree was asymmetric but there was no indication that the tree was dead or distressed. The State’s expert opined that the tree falling was “natural, it was not predictable.” However, on cross-examination, he conceded that the tree’s center of gravity was “probably not over the roots” and that a tree does not have to be dead, decayed, or diseased in order to be a hazard.

The finder of fact – in this case, a magistrate who heard the evidence for the court ­– found the Reed’s expert to be more persuasive. The evidence about the tree’s shifted center of gravity carried the day; the court concluded that the red oak tree that fell on Traci Reed’s vehicle was a hazard to the motoring public. As for notice, although ODOT said it had received no complaints from either its staff or the public regarding the tree, two of its employees acknowledged that they were aware that the canopy of the tree extended over the roadway. The court found that ODOT had actual knowledge of the hazardous condition, which had existed for more than a year prior to the accident and which was within the State’s right-of-way.

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An “Act of God?”

ODOT argued that the property owner where the tree was located was liable for the tree, but ODOT presented no evidence showing that the landowner had actual or constructive notice. As well, it argued that the tree fell due to an act of God. The court rejected that argument. The evidence showed that there was no weather than night that was sufficiently “unusual and overwhelming as to do damage by its own power” to make the falling tree an Act of God. Even if there had been an adverse weather condition on the night of the accident, the Court said, “it has also been the rule of law that, ‘[i]f proper care and diligence [on a defendant’s part] would have avoided the act, it is not excusable as the act of God.'” ODOT’s failure to exercise proper diligence resulted in the tree falling, the Court said, not an act of God.

ODOT was held liable for the falling tree, and Traci Reed’s death.

And after considering the damages showing? The Court awarded the family $4 million.

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