THE CONTRACT SAYS WHAT?
The days are warmer, but our early morning dog walks can still be nippy. Before the warm days of May are upon us next week, we should talk about what happened during a dog walk on a different cold spring day a few years ago in Utah.
Landscaper Superior Property Management Services, Inc., had been hired by the Waterbury Homeowners Association to landscape and maintain the grounds at beautiful Shanty Acres. The parties had a standard contract, one that – among other things – called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season.” Elsewhere, the contract directs the landscapers to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees.
The contract was just a formality. Superior has been in business since the sequoias were seedlings, and its crews knew what needed to be done. They often went beyond the literal terms of the contract, which – as was typical for landscaping contracts – were not especially detailed. Over the seasons, Superior maintained Shanty Acres very well, and the contract was repeatedly renewed. The Happy Homeowners Association was indeed happy.
Then one cold, spring day, condominium resident Colleen Hill ventured outside to walk her dog. When she followed the cavorting canine onto the lawn, she tripped over a basal shoot growing from a tree root, fell, and hurt herself. She sued both Superior and the Association, claiming that Superior owed her a duty of care because of what it agreed to do in the contract. Superior, she alleged, was negligent in not trimming the basal shoots.
But how could Superior owe Colleen Hill a duty? Its contract was with the Association, and the Association thought Superior had done a fine job. True, Superior prided itself on doing more than the contract called for, but that was what a good landscaper did. Thus, Superior’s crews normally trimmed basal roots … but if Colleen’s complaint was to be believed, it appears Superior’s workers may have overlooked the shoots that proved a snare to her feet.
The courts finally concluded that Superior owed Colleen no duty. Its obligations were to the Association, and those obligations were those spelled out in the contract, not what additional services Superior might gratuitously provide. The landscaper won in the end, but only after four years of expensive litigation.
So what does the professional arborist or landscaper learn from Superior’s legal travails? The first lesson is to read the contract form he or she is using. Does it adequately define the services being provided? If the arborist will be performing more services than those described in the contract, those probably should be described in the contract.
At minimum, the contract should clearly provide that any services provided beyond those required by the contract are being provided as a courtesy only, and that the contract does not establish a duty between the arborist and anyone other than the client.
Will this be enough to save the arborist from frivolous lawsuits? Probably not in this society. But an ounce of careful contract drafting now may be worth a pound of lawyers later.
Hill v. Superior Property Management, Inc., Case No. 20120428 (Utah Supreme Ct., 2013). Superior Property Management had held the contract to maintain premises for the Waterbury Homeowners Association for years. The form contract called for Superior to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season” and to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees. After resident Colleen Hill, while walking her dog one early spring day, tripped on a growth from a tree root, she sued Superior for negligence because it had not trimmed the root.
Held: The landscaper didn’t owe Colleen a duty of care. As the Supreme Court of Utah observed, the “law draws a critical distinction between affirmative acts and omissions. As a general rule, we all have a duty to act reasonably in our affirmative acts; but no such duty attaches with regard to omissions except in cases of a special relationship.”
The Court agreed that sometimes, such a special relationship might be rooted in a contract. But it held that neither specific obligation in the contract – the obligation to mow the grass weekly and edge bi-weekly “throughout the normal growing season,” or the obligation to “trim . . . small and lower branches” on trees – created a duty flowing from the landscaping company and the injured property owner.
The Court noted that “in the first place, it is not at all clear that mere failure to perform would sustain liability in tort. A breach of contract, after all, typically gives rise to liability in contract … Even assuming that Superior’s maintenance contract could sustain a tort duty, moreover, there is still no basis for liability here, as neither of the provisions required Superior to perform the acts it is now charged with omitting.” The Justices analyzed the contract provisions, pointing out that the accident happened in early spring, outside of the “normal growing season.” What’s more, the dictionary definition of “branch” is “a stem growing from the trunk or from a limb of a tree” or a “shoot or secondary stem growing from the main stem.” Therefore, the Court reasoned, “the ‘branches’ to be trimmed under Superior’s maintenance contract are protrusions from the main trunk only, not separate shoots stemming from the tree’s roots. Superior could not be in breach for failing to trim back those shoots.”
Maybe so, argued the homeowner, but regardless of what the contract may have said, the landscaper’s obligations “were not comprehensively detailed in its maintenance contract, but encompassed acts that it habitually engaged in over time.” The Court rejected this dangerous notion, declaring that there “is no room in our law for a tort duty arising from course-of-performance acts that are nowhere provided by contract.” The Justices reasoned that “where a duty is rooted in the express language of a written contract, the parties are on notice of their obligations, and are in a good position to plan their activities around them. That is not at all true for … extracontractual, course-of-performance acts relied on” by Ms. Hill. “If we were to impose a duty in connection with those acts,” the Court said, “we would establish a troubling perverse incentive. A party facing a tort duty in connection with any undertaking not required by contract would be discouraged from such undertaking. And a disincentive for gratuitous service benefiting another is not the sort of conduct that our tort law ought to countenance. In any event, to the extent injuries ensue from negligence in the performance of such activities, liability would properly be governed by a different branch of our tort law – by the standards governing liability for a voluntary undertaking, a theory we … find unavailing.”
– Tom Root