Case of the Day – Tuesday, September 19, 2017

ZOOM, ZOOM, DING

An alert reader sent us a link to a sports car forum recently in which the proud owner of a Mazda RX-8 bemoaned the fact that his car had been hit by a limb that fell from his landlord’s tree. The owner wondered whether his landlord was liable for the deductable on his insurance.

Collisions with trees can be harrowing, whether in a care or on a bicycle.

Collisions with trees can be harrowing, whether in a car or on even just riding a bicycle.

Good question! Because the RX-8 and the tree both are South Carolina, we looked first at Staples v. Duell. In that case, Ms. Staples was driving down a rural road when she came upon one of Mr. Duell’s trees, which had fallen across the road. She came upon it rather suddenly, because she collided with it. She sued Mr. Duell, who was a landowner of some magnitude (about two miles worth of real estate along each side of the road).

Mr. Duell had an employee who was assigned the task of checking the security of the estate, including looking for dead trees, on a daily basis. Somehow, he must have missed this 100-foot pine’s condition. Ms. Staples sued Mr. Duell for negligence.

The Court found for Mr. Duell. It held that in South Carolina, rural landowners have no duty to others to inspect and improve their land. The fact that Mr. Duell voluntarily did so by sending an employee around didn’t create a duty where none existed. And that makes sense: if voluntarily performing a good deed created a legal duty to perform such deeds, no one would ever perform a good deed, that is, to go beyond the minimum the law requires for fear they would become liable for a good deed.

This doesn’t exactly answer our driver’s lament. After all, the landlord may be an urban landowner, and the Court suggests that an urban owner’s duty is different. Also, as a landlord, the tree owner’s duty may be greater. We’ll consider that tomorrow.

Meanwhile, good news from the Mazda front… our hapless sports car owner reported that his landlord’s insurance will cover his deductable.

Mr. Duell owned a lot of trees ...

Mr. Duell owned a lot of trees …

Staples v. Duell, 329 S.C. 503, 494 S.E.2d 639 (S.Ct. S.C. 1997). Ms. Staples was driving from Charleston toward Summerville on Highway 61 when she encountered a dead pine tree in the road. She swerved but collided with the tree, a 100-foot long dead pine.

The tree fell about sixty feet from the roadway and was located on Mr. Duell’s land, a plantation that stretched for about two mile along both sides of the road. In this area, only one residence – a cabin – stood. About 13,500 vehicles a day passed by Duell’s two-mile stretch of land on Highway 61. Duell owned Middleton Place National Historic Landmark, a tourist attraction which received about 100,000 admission-paying visitors a year. The only public entrance or exit to Middleton Place is on Highway 61. Duell maintained a 250-foot buffer zone of trees on both sides of the highway to protect the scenic beauty of the road. Duell’s employee, James Woddle, took care of the woodlands at Middleton Place. Woddle’s job duties included twice a day driving around the perimeter of Middleton Place to inspect the premises. During his inspections, he looked for trespassers, abandoned vehicles, and dead trees.

Staples sued Duell for negligence in permitting the tree to become a hazard. The trial court directed a verdict for Duell, holding that because the land from which the tree fell was rural, he had no common-law duty to discover and prevent the dangerous condition caused by the dead pine tree. Even if Duell had a policy of searching for dead trees along the roadway, his voluntary practice did not create a duty. Duell could have abandoned it at any time and it did not increase the risk.

Staples appealed.

gooddeed140925Held: The Court found for Mr. Duell. To prevail on her theory of negligence, Ms. Staples had to establish that (1) Duell owed her a duty of care, (2) that by some act or omission, he had breached that duty, and (3) that as proximate result of his breach, she had been injured. The Court ruled that as an owner of rural property adjacent to a highway, Duell did not owe duty of care to motorists on highway to inspect and improve his land. Rural landowners have different duties and responsibilities from city dwellers, the Court said, based on the different level of risk posed by defects on rural land and the burden of maintaining larger tracts of real estate. Thus, unlike urban landowners, rural landowners do not have a duty to inspect and improve land.

Mr. Duell’s policy of searching for dead trees on his property was good stewardship, but it did not result in his assuming a duty to motorists for injuries resulting from trees falling onto the road. His policy of examining his trees didn’t increase risk of harm to motorists. The people driving by had no prior knowledge of the policy and thus did not detrimentally rely on it. This of course makes one wonder – if people did rely on Mr. Duell’s perspicacity and gumption, would the Court have turned his voluntary good deed into a duty? A scary thought…

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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