OUT OF SIGHT
It’s getting toward late fall now. The high school football season is winding down, Halloween is next week, Christmas ads have been popping up for weeks… and we’ve had a season of growing grass, trees, shrubs and weeds.
You, of course, being a conscientious type, have been taking care of your yard. Your grass is cut, your trees are trimmed, your sidewalk is neatly edged. But you’ve got a neighbor – we all have that kind of neighbor – who’s not as diligent.
His or her grass is high, green plants are growing in the house gutters, and bushy branches overhang sidewalks, streets and yards. We know – we’ve whacked our heads on more than one branch that should have been trimmed before it became a hazard on the sidewalk.
So what kind of duty does Joe Sixpack have to people passing on the sidewalks or streets?
Iowa says not much. Low-hanging limbs obscured sightlines on a curve, and motorist Marilyn Fritz claimed the obstructed line of sight caused her to run into another car. She sued the County for not maintaining clearance so drivers could see where they were going. The County in turn sued landowners Eugene and Doris Norton for having an inoperable chainsaw (that is, for not trimming their trees).
The Court grappled with the question of who had the duty to maintain the sightlines. It noted that Iowa had a policy of encouraging safe travel on the roads, but also had a policy of encouraging trees. So that analysis wasn’t very helpful. Although Dallas County urged the Court to stick the Nortons with the duty to trim, the Court was clearly troubled that if it obligated the owners to maintain the sight lines, those folks – having no expertise in determining what sight lines were appropriate – would have no idea what was right and what was wrong.
The County, on the other hand, did have the expertise, having as it did a highway department staffed with trained professionals. The Court ruled that that fact convinced it the County should be the party which is be most responsible for maintaining highway sightlines.
It was important to the Court that the Nortons had not planted the trees, but rather they were “natural.” Also, while the branches were obscuring sightlines, they were not actually blocking anyone’s way down the road.
Fritz v. Parkison, 397 N.W.2d 714 (1986). Trees growing on the property of Eugene and Doris Norton limited the sight distance of two drivers whose vehicles collided on the curve. Plaintiff Marilyn Fritz sued Dallas County for failing to trim vegetation on the inside of the curve that obstructed the vision of each driver of the colliding vehicles. Dallas County in turn sued Eugene and Doris Norton alleging that trees, bushes, and shrubs growing on Norton’s land blocked the view of each oncoming motorist and the Nortons were liable for failing to remove the sight obstruction caused by this vegetation. The question presented to the court is whether landowners whose property abuts a curve on a rural road are potentially liable in tort when trees growing on their property limit the sight distance of drivers whose vehicles collide on the curve.
Held: The Court agreed that, but for the trees growing on Nortons’ land, motorists approaching the curve from the north and from the east would be able to see each other for a longer period of time before meeting. The Court found that limbs on a few older trees growing on the Nortons’ land overhung the road’s right-of-way but not the traveled portion of the curve and that the Nortons had planted a few fruit trees along the roadway.
The Court identified two well-developed and clearly recognized public policies implicated in this case. First, in light of the increasingly mobile society, highways must be kept free from obstructions and hazards. Indeed, courts have at various times imposed liability against individuals for allowing a highway to become obstructed or hazardous. The second policy implicated by this action is the well-established state goal to encourage the growth and cultivation of trees and discourage their wanton destruction.
Here, the Court found that Nortons’ trees did not physically obstruct or intrude upon the traveled portion of the road and neither directly impeded nor constituted any kind of latent defect that without warning might fall across the road or onto a passing vehicle. In this case, the Court held, the owner of land abutting curved highways owed motorists no duty to remove trees located on the landowner’s property where the trees did not actually obstruct traveled way even if the trees were planted by the landowner.
The Court further held that naturally occurring or artificially created conditions on a landowner’s property should be taken into consideration in deciding the case and whether the property is located in an urban or rural area is an additional consideration to determine liability.
– Tom Root