Case of the Day – Tuesday, January 14, 2020

OUT IN THE COUNTRY

A great artifact of a bygone era – besides King Tut’s treasure, of course – is the now increasingly quaint notion that the degree of care a landowner must exercise to be sure his or her trees do not pose a hazard to passersby depends on whether the land is “urban and residential” or “rural and undeveloped.”

Back in the day, as my mother used to say, the law assumed that an urban landowner could more easily inspect his or her trees, and with that relative ease of inspection came a greater duty to people using the highway that passed his or her property, a duty to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm from defective or unsound trees on the premises. Trees of any kind, whether foreign or domestic, native or invasive, planted or naturally growing there since time immemorial…

Rural landowners, however, may have hundreds or thousands of trees lining the back roads and byways of the Palmetto State. For those folks, that urban duty to inspect does not apply if the trees – as are often the case – are trees of natural origin growing on rural, undeveloped land.

As we will see in today’s case, what at first blush seems unquestionably rural may really not be so rural. Out in the country… not a simple as it used to be.

Incidentally, many times cases like these settle as soon as the summary judgment motions are decided. Parties can see what facts are to be left for resolution at trial, and many times they don’t want to leave the case to chance (which is another word for “jury”). Here, after CSX lost its summary judgment motion, it settled with the victim’s widow for $800,000.00.

Gaines v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11829; 2019 WL 315980 (U.S. District Ct., S.C., Jan. 24, 2019). During a very windy February afternoon in 2016, Mike Gaines was driving his truck on Gilchrist Road in Darlington County. He encountered a broken tree limb blocking the road, so he parked his truck, walked up to the limb, and started to remove it. While Mike was bending down to pick up the limb, a pine tree fell on him and seriously injured him. The pine tree had been standing on an abandoned railbed right-of-way owned by CSX Transportation. The tree had not been planted there, but instead was naturally occurring and indigenous to the area. Mike Gaines died from his injuries about two hours later.

Mike’s widow Cindy sued CSX in a wrongful death and survival action in state court. She alleged the fallen tree was “damaged or diseased” and that CSX had a duty to maintain its property “to make certain trees on its property safe, and a duty of reasonable care to make certain trees on its property are safe for travelers of streets adjoining its land.”

CSX removed the action to federal court, and subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment.

Held: CSX was denied summary judgment, because questions of fact about the nature of the property – rural or urban – remained to be answered.

Summary judgment is a procedure used where there exist no questions of fact to be determined. Instead, the facts are clear and undisputed, and the only question is how the law should be applied to the facts to reach a judgment.

To prove a negligence claim in South Carolina, a plaintiff must show: (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; (2) the defendant breached its duty by a negligent act or omission; (3) the plaintiff suffered injury or damages; and (4) the breach was the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

South Carolina follows the rule that a landowner in a residential or urban area has a duty to others outside the property to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm from defective or unsound trees on the premises. However, the duty does not extend “to an owner of trees of natural origin growing on rural, undeveloped land.” The sole issue raised in CSX’s motion for summary judgment was whether it owed a duty of care. CSX argued that it was entitled to summary judgment because “South Carolina law does not require an owner of rural land to inspect trees on its property so as to prevent a defective tree from falling onto a public highway causing injury.”

Cindy contended there was a real question of fact whether CSX’s property was residential or urban, or whether it was rural and undeveloped.

Whether the law recognized a particular duty is legal question normally decided by the court, not the jury. “In some circumstances, however,” the Court said here, “the question of whether a duty arises depends on the existence of particular facts.” Here, the question of whether CSX had a duty to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm from defective or unsound trees depends on whether its property was located on rural, undeveloped land.

CSX showed that only about six vehicles an hour passed by the property on Gilchrist Road. The area was “sparsely populated,” CSX said, consisting mostly of farmland and woods. No railroad tracks or trains have been there since the early 1970s. In fact, the only change in the past half century was that Darlington County paved Gilchrist Road a few years ago.

Cindy claimed the CSX property was residential or urban. She showed that multiple homes are located near CSX’s property, a large automobile auction storage lot is located nearby, cultivated farmland means the area was developed; and Gilchrist Road is actually a “frequently traveled roadway.” Plus, Cindy submitted correspondence that occurred in 2013 between her late husband and CSX about the paving of Gilchrist. Mike had written to CSX on behalf of his neighbors, asking its cooperation in acquiring the right-of-way. Mike had said, “Given that most of us have resided on this road for multiple decades, the culmination of this activity has been a long awaited goal. This project offers improvements that will greatly enhance accessibility to our homes, while simultaneously providing better drainage and safer travel.” The letter was signed by Mike and over a dozen other Gilchrist Road residents.

In fact, CSX wrote back, referencing “the impact [the road paving] will have on you and your neighbors.” (Oops. Who knew a no-account PR letter could come back to haunt the railroad like that?)

Finally, Cindy argued CSX’s property cannot be considered undeveloped land, because it consists of a raised railbed onto which various trees later grew, including the one that killed Mike.

“Based on the above evidence,” the Court ruled, “there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Defendant’s property is ‘rural, undeveloped land’ or whether it is ‘in a residential or urban area’.” Whether CSX had a duty to Mike Gaines with respect to defective or unsound trees on its property “depends on facts — rural/undeveloped versus residential/urban — that must be decided by a jury.”

Rather than let a jury of local folks get their hands on the question of whether a big, rich, faceless railroad should write a check to help out the poor widow of a local guy who simply stopped to clear the road for the benefit of his neighbors and the traveling public, CSX wisely settled.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

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