WHEN LESS CAN BE MORE …
Horrific crashes. They happen everywhere. Someone blasts through a stop sign late at night and slams into another car. One driver dies. A lawsuit ensues.
It’s an all-too-frequent tragedy. In today’s case, however, the inevitable lawsuit by the next-of-kin has an unusual twist. The surviving driver wasn’t the only one named as a defendant. Included in the lawsuit was the owner of the corner property, who was accused of contributing to the accident by letting overgrown trees and shrubs obscure the stop sign.
The investigating highway patrol officer testified that the sight lines were not so obscured that the offending driver couldn’t have seen the traffic sign. But the Court of Appeals decided that it wasn’t necessary to sort that out, because Georgia law resolved the issue.
It turns out that a state statute made it unlawful for a property owner to place any unauthorized device or structure in such a location as to obscure traffic signs. Over the years, the courts had defined the statute to include trees and shrubs planted by the owner as among the prohibited devices. But the catch is that the owner himself or herself must have planted the trees and shrubs: if the overgrowth was natural, it could be a rainforest for all Georgia law cared.
The Court held that because there was no proof the landowner had planted the overgrown vegetation, it didn’t matter how bushy he had let it become. The landowner couldn’t be liable. The lesson seemed to be that the less you do to take care of your place, the better off you are. Truly, less can be more…
Estate of Rachels v. Thompson, 658 S.E.2d 890, 290 Ga.App. 115 (Ga.App. 2008). Around midnight on July 4, 2003, young Winston Rachels was driving his truck northbound on Kent Rock Road, approaching Emmitt Steel Road. There is a stop sign on Kent Rock Road at its intersection with Emmitt Steel Road, but no stop sign on Emmitt Steel Road. Around this same time, Ashley Grant was traveling westbound on Emmitt Steel Road in a Jeep. Ashley did not see Winston’s truck until immediately prior to the accident. The truck and Jeep collided.
Winston’s estate sued Walter Thompson, the property owner adjacent to the road, on the grounds that the property was overgrown, thus hindering visibility. The Estate’s negligence claim was premised upon Walt having violated O.C.G.A. § 32-6-51, which provides that “[i]t shall be unlawful for any person to erect, place, or maintain in a place or position visible from any public road any unauthorized sign, signal, device, or other structure which: … (3) Obstructs a clear view from any public road to any other portion of such public road, to intersecting or adjoining public roads, or to property abutting such public road in such a manner as to constitute a hazard to traffic on such roads[.]” The lower court dismissed the case, and the Estate appealed.
Held: The case was dismissed.
The Court noted that O.C.G.A. § 32-6-51 has been interpreted to include purposely planted trees and other vegetation, including an allegedly vision-obstructing row of trees planted by the defendant. But here, there was no evidence that Walt had planted the foliage at issuel. The photos placed into the record by the Estate in opposition to the motion show a lot overgrown with kudzu.
In his response to the Estate’s interrogatories, Walt said that “[t]here are no improvements on the property[,]” and [s]ince there were no improvements on the property, no maintenance was required.”
The Court held that the Estate has failed to show Walt breached any duty to trim vegetation that he purportedly owed Winston, and summary judgment was correctly granted to Walt.
– Tom Root