There was a era – back in a time when giants roamed the land – in which a landowner had no duty to protect anyone else from harm resulting due to the natural condition of the land. The judicial thinking was that everyone took the land the way they found it. There’s a century-old oak on the place, and it dies? Well, trees grow and then they die. If it happens to fall on old Zebediah’s cabin next door, that’s just one of those acts of God.
The concept made a certain amount of sense when the land was rural, and no one did much landscaping around the cabin. But as time passed, courts found themselves trying to determine whether that sweet gum that fell on the random horse-drawn wagon passing by had been planted by human agency or just had happened to grow there on its own. Time marched on, the horse gave way to a lot of horsepower, and courts abandoned the “natural condition” rule. Instead, they simply held that a landowner has a duty of reasonable care over all of the conditions of his or her premises, no matter what their origin.
There were a few reasons for the courts’ change of heart. First, if a landowner had a duty to take reasonable care of his or her premises, there was no rational basis for limiting that duty to vegetation that had not been planted by the landowner or those who had owned the place before. After all, when we were kids, we used to break samaras off the backyard maple tree and use them in whirligig contests. Under the old standard, if one of the samaras we dropped during our game took root and grew into a magnificent sugar maple, our folks would have been responsible for the tree. If the wind dropped the same samara, and it took root without our help, the old rule would have absolved our parents of any liability if the tree decayed and then fell on the neighbor boy (an outcome that we, who had been long afflicted by the obnoxious kid next door, would have cheered).
Second, the times, they were a-changin’. America was becoming more urban, and progress demanded that people living in closer proximity to each other with more developed streets and highways, assume more responsibility for injury to each other. Most parcels of property had become smaller – home plots in towns and cities rather than 40-acre and up farms – and the burden placed on landowners to inspect and maintain their premises became less even as the harm that their negligence could cause became greater. The utility and importance of modern roads and the cars and trucks that used them argued for a more responsible approach.
All of that leads to a case like today’s decision, an Indiana decision that asks the philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest and hits a car, does it sound like a lawsuit?
Robert Frost admitted that “whose woods these are I do not know.” But Stan Valinet knew. The woods in Clay Township near 106th and Spring Mill Road were his, and – like most reasonably prudent absentee landowners – Mr. Valinet occasionally drive through Clay Township to inspect his property. He especially admired a massive oak tree, almost two centuries old, growing about 28 feet from the edge of Spring Mill Road.
One dark and stormy December night, Ann Eskew was driving by this very tree, when 60-mph winds blew the mighty oak onto her car, seriously injuring her. It turned out that tree had been dead for at least three years, and had been showing signs of decay for at least 8 years before that.
Even in 1991, the Indiana rule held that rural landowners were not liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land. Mr. Valinet argued that the oak tree had always been there, and its falling on Ms. Eskew – while regrettable – had nothing to do with him.
The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that, regardless of whether the old oak tree was a natural condition of Mr. Valinet’s land or not, he could be liable to Ms. Eskew if his land was located in an area with sufficient population density, and whether the seriousness of the danger is weighed against the ease with which Mr. Valinet could have prevented it. Finding the facts needed to determine the answers to these questions was a job for the jury.
Valinet v. Eskew, 574 N.E.2d 283 (Supreme Court of Indiana, 1991). Stanley Valinet owned wooded land in a residential area of Clay Township, Hamilton County, Indiana, near the intersection of 106th Street and Spring Mill Road. He lived in Indianapolis, but testified he would occasionally drive through Clay Township to inspect his property.
Valinet’s land included a large oak tree, perhaps almost 200 years old with a 48” diameter trunk. The tree stood 28 feet from Spring Mill Road. On December 15, 1987, Ann Eskew was driving by the property during a windstorm, when the tree fell onto her car, seriously injuring her. It turned out that the tree had been dead for three years, and had been showing visible signs of decay for eight years before that.
Eskew sued. Valinet argued that the 200-year old oak was a natural condition of the land, and he was not liable for natural conditions of the land. The jury found him liable to Eskew, and he appealed, first to the Court of Appeals (which agreed with the jury), and then to the Indiana Supreme Court.
Held: The Supreme Court decided that Indiana would follow the general statement of law set out in the Restatement of Law. Restatement (Second) Of Torts § 363 provided that while a possessor of land would not be liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land, if the land is in an urban area, the possessor is liable to people “using a public highway for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of trees on the land near the highway.”
The Supreme Court acknowledged that the old rule had been no liability for natural conditions on land. That rule, however, had arisen at a time when the land was largely unsettled and the burden imposed on a landowner to inspect was thought to exceed the benefit to society of preventing possible harm to passersby. However, the Court observed, a line of cases had developed since then in which courts imposed a duty on landowners in more heavily populated areas to inspect trees to try to prevent their posing an unreasonable risk of harm to passing motorists. The rationale for imposing the duty on urban landowners is that the risk of harm to highway users is greater there, and the burden of inspection on landowners is lighter.
The Court agreed that the modern approach made more sense, but it underscored that whether the land was in an area of sufficient population density to invoke the rule requires a factual consideration of factors like land use and traffic patterns. Also, whether the landowner exercised the reasonable care would require the jury to weigh the seriousness of the danger against the ease with which it could be prevented. The Court noted that a landowner need not continually inspect his or her property for natural dangers, but sometimes fulfilling the owner’s duty to passing motorists “might reasonably require periodic inspections to be sure that the premises do not endanger those lawfully on the highway.”
– Tom Root