HEIDI AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD,
VERY BAD (WATCH OUT FOR THAT TREE!) DAY
Ever have one of those days? Heidi Cordeiro knows how you feel. Heidi had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day once. First, she heard a crash in her driveway and looked out to see that a tree belonging to the hospital next door had fallen, crushing her car. Then, she hurried out to assess the damage, only fall over the branches of the downed tree, spraining her ankle. At least she didn’t have to hobble far to the emergency room.
She of course sued the hospital — who doesn’t like suing hospitals? — for the damage to her car and her ankle. Her case essentially was that the tree fell, so of course, the hospital was negligent. Unfortunately, that just set her up for another bad day.
The Superior Court made short work of Heidi’s suggestion that landowners were strictly liable for falling trees. It correctly pointed out that in Connecticut, a plaintiff must plead (and of course later prove) that the landowner knew or should have known that the tree was diseased, decayed, or otherwise dangerous.
Heidi couldn’t do that, and her case was dismissed. We’ll never know whether liability would have extended to paying for Heidi not being careful where she stepped.
She had a bad day.
Cordeiro v. Rockville General Hospital, Inc., 44 Conn.L.Rptr. 58 (Conn.Super., Aug. 21, 2007). A tree belonging to the Rockville General Hospital fell into the yard and driveway of the premises Heidi Cordeiro was renting, damaging her car. When she went out to look at the damage, Heidi tripped and fell on the branches of the tree. She sued her landlord and the Hospital, alleging negligence and asking for damages for her personal injury and for damage to her car. Rockville Hospital moved to strike the count against it arguing that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim.
Held: Rockville Hospital was dismissed as a plaintiff. The Hospital argued the facts alleged in Heidi’s complaint did not give rise to any duty owed by the Hospital to the plaintiff, the falling tree was caused by an “act of God” for which the Hospital was not liable, and the falling tree was an open and obvious defect that the plaintiff should have avoided.
The Court observed that the essential elements of a negligence action were duty, breach of duty, causation, and actual injury. Here, Heidi Cordeiro alleged that “a tree … belonging to the defendant … fell upon the yard and driveway area of the premises where the [plaintiff] resided [as a tenant], and when the plaintiff went out to look at the damage to the vehicle parked in her driveway, she was caused to trip and fall over the branches of said tree, causing her to sustain … injuries.”
In early times, there was generally no liability for trees falling on neighboring lands, an obvious practical necessity when land holdings were very large and in a primitive state, but the rule made little sense in urban settings. In urban areas like the City of Rockville, there is generally found to be a “duty of reasonable care, including inspection to make sure that the tree is safe.” It is now generally recognized, particularly in urban areas, that a tree owner has a duty to an adjoining landowner to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm presented by an overhanging dead branch in a residential area. Thus, an invitee of commercial premises may recover for injuries sustained from the fall of a defective or unsound tree growing on adjoining premises, including trees of a purely natural origin.
However, the owner of a tree is liable for injuries from a falling tree only if he knew or reasonably should have known the tree was diseased, decayed, or otherwise constituted a dangerous condition. A landowner who knows that a tree on his property is decayed and may fall and damage the property of an adjoining landowner is under a duty to eliminate the danger. But a landowner does not have a duty to consistently and constantly check all trees on his property for non-visible rot. Instead, the manifestation of decay must be visible and apparent. In Connecticut, if the tree condition is one of which the defendant would become aware through reasonable exercise of its faculties, the defendant is chargeable with notice.
In this case, Ms. Cordeiro had to plead and prove facts showing that the Hospital knew or reasonably should have known the tree was diseased, decayed, or otherwise constituted a dangerous condition, or other such proof of actual or constructive notice, in order to state a claim. But she made no such allegation here. Instead, she only alleged that the Hospital “was responsible for the proper maintenance of its trees and was responsible to assure that its trees did not fall into adjoining properties, causing injury.” The law does not require landowners to continuously examine their trees for invisible decay to assure they do not fall. Instead, it requires them to take action when there is actual or constructive notice of a dangerous natural condition.
– Tom Root