THE COURT CHANNELS SHAKESPEARE
Midsummer’s Night fell last Sunday, but I nevertheless still feel a little Puckish. So I thought we’d examine two neighbors, neither of whom reacted thoughtfully to a dangerous tree. “Oh, what fools these mortals be!” Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene 2.
Traditionally, the Massachusetts Rule – which could be summarized as “I don’t owe you nuthin’ – held that a landowner had no liability to his neighbor for harm done by overhanging branches and encroaching root systems. If the neighbor didn’t like the mess, he or she could trim away the offending branches or roots up to the property line. The courts simply didn’t want to hear about it.
However, courts had traditionally held an urban landowner to a higher standard of care when the people being protected were passing motorists on a public highway. In those cases, an urban landowner was obligated to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of trees on the land near the highway.
In today’s case, Lois Lockhart had a decaying tree on her property. Neighbor Carl Mahurin complained about it, primarily because one of the branches was overhanging his property. But Lois did nothing. Neither did Carl – unless belly-aching counts as putting forth an effort.
Finally, the branch broke off and hit Carl, who was standing beneath it. You knew that had to happen, or else why would we be telling you this story? Being injured –and a little piqued that Lois had ignored his entreaties for so long – Carl sued. (You knew that would happen, too.)
Lois tried to get the case thrown out of trial court. She pointed out that Carl had nothin’ coming from her. The traditional rule – read “Massachusetts Rule” here – dictated that she had no duty to protect Carl from the natural condition of her tree.
But as the great bard once wrote, “I do perceive here a divided duty.” Othello, Act I, Scene 3. And so did the trial court. It was troubled that Lockhart’s duty to strangers passing by in their Hudsons and Desotos was greater than to her neighbor. That seems divided, and irrationally so.
Lois said, “Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, But seeming so, for my peculiar end.” Othello, Act I, Scene 1. The trial court said that might be so, but it nevertheless sent the case to the Court of Appeals for the appellate court’s opinion as to her duty.
The appellate panel said, “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!” Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5. It could see no reason for the disparate treatment, either. Certainly, just as Lockhart owed a duty to Mordred and Mildred Motorist, she must owe the same duty to her neighbor, Carl. However, the Court of Appeals did allow that Mr. Mahurin could have entered onto Ms. Lockhart’s place and cut the tree down itself. So he might be contributorily negligent. Likewise, could he have been a knucklehead for standing under a tree he had complained was dangerous?
To Lockhart, the Court said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Lois, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5. Such as… a single duty owed by a landowner to both travelers passing on the road and her next-door neighbor. It sent the case back to trial.
Mahurin v. Lockhart, 71 Ill.App.3d 691, 390 N.E.2d 523 (Ill.App. 5 Dist. 1979). Plaintiff Carl Mahurin brought this action to recover damages for personal injuries he suffered when a dead branch extending over his property fell from a tree belonging to defendant Lois Lockhart, an adjoining landowner, and struck him. In his complaint, Mahurin alleged that Lockhart failed to prune the tree or take other necessary precautions after he warned her of the condition of the tree and the dangers it posed.
Lockhart moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that a landowner is not liable for physical harm to others outside of her land caused by a natural condition. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, certified that the question of law raised in Lockhart’s motion presented substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal would materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation.
Held: The Court held that a landowner in a residential or urban area has a duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on the premises, including trees of purely natural origin.
The narrow issue before the court was to determine the extent, if any, of the duty that a landowner in a residential area owes to persons outside of his premises to remedy some defective or unsound condition of a tree upon his land when the tree and its condition were of a purely natural origin. Mahurin urged the Court to adopt the traditional rule set forth in section 363 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. This section provided that neither a possessor of land, nor a vendor, lessor, or other transferor, is liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land. However, if the landowner was in an urban area, he was subject to liability to persons 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 traditional rule applied even though the landowner is aware of the dangerous natural condition and the expense necessary to remedy the condition is slight.
The Court noted that the traditional rule of non-liability developed at a time when land was mostly unsettled and uncultivated. The landowner – unable to keep a daily account of and remedy all of the dangerous conditions arising out of purely natural causes – was therefore shielded from liability out of necessity.
The Court disagreed that the duty an urban landowner owed to a neighbor should be less than owed to people passing in cars and trucks. It thus ruled that a landowner in a residential or urban area has a duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on the premises, including trees of purely natural origin.”
Therefore, Lockhart’s duty to Mahurin should “be defined using the ordinary rules of negligence. It is therefore appropriate for the trier of fact to consider… such factors as “the nature of the locality, the seriousness of the danger, and the ease with which it may be prevented” in resolving the issue of liability.
The Court noted Lockhart’s argument that Mahurin was contributorily negligent because he stood under a tree that he, by his own admission, knew was dying and dangerous. The Court noted that the Restatement provided that a landowner is privileged to enter upon a neighbor’s land to abate a condition thereon which constitutes a private nuisance. “While this privilege alone does not establish the contributory negligence of plaintiff, it could be considered by the jury in resolving this issue.”
The Court remanded the case for trial, using the standards it had adopted.