DANGER TREES AND PIXIE DUST
Recently, we took up the question of trees on tree lawns, an issue that arose because Jim Busek, a Norwalk, Ohio Reflector columnist, was up in arms over that city’s plans to cut down 62 boulevard trees that were interfering with the sidewalks.
Instead of removing the trees, Jim proposed that the offending roots be chopped out, and the trees then be encouraged not to grow any to replace them. While Jim was busy whispering to trees, we were wondering whether he might be liable if a dead ash tree standing on his tree lawn fell onto a passing motorist. Now, mind you, we don’t know whether Jim even has any trees on his tree lawn, but you know how it is when you hold yourself to the public as a famous columnist. You become a lightning rod. Sorry, Jim… you’re fair game.
In our discussion of Wertz v. Cooper, we delivered the bad news that Jim, as owner of the strip of grass between the public sidewalk and street, may well be liable. As an urban property owner, he has a duty to inspect and remove trees that may reasonably pose a danger to third parties passing on public streets. So Jim’s hanging out there a country mile (or maybe a city mile, because he is an urban landowner, and Wertz tells us they’re different).
But is he hanging out there alone? Although Jim owns the tree lawn, it lies within the 60-foot wide right-of-way of the street. The Ohio Supreme Court has pointedly said that the “roadway, the space immediately above the roadway, the shoulder, the berm, and the right-of-way are all under the control of the political subdivision … [which] has a duty to keep the areas within its control free from nuisance, i.e., conditions that directly jeopardize the safety of traffic on the highway. Where the [subdivision] fails in its duty, it may be liable for injuries proximately caused by the nuisance.” Manufacturer’s Nat’l Bank of Detroit v. Erie County Road Comm (1992), 63 Ohio St.3d 318, 322-23.
So the City has Jim’s back (or is on the hook, depending on your viewpoint) in case the pixie dust dosen’t work on the tree roots. Of course, the City has to have actual or constructive notice of the defect, just like the landowner in yesterday’s case. However, the City has already noted that 62 trees should be removed, and – if the homeowners balk enough to convince the City otherwise – the City’s previous decision that the trees should go will cut against any denial by the powers-that-be that they were blissfully unaware.
All of which brings us to today’s case. This lawsuit relates to an unfortunate man killed when a dead tree fell onto his car one stormy November night. The tree was on private property out in the country, but it had been dead so long that the landowner may have had liability. We can’t tell, because this case — in the Ohio Court of Claims — was solely against the Department of Transportation. The Court held that ODOT would be liable, even though the tree was on private land, if it had breached its duty to inspect the tree.
ODOT had a “drive-by” inspection program, reminiscent of one we considered recently in Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Maiden. The victim’s heirs argued that if ODOT employees had gone around behind the tree (away from the road), they would have seen the decay. Well, yes, the Court said, but that’s beside the point. ODOT has over 40,000 miles of road to inspect, and to inspect every tree in the manner suggested by the plaintiff would be economically infeasible.
Still, the principle we take away from this decision is that the City of Norwalk would not get off the hook just because the tree is on private land. That doesn’t mean that Jim’s going to feel that much better in the defendant’s dock if the mayor has to stand next to him.
Our sad conclusion: Jim may not be the only one liable here. He knows the City has identified the trees as a hazard, and that alone places him on actual notice. If his 98-cent remedy of cutting some roots and hoping for the best doesn’t work, both his homeowners’ insurance and the City’s pocketbook could get a workout.
What a pain in the ash that would turn out to be!
Blausey v. Ohio Dept. of Transportation, Not Reported in N.E.2d, 2005 WL 894878 (Ohio Ct.Cl.), 2005 -Ohio- 1807. Dale Blausey was killed during a windstorm when the car he was driving was struck by a falling Norway spruce tree on a U.S. highway in Erie County, Ohio. The tree had been growing on a roadside right-of-way obtained by the defendant on land that was owned by Joe Henry but occupied by a tenant. The primary proximate cause of the fall was the severe deterioration of the roots on the east side of the tree and the high wind that blew the tree onto the highway. The tree had been struck by lightning in 1973, and the damage from that strike led to interior rotting and an infestation of carpenter ants, the combination of which destroyed much of the root system. The deterioration had existed for as long as ten years, gradually weakening the tree to the extent that it became a hazard.
Before it fell, the east side of the tree that faced the highway showed little, if any, evidence of decay. Dead limbs were not clearly visible from the road. Limbs had been removed from the lower part of the tree, which was not uncommon as landowners sought to mow, decorate, or otherwise use the land. Additionally, the lower part of the tree was obscured by bushes and vegetation. The upper growth of both the healthy and the diseased spruce trees was green and quite similar, although, on close inspection, the growth on the healthy spruce appeared to be slightly denser. Cone growth was normal on both trees. Although the 1973 lightning strike had caused the tree to lose its “Christmas tree” shape at the top, the loss was not very noticeable. However, an inspection of the west side of the tree would have revealed evidence of deterioration and of a potential hazard. The State had not inspected the tree except from the highway, and that inspection did not reveal any defect.
Blausey’s executor sued the State for negligence in not identifying and removing the danger tree before the accident, and accused it of maintaining a nuisance.
Held: The State was not negligent. To prevail upon a claims of negligence, a plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, that it breached the duty, and that the breach proximately caused the injury. The State has a duty to maintain its highways in a reasonably safe condition for the motoring public, but it doesn’t have to become an insurer of the safety of state highways.
To constitute a nuisance, the thing or act complained of must either cause injury to the property of another, obstruct the reasonable use or enjoyment of such property, or cause physical discomfort to such person. In a suit for nuisance, the action for damages is predicated upon carelessly or negligently allowing such a condition to exist. But for liability to attach to a defendant for damages caused by hazards upon the roadway, a plaintiff must show the defendant had actual or constructive notice of the existence of such hazard. The distinction between actual and constructive notice is in the manner in which notice is obtained or assumed to have been obtained rather than in the amount of information obtained. Wherever the trier of fact is entitled to hold as a conclusion of fact and not as a presumption of law that information was personally communicated to or received by a party, the notice is actual. Constructive notice is what the law regards as sufficient to give notice and is regarded as a substitute for actual notice. To establish that defendant had constructive notice of a nuisance or defect in the highway, the hazard “must have existed for such length of time as to impute knowledge or notice.
The court found insufficient discernible evidence available to the defendant’s inspectors to warrant further investigation of the damaged tree or to determine that it was hazardous before the accident. While a close inspection of the tree would have revealed that it was a hazard, the deteriorated condition of the tree was not apparent through the Department’s routine visual inspections from the roadway, and with over 40,000 miles of road to inspect, the Department was not — as a matter of social and economic policy —expected to individually inspect the trees.
– Tom Root