When a tragedy occurs, it’s all too common to look for someone to pay for it. In today’s case, a young man was left a quadriplegic when a healthy-looking tree standing alongside a public highway fell without warning and struck his car. The trial judge was obviously moved by the sad story and felt it was his duty to open the state’s wallet.
The trial judge denied the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development a free pass. The judge recognized that a prior holding relieved the state from the duty to inspect all sides of a tree. But he reasoned that the rule had been adopted in a case where a construction crew’s negligence had weakened the tree on the side away from the road. The trial court here reasoned that this case was different: it was natural rot, and natural rot did require DOTD to inspect all sides of a tree.
Truly a distinction without a difference! Step back and consider the implications of this holding. Besides the fact that why the tree was weakened is really not relevant to the danger it poses, the trial court’s ruling would mandate incredibly costly and time-consuming inspections. A state — even Louisiana — has a lot of highways to inspect. In Louisiana’s case, it amounts to nearly 17,000 miles of road, and a lot of trees. The costs to the taxpayers of a tree-by-tree inspection would be staggering.
The Court of Appeals made short work of the trial judge’s higher “duty.” It held that the law was clear. Where the tree appears healthy — like the one that fell on the victim — the state’s duty could be discharged in a drive-by inspection… no matter why the tree was rotten.
Walker v. State Dept. of Transp. and Development, 976 So.2d 806 (La.App. 2 Cir., 2008). Nathaniel Walker was a passenger in a vehicle being driven by Dannie Evans on Louisiana Highway 71, when a large oak tree fell on the car. Nathaniel was left a quadriplegic, albeit one with a good lawyer. He sued Dannie, Allstate Insurance and the State of Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.
Among other things, Walker alleged the oak tree that fell on the vehicle was on the highway right-of-way in violation of highway safety regulations, that DOTD had prior knowledge that the tree needed to be removed and that DOTD failed to inspect the right of way. DOTD moved for summary judgment, arguing that Nathaniel couldn’t any facts in support of his allegation that DOTD had prior knowledge that the tree needed to be removed. DOTD supported this claim with an affidavit from one of its maintenance superintendents who had conducted an inspection of the area in question two weeks before the mishap. The state agency argued that under the law, it owed no duty to motorists traveling on state highways to check for damage on all sides of trees that abut state roadways. The trial court denied summary judgment to DOTD, because the damage to the tree was a result of natural rot as opposed to third-party operated construction equipment. The trial court stated that despite the holding in a prior case – Caskey v. Merrick Const. Co. – the distinction as to how the tree was injured imposed a greater duty to inspect on DOTD.
Held: DOTD won, and Walker’s case was dismissed. The appellate court said in order to recover damages from DOTD, Walker had to prove that the state had ownership or control of the tree which caused the damage; the tree was defective (that is, it created an unreasonable risk of harm); the state had actual or constructive knowledge of the defect and failed to take remedial procedures within a reasonable amount of time, and the state’s failings led to the injuries Walker suffered.
No one contested that DOTD had control over the rotten oak tree, that the rotten oak tree was defective, and that the rotten oak tree caused Walker’s injuries. Instead, the Court held, the primary issue was whether DOTD had actual or constructive knowledge that the tree was rotten. The condition that caused the oak tree in question to fall was visible only on the backside of the tree, out of sight of DOTD inspectors who passed by on the road. There was no genuine issue as to the location of the rotten area in question, or whether the rotten area in question was observable from the roadway. Additionally, the photographs taken at the accident scene revealed that the oak tree was otherwise healthy, containing a full canopy of green leaves.
The Court said that DOTD’s duty to protect against the risk of a tree falling onto a highway required it to inspect for dead trees and remove them within a reasonable time. The state was not required, however, to inspect every tree that conceivably could fall on the road or to remove trees simply because they had the potential to fall onto the road.
In Caskey, the court held that DOTD inspectors had no duty to walk around all sides of the tree and check for damage, particularly when the tree is otherwise green and healthy. The trial court in this case imposed a greater duty on the state than the law required. The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court’s incorrect determination – that a different duty exists when the defect results from natural causes as opposed to artificial causes – was a contradiction of the law, a distinction without a legal difference.
– Tom Root