I WOULD WALK 500 MILES …
The Kentucky Department of Highways has a lot to do. Besides keeping up the state’s highways, the DOH has the duty to inspect roadside trees. And there are a lot of trees in Kentucky.
So many, in fact, that – like its habit with parking spaces (see yesterday’s decision) – the DOH favored drive-by inspections. You can see a lot of trees from the passenger seat of a Silverado. There are Proclaimers who would say it was better than walking 500 miles, and then walking 500 more, just to see the back sides of some right-of-way trees.
Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili – you might have known him as “Papa Joe” Stalin – is reputed to have had a favorite saying, “Quantity has a quality all its own.” All right, he probably didn’t say it … after all, he spoke Russian with a strong Georgian accent, and “quality” and “quantity” probably are not especially alliterative in that tongue. But when it came to the Kentucky DOH, the fact that its inspectors could inspect miles of trees every hour didn’t necessarily mean that they were getting it right.
After old Cecil Callebs came up on the bottom side of a sycamore tree that fell on his car during a windstorm, his widow sued the Department of Highways, arguing that if its inspectors had only gotten out of the car and walked a little, they would have known that the tree was rotten and a threat to passing motorists.
The case went to a state Board of Claims first. No one suggested that the DOH knew that the tree was decayed, but the widow Callebs argued that its employees would have known if they had only gotten out of the truck to inspect the tree. The Board disagreed, but when she appealed to a trial court, it sided with her. The DOH, it held, should have done a “walkaround.”
Whenever the analysis is focused on whether someone should have known something, rather than whether he or she actually knew it, the courts employ a balancing test (whether they call it that or not). The test considers how critical to its duty discovering the particular information was, and then weighs that against how difficult discovering the fact would have been.
Here, the omission was a slight one, although the late Mr. Callebs might have disagreed. The tree had plenty of green leaves, and no defect was obvious from the highway. The DOH had a generalized duty to inspect and maintain trees along the highway. It missed one of the millions in its charge, but the error wasn’t an obvious one.
The Court of Appeals agreed that a “walk-around” would probably have discovered the defect. But such a “walk-around” would have been infeasible. Even if the DOH had the personnel to conduct such inspections, it probably would have had to get permission from private landowners to enter onto their property to see the back sides of the trees. Multiply the permission process by thousands of trees, and the unreasonableness of expecting walking inspections is obvious.
Commonwealth v. Callebs, 381 S.W.2d 623 (Ky. 1964). Cecil Callebs was killed when a large sycamore tree, standing on the edge of the right-of-way some 12 feet from the edge of the pavement, fell across the highway and hit his car. Callebs’s estate filed a claim with the Commonwealth’s Board of Claims, alleging the Kentucky Department of Highways was negligent and seeking damages for wrongful death. The Board, after hearing evidence, found no negligence on the part of the DOH. The circuit court reversed, holding the DOH negligent. The DOH appealed.
Held: The Department of Highways was not negligent.
The Court of Appeals agreed that DOH lacked actual notice of the defective condition of the tree. The issue in the case, rather, was whether the department had constructive notice of the defective condition, or, stated another way, whether a reasonable inspection would have disclosed the condition. This involved, the Court said, “the question of how close an inspection was reasonably required.”
The leaves on the sycamore tree were green, and the defective condition of the trunk was on the side away from the highway. The defect could have “been discovered only by walking around behind the tree, which perhaps would have involved an entry upon private land abutting the highway.” The Court of Appeals observed that “[i]n order to affirm the circuit court judgment … we would be required to hold that as a matter of law the Department of Highways had a duty to make a ‘walk-around’ inspection of the tree, involving perhaps an entry on private lands. We do not believe that such is the law.”
The Court considered it important that the area around the tree was rural, and that the burden “of a walk-around inspection of each tree near the highway (perhaps requiring the obtaining of entry permission from the abutting landowners)” would be unreasonable in comparison with the risk. Note again in this case the distinction drawn by the Court between in-town and countryside. The Court concluded that highway authorities “under conditions such as existed in the instant case” do not have a duty as a matter of law to make the kind of inspection that would have been required here in order to keep the tree away from Mr. Callebs.
The Court reversed the trial court’s judgment, and let DOH off the hook.
– Tom Root