O TEMPORA, O MORES!
“Oh, what times, oh, what customs!”
We took Latin in high school, and – thanks in no small part to the late Emily Bernges of Sturgis, Michigan, our magnificent Latin teacher – we developed a great respect for Cicero. Senator Marcus T. had plenty of his own problems to deal with when he gave his first oration against Cataline, but we threw up our hands like he did and asked the same question about today’s case. We have charted how, during the 20th Century, the law governing landowner liability had crept inexorably toward mandating that property owners inspect their trees. In today’s case, a New Jersey court likens trees to product liability, in that a property owner who sells his or her land may remain liable for what happens to the trees well after the new owner takes possession.
“Bull-pucky!” you say. “I sold the place, I’m done with it!” To that we respond first that you need a better class of epithet, and second that you are sadly mistaken.
Mr. Narsh had the misfortune to be driving by a wooded lot belonging to a local church when a tree fell on his car. After the funeral, his estate sued the church, as well as the previous owner, the owner before that owner, and the owner before that owner. It’s surprising that the Lenape Indians – who had owned the area back when Giovanni da Verrazzano arrived in 1524 – weren’t co-defendants, too.
It turned out that Zirbser Brothers, Inc., had bought the land three years before the accident. That corporation sold it 18 months later to Zirbser-Greenbriar, Inc. (“ZGI”), which – as its name suggests – was another company owned by the same people who owned Zirbser Brothers, Inc. ZGI built a nursing home on some of the land and conveyed the rest, including the part with the dead tree, to St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church just a few weeks before the accident.
A jury decided that the Estate that had sold the property to Zirbser Brothers, Inc., and the Church were not liable. However, the Zirbser brothers’ two companies were found liable, despite the fact that neither owned the property when the tree fell.
The court first observed that in New Jersey, one who places or maintains in or near a highway anything which, if neglected, will render the way unsafe for travel, is bound to exercise due care to prevent it from becoming dangerous. This rule places an affirmative duty on the landowner to prevent trees from becoming dangerous.
We could see that coming from the decisions we reviewed last week. It seems, however, that there was more. The Court said it saw “no reason why an owner who would be liable to a member of the public under the rule … should be absolved from liability by the simple act of the sale of his property.” Calling the rule that a landowner was no longer liable once the property was sold an “[a]ncient distinction,” the appellate court compared the matter to product liability – where manufacturers and everyone else in the supply chain remain on the hook for defects for what seems forever (just ask the general aviation industry) – holding that the landowner could remain responsible for defects even after the land was sold and he could no longer remedy any problems.
The Court found “no support in reason and logic for any distinction between the liability of a vendor of land in an urban area who erects a tower on his land, and one who maintains a rotten tree on his land.” The Court concluded that “[t]he obligation of reasonable inspection which may be involved if a vendor is to be held liable for dangerous conditions existing on his property at the time of its conveyance, is small when compared with the danger posed by a rotten tree poised over a busy highway. The fact that the vendor may have lost the right to go on the property and make repairs is beside the point–the rule is aimed at inducing him to make inspections and guard against dangers before conveyance. The law should be based on current concepts of what is right and just and the judiciary should be alert to the never-ending need for keeping its common law principles abreast of the times.”
Yeah, right. What this means to the prudent homeowner is that any conveyance of real estate should be accompanied by a tree inspection by a certified arborist, that being insurance against the outside chance that someone gets hurt or property gets damaged by a falling tree in the future.
How long in the future? This liability for property that has been sold can’t go on forever, right? After all, the Lenapes didn’t get sued. The Court said that “where an owner of land adjacent to a highway in an urban area, conveys his land, on which is located a tree which he knows, or should know, presents an unreasonable risk of injury to the public, he remains subject to liability for physical harm caused by such condition after his vendee has taken possession … until the vendee has had reasonable opportunity to discover the condition and to take such precautions.”
What’s reasonable? That’s probably for the jury to decide. The problem is, if you’re in front of a civil jury, that means you’re in a trial, and you’ve already lost even if you win. Better to spend the extra money early for an arborist’s inspection at closing.
More cost. More uncertainty. More precautions. Oh, what times! Oh, what customs!
Narsh v. Zirbser Brothers, Inc., 111 N.J.Super. 203, 268 A.2d 46(N.J.Super.A.D. 1970). On April 28, 1967, James H. Narsh met his death when a large tree fell upon him as he was driving his car on North Evergreen Avenue in Woodbury. The plot on which the tree had been standing was heavily wooded with old trees, a number of them being close to the sidewalk. A witness who resided in an apartment across the street heard a cracking noise and saw the tree fall onto the decedent’s car. He had previously noticed that the tree, which was very close to the road, was dead, shedding branches, and appeared quite rotten.
The plot on which the tree had been located had been sold three years before by the estate of Alfred Green to Zirbser Brothers, Inc. Zirbser Brothers, Inc. retained title for two years, then conveyed it to ZGI, a corporation formed by the Zirbser brothers and having the same stockholders, directors and officers as Zirbser Brothers, Inc. ZGI retained a portion of the tract for a nursing home, but on April 20, 1967, sold the remainder – including the portion on which the offending tree was located – to a church. The accident occurred eight days later. All four parties were sued.
The jury exonerated the Green estate and the church, but found both Zirbser Brothers, Inc. and ZGI “guilty of negligence which was a proximate cause of the accident.” The jury awarded $85,000 in damages.
Zirbser Brothers appealed.
Held: Zirbser Brothers, Inc., remained liable for the tree for a reasonable period of time after transfer to the church.
There was ample evidence that the fallen tree, like many others on the property, was rotten, and that any owner should have known it. But Zirbser Brothers, Inc., neither owned nor possessed the lot in question at the time of the accident. Its conveyance to ZGI had taken place almost a year before, although Zirbser was on the property building the nursing home. Some of its construction materials and its construction trailer were still on the land when the accident occurred. Nevertheless, from the time of the sale to the church, Zirbser was without the right to cut down trees or otherwise police the part of the property where the subject tree was located.
The Court held that as of the time of the accident, Zirbser’s presence on the property purchased by the church, standing alone, did not afford an adequate basis for a present duty on its part to guard against the falling of the tree.
If one negligently creates a condition on land which is unreasonably dangerous to outsiders, the Court said, there is no good reason why his potential liability should stop either when he transfers possession of that land or when his successor in occupancy becomes liable either because of his possession or because of his fault in negligently omitting to repair the danger. The Court observed that the boundaries of tort liability for dangerous conditions on the land have gradually been extended by our courts in recent years. It held that “[t]he rationale which underlies [a landowner’s] continued liability for a structure on his land would apply equally to a tree which is so close to a highway as to endanger traffic thereon should it fall. In this day and age, with its attendant increase in population, greater use of automobiles and more intense use of land, the presence of a rotten tree along a busy highway poses dangers greatly in excess of those with which the courts were confronted in the cases on which appellant relies. The obligation of reasonable inspection which may be involved if a vendor is to be held liable for dangerous conditions existing on his property at the time of its conveyance is small when compared with the danger posed by a rotten tree poised over a busy highway. The fact that the vendor may have lost the right to go on the property and make repairs is beside the point – the rule is aimed at inducing him to make inspections and guard against dangers before conveyance.”
The Court thus held that where an owner of land adjacent to a highway in an urban area conveys his land – on which is located a tree which he knows or should know presents an unreasonable risk of injury to the public – “he remains subject to liability for physical harm caused by such condition after his vendee has taken possession. If he has actively concealed the condition from the vendee his liability continues until the vendee discovers it and has reasonable opportunity to take effective measures against it, otherwise it continues until the vendee has had reasonable opportunity to discover the condition and to take such precautions.”
The takeaway here: the prudent landowner will have regular inspections of trees done, with written reports, and will follow the reasonable advice of the arborists. When the property is sold, a home inspection may be requested by the buyer, but a grounds inspection should be ordered by the seller.
– Tom Root