Case of the Day – Friday, December 9, 2022


By now, we all know that the modern arboriculture negligence rule places a duty on urban landowners to use reasonable care to inspect trees that could otherwise injure the public if they fell onto public highways, sidewalks and the such.

Today’s case has a twist, however, in that the owner’s tree fell onto a boat on the Cape Fear River, not a highway at all. Or was it?

This is where the courts try to honor the intent of the rule, whether they say so or not. Here, the boaters were waiting to use the landowner’s public boat ramp, which the landowner had installed to benefit its bait shop, located right next to the ramp. The court did not expressly say so, but it clearly believed that the duty owed to an “invitee” – someone whose presence was desired for the benefit of the owner – was higher than it might be to a casual passer-by, even if North Carolina law said all comers – invitees, licensees and trespassers – were entitled to the same protection.

The other interesting aspect of the decision was the blurring of the old rural-urban distinction. Sure, the Court said, the land was undeveloped and out in the middle of nowhere. But it was developed, at least for tree inspection purposes, around the boat ramp, which was good enough.

Wallen v. Riverside Sports Ctr., 173 N.C. App. 408, 618 S.E.2d 858 (Ct.App. N.C., Sept. 2, 2004). Since 1977, brothers John and Sol Rose operated Riverside Sports Center. Riverside leases 25 acres of undeveloped land fronting the Cape Fear River next to Person Street in Fayetteville, North Carolina. On a portion of the leased property, Riverside operates a small bait and tackle shop and a boat repair business. Riverside held a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to build a boat ramp by the repair shop.

As part of the construction of the boat ramp, Riverside installed wooden “pylons” in the river. These pylons, also called “fender piles,” were placed both upstream and downstream from the boat ramp to prevent logs floating downstream from harming the boat dock or ramp. Customers often tied their boats to the pylons while waiting to use the ramp.

In late August 2001, Tim met Rick George and his son at Riverside to go fishing. At about 4:00 p.m., George paid the access fee and launched his pontoon boat using Riverside’s ramp. After the party had fished for a while, the wind picked up and dark clouds rolled in. They decided to get off of the river until the storm passed. By the time Tim and Rick got back to the Riverside boating facility, it was raining and there were four boats ahead of them waiting to use the ramp to get off the river. Rick tied his boat to one of the downstream pylons. Tim and Rick began putting a tarp over the boat to keep it dry. Rick said he heard a loud noise, like an artillery round, and felt something hit the boat. When he turned, he saw Tim on his back, unconscious.

A box elder tree had fallen and struck Tim, rendering him a paraplegic.

Tim sued Riverside, alleging he was injured by their negligence. He asserted that Riverside failed to exercise reasonable care to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition, and more specifically, that they failed to properly inspect their property and remove dead trees around the pylons. As a result of their negligence, Tim said, he was injured. Riverside filed for summary judgment, contending Tim (a) failed to show Riverside owed any duty to him; (b) failed to show defendants were negligent; and (c) failed to show that his injury was reasonably foreseeable to Riverside. The trial court granted Riverside’s motion for summary judgment.

Tim appealed.

Held: Tim had raised a genuine issue of fact about Riverside’s duty to him and whether it was negligent, and the case must proceed to trial.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis skeptically, noting that summary judgment is seldom appropriate in a negligence action. In order to establish a prima facie case of negligence against a defendant like Riverside, a plaintiff like Tim must show (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; (2) the defendant’s conduct breached that duty; (3) the breach was the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury; and (4) plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the injury.”

In North Carolina, the Court observed, the law had evolved to hold that a landowner has a duty to exercise reasonable care regarding natural conditions on his land which lies adjacent to a public highway in order to prevent harm to travelers using the highway. A landowner is subject to liability only if he had actual or constructive notice of a dangerous natural condition.

To impose liability upon property owners, plaintiffs must show not only that the tree constituted a dangerous condition to users of the adjacent public road, but that the landowners had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition.

The Court ruled that Riverside “had a duty to exercise reasonable care with respect to natural conditions on their land, which was adjacent to a public highway.” However, Riverside would be shown to be negligent only if it had actual or constructive notice of a dangerous natural condition existing upon its property.

At the time Tim was injured, he was on the Cape Fear River, a navigable waterway. Under North Carolina law, the river is a “public highway,” since navigable waters constitute a public highway.

The record contained no evidence that Riverside or its principals had actual notice of the decayed condition of the box elder tree. Thus, the Court looked for evidence that Riverside had constructive notice of the tree’s condition sufficient to withstand its motion for summary judgment. Each party offered affidavits from expert arborists expressing opinions about the condition of the box elder tree, and those affidavits directly contradicted each other. The evidence, taken in the light most favorable to Tim (the non-movant for summary judgment) showed that Riverside Sports Center has been in business since 1977, the principals knew that customers routinely tied their boats to the downstream pylons to prevent the boats from drifting downstream while they waited to use the boat ramp, that there were trees along the riverbank, the limbs of which hung over the river in the area of the downstream pylons, and that Riverside had had employees previously trimmed the trees on both sides of the ramp.

Tim’s expert said the trunk of the box elder that had fallen had snapped off 13 feet above the ground about two years earlier, and a portion of the upper tree trunk had broken off 6 to 10 years before that, causing the tree bark to be stripped, and created a V-shaped wound on the tree, which accelerated decay. The trunk was leaning at a “very pronounced angle, from the top of the bank” out over the river in the direction of the pylon where Rick had tied his boat. The expert said in his affidavit that the tree was about 40′-60′ feet in length and was definitely capable of striking Rick’s boat. The expert also said that he believed that the box elder “had been extensively decayed for many years prior to its breaking, that it exhibited a number of conspicuous dead branches and external trunk decay, and that these obvious symptoms of decline and hazard-potential (dead branches and trunk decay), should have been observed with considerable concern by the owners of the property (particularly because of the strong lean of the tree towards the water) …”

The Court held that this opinion presented a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of constructive notice.

Finally, the Court ruled, in order for a defendant to be liable for a negligence claim, the injury must be reasonably foreseeable. A plaintiff must show that a person of ordinary prudence would have known that Tim’s injury or some similar injurious result was reasonably foreseeable. The Court wrote that “given the facts as recited above in our discussion of duty, constructive notice, and negligence, we hold that the evidence taken in the light most favorable to plaintiff demonstrates there existed a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of foreseeability.”

– Tom Root

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