Case of the Day – Thursday, July 21, 2020


I spent about 13 years living in suburban Washington, D.C., where everything that happened on Capitol Hill and at the White House was a local news story. Still, until I decamped for small-town and rural-county America, I didn’t really understand how heavy-handed and ugly politics could be until I observed local politics up close and personal.

Today’s case could be Exhibit A. A three-member township board of trustees approves a sewer improvement project. As the job progresses, the chairman of the board decides on his own that he’s going to modify the plans to have some trees along the highway right-of-way removed. He is on the site supervising the work when two homeowners approach to complain that one of the trees the chairman intends to have cut down belongs to them.

Here’s where big politics and little politics diverge. If that happened on a federal project, or even a state project, the bureaucrats in charge would stop everything until the engineers and surveyors who had planned the work verified that the subject tree was or was not within the right-of-way. But Uncle Joe was not some pusillanimous bureaucrat: he was the “go-to” guy who had neither qualms nor the time to listen to the petitions of lowly citizens, and he was not about to let the complaints of the hoi polloi get in the way of his government’s work.

Police power” is a constitutional concept, the power of the government to regulate behavior and enforce order within its territorial jurisdiction for the betterment of the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the inhabitants. But in the real world, Joe showed us what “police power” is all about: a small-town cop ready to arrest homeowners on the say-so of a government functionary, solely because they are defending their property against the unlawful taking by the state. The cop needs say nothing: the handcuffs and Glock 22 on the officer’s equipment belt say it all.

But we still have courts, and to court is where the homeowners repaired. It turned out the tree straddled the right-of-way boundary line, which helped Uncle Joe not at all: the Court of Appeals, citing the Ohio Jurisprudence legal encyclopedia (which passes for primary authority in Ohio, or so I learned in law school), joined the overwhelming majority of states that hold that a boundary tree is owned by the property owners on both sides of the boundary line. As property of the tenants-in-common, the tree may not be removed with the consent of both parties.

Pinkerton v. Franklin Township. Board of Trustees, Case No. 83AP-946 (Ct.App. Franklin Co., July 17, 1984), 1984 Ohio App. LEXIS 10484, 1984 WL 13994. Joe Donovan, Chairman of the Franklin Township Board of Trustees, was a no-nonsense, get-it-done guy. Plus, he had the power of the state (or at least the township) behind him.

When Joe’s three-member Township Board of Trustees authorized a storm sewer improvement along the west side of Gladstone Avenue, Joe was the guy who would see that the job was done right. When it turned out that the sewer improvement project would be facilitated by removal of several trees, Joe was the guy who made the decision on his own that the trees would go. Two of the trees were in the highway right-of-way, but the third – a stately oak – straddled the boundary between the Gladstone Avenue right-of-way and the Pinkertons’ property.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Pinkertons strenuously objected to removal of the boundary tree. Joe, however, was not a guy to need anyone’s approval, so he did not bother to consult the other two Trustees about removing the trees. Instead, he forged ahead, ignoring the Pinkertons’ objection. He even directed a local police officer to be present in case the Pinkertons tried to intervene.

The tree was removed, just as Joe ordered. The Pinkertons’ complaints were not as easily dispatched as was the oak. They sued the Township Board for trespass, demanding compensatory and punitive damages. The jury agreed, awarding them $2,000 for the tree, and trebled it to $6,000 due to Joe’s willfulness.

Joe appealed.

Held: Joe, acting in his official capacity, caused the trespass and wrongful cutting, entitling the Pinkertons to $6,000.00 in damages.

The Court of Appeals made short work of Joe’s claim that the evidence showed no wrongful cutting. It held, citing Ohio Jurisprudence 3rd, that “[a] tree standing on the boundary line between adjoining landowners, so that the boundary passes through the trunk or body of the tree, is the common property of both proprietors as tenants in common.”

Likewise, the Court ruled that given that Joe steamrolled the Pinkertons’ legitimate objections, even bringing in the police to stifle their complaints of trespass, it was not error for the trial court to tell the jury it could assess punitive damages.

Finally, because the Pinkertons testified the tree was worth $6,000, there was evidence in the record to support the damage award.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Wednesday, July 20, 2022


Today’s case reminded me of the love many of us have for trees because of all of the intangible benefits they deliver – shade in the summer, shelter from the rain, a windbreak, a place on which to mount our birdhouses and hammocks and tires on a rope for the kids…

What all of these have in common is that none of them is accounted for when a tree is cut down, stripped of branches and run through the sawmill. The stumpage value – the worth of the tree’s harvestable wood to the mill on the ground in the woods – doesn’t tally up the value of all of what we like about our ornamental trees.

That reminded me of Joyce Kilmer, who was among the first to calculate the noncommercial value of ornamental trees (after a fashion), writing, “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree…”

And that in turn reminded me to be proactive in telling everyone that Joyce Kilmer was not a girl. Not that there’s anything wrong with girls, or girl poets (I’m a big Emily Dickinson fan myself), but I regularly come across knuckleheads who say “Joyce Kilmer wrote those words because she…”

Nope, nope, nope. Joyce was a boy, and later a young man, His poetry and writing career was cut short when he fell, killed in action, in France 102 years ago this month.

In the case we’re talking about today, it’s a cinch that Gordon Lamb – who is also a boy – didn’t read much Joyce Kilmer. He was probably more a William Blake fan, because he sure hit his logging assignment like a “tiger, tiger burning bright…” He cut all of the trees he was supposed to, and then, for good measure, cut or destroyed about 400 more.

The trial court held that the homeowners whose trees fell victim to the tigrine Mr. Lamb were limited to stumpage value. It was a sweet outcome for the defendant: 400 trees ended up costing Gordon about $7,000, well less than $20.00 per tree destroyed. But then the court of appeals stepped in, applying what is by now universally recognized as the proper measure of damages: noncommercial trees are generally worth more than an equal number of commercial trees.

Denoyer v. Lamb, 490 N.E.2d 615 (Ct. App. Hamilton Co., Ohio, December 5, 1984). Murphy Development Company marketed subdivided lots from a wooded parcel it owned. It sold five parcels, of which four had homes built on them. The parcels were cleared except for a mature woodland behind them (which Murphy still owned), which growth extended onto the rear of the five lots.

Murphy Development hired Gordon Lamb to harvest mature timber from the woods the development company still owned. Gordon Lamb set off like a tiger, cutting not only trees from the Murphy acreage, but sawing into the woodlands on the five private lots. When the sawdust settled, Gordon’s crew had cut 68 trees that did not belong to the Murphy company and destroyed 331 more.

The afflicted property owners whose trees were decimated, including the Denoyer family, sued.

The trial court limited the Denoyers’ compensatory damages to the stumpage value of the cut and destroyed trees. It also restricted their recovery to either punitive damages or treble damages, but not both. The jury awarded the Denoyers $7,412.00 in compensatory damages, but found no grounds to award punitive damages.

The Denoyers appealed.

Held: The trial court judgment was reversed, and the Denoyers were permitted to claim restoration damages

The Court of Appeals laid the framework for assessing when replacement damages should be awarded. “In an action for compensatory damages for cutting, destroying and damaging trees and other growth, and for related damage to the land,” the Court wrote, “when the owner intends to use the property for a residence or for recreation or both, according to his personal tastes and wishes, the owner is not limited to diminution in value (difference in value of the whole property before and after the damage) or to the stumpage or other commercial value of the timber.”

Instead, the Court ruled, an owner may recover as damages the costs of reasonable restoration of the property to its preexisting condition or (because regaining the preexisting condition of often not possible) to a condition as close as reasonably feasible. “Reasonably feasible” means that the courts should not order grossly disproportionate expenditures, and allow for natural regeneration within a reasonable period of time.

Where cut trees have been used for a specific purpose – such as a sound barrier and screen from highway traffic, or shade, or even mere ornamentation – restoration cost is the proper measure of damages. Additionally, the cost of restoration should be used as the measure of damages where “the owner’s personal use is neither specific nor measurable by commercial standards, and when the trees form a part of an ecological system of personal value to the owner.”

The Court reasoned that in the present case, stumpage value could be determined in several ways, but all of those methods would yield a much smaller amount than the cost of replacement. To limit the Denoyers’ and their fellow lot owners’ recovery to stumpage value would be to enforce a timber harvest the plaintiffs never contracted for, or even wanted. It would fail to account for their intended use or real loss.

The Court of Appeals thus held that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of reasonable restoration costs, including cleanup, repair and regrading.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Tuesday, July 19, 2022


We should all age this well.

The Massachusetts Rule, which we have rightly or wrongly identified as the wellspring whence flows all tree law on encroachment, is a spry 89 years old this year. Over the years, other states have chipped, chipped, chipped away at its granite-solid underpinnings, the notion that your neighbor has no right to sue you if your healthy tree sends branches spanning over her property or roots snaking through her subsoil.

After being belted and flayed by decisions from a host of more encroachment-progressive states over the years, the Massachusetts Rule finally received some good news two days ago: Massachusetts’ highest court issued an opinion that was a full-throated defense of the venerable Rule.

Don’t like the mess your neighbor’s honey locust makes in your gutters? Or the way his sweet gum roots are displacing your basement wall? Tough noogies. The Massachusetts Rule holds that you are free (at your expense, so maybe we should not use the word “free”), that is, you are entitled, to cut down the offending branches or dig up the offending roots up to your property line with his place.

What you are not free to do is to sue your neighbor because his tree is a nuisance. As the Bay Staters put it, your rights are limited to self-help.

To be sure, the Massachusetts Rule has gotten a raft of bad press in the last few decades. Hawaii is the most famous, with the Hawaii Rule (set out in Whitesell v. Houlton). That rule holds that your neighbor is liable to you if encroaching branches or roots from her tree cause “sensible harm” to your property. Complaints that the Massachusetts Rule was archaic, a relic of an era when population density was much less and life was simpler, have become common. Don’t believe it? Refer to the definitive decision assessing the various rules, Herring v. Lisbon Partners, for the modern view that the Massachusetts Rule is an arboreal dinosaur.

Well, it turns out the old dinosaur still has a bite. A Massachusetts litigant with more spare change for legal fees than she had common sense sued her neighbor because, she claimed, the neighbors’ stately oak caused algae to grow on her roof. She demanded her neighbors cut it down. They declined, pointing out to her that the Massachusetts Rule immunized the owner of a healthy tree from such an obligation, and, by happy coincidence, they were all in Massachusetts, so the Rule applied to them.

The neighbor was undeterred, and she hired a lawyer (who undoubtedly told her she was backing the wrong horse). But back it she did. She lost in the trial and appeals courts, both of whom took pains to explain the Massachusetts Rule to her.

“But,” we imagine she said, “the Massachusetts Rule is a doddering fossil, rejected by just about all modern thinking in our sister states’ courts! It should be consigned to the dustbin of history!”

But two days ago, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts seized the opportunity not only to refuse to undo the plucky 87-year-old Rule, but to explain how all the other states who had rejected it as irrelevant in the modern day and age are just plain wrong.

Famous Massachusetts patriot John Adams died on July 4, 1826. His last words were reputed to be a joyful acknowledgment that his old friend, Thomas Jefferson, survived him. As he expired, Adams breathed, “Jefferson lives!

He could have said the same about the Massachusetts Rule. Despite all the grief that the Herring court, the Fancher court, the Lane court, and even the Whitesell court have given it, the Rule still lives.

Shiel v. Rowell, Case No. SIOC-1274 37 (Sup.Jud.Ct. Mass, July 16, 2018). Keli-Jo and John Rowell owned property next to Mary Shiel. The Rowells’ property included a 100-foot tall sugar oak tree with majestic branches that stretched over Mary’s property.

Alas, Mary was not a fan of the tree. She complained that the tree caused algae buildup on her roof. She demanded that the Rowells cut it down. They refused. So Mary sued, demanding money for damage to her roof and an injunction ordering the Rowells to cut back the branches overhanging Mary’s land.

A District Court judge dismissed Mary’s claims, on the ground that under Massachusetts law, a person whose property is injured by a neighbor’s healthy tree has no cause of action against the tree’s owner. The appellate court agreed.

Mary appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, admitting that the Massachusetts Rule was against her, but asking that the Rule be thrown out as antiquated.

Held: The Massachusetts Rule remains the law.

The law in Massachusetts has long been that a landowner may not hold a neighbor liable for damage caused by that neighbor’s healthy tree.

In Michalson v. Nutting, roots from Nutting’s poplar tree clogged the Michalsons’ sewer and drain pipes, and cracked his concrete cellar, risking serious damage to the house’s foundation. The Court concluded that Mr. Nutting could not be held liable for that damage because “an owner of land is at liberty to use his land, and all of it, to grow trees.” The Court recognized Mr. Michalson had the right to cut off intruding boughs and roots and reasoned that “it is wiser to leave the individual to protect himself, if harm results to him from this exercise of another’s right to use his property in a reasonable way, than to subject that other to the annoyance, and the public to the burden, of actions at law, which would be likely to be innumerable and, in many instances, purely vexatious.”

Mary urged the Court to adopt the Hawaii Rule, which grants neighbors the right to sue to resolve disputes in court over healthy trees. A neighbor may use the courts to require that the tree owner pay for damage and cut back branches and roots if the tree causes, or there is an imminent danger of it causing, “sensible harm” to the neighbor’s property. The Hawaii Rule, like the Massachusetts Rule, allows any landowner the right to cut back overhanging branches or intruding roots from a neighboring landowner’s tree. But unlike the Massachusetts Rule, the Hawaii Rule offers the aggrieved homeowner a right to sue to have branches and roots removed by the tree’s owner.

Mary argued the Massachusetts Rule is outdated because these days people are living in closer proximity to one another on smaller tracts of land than when the Massachusetts Rule was adopted. She contended that trees today are more likely to cause damage to neighbors’ property than in days past, and tree owners are better able to manage their trees. This, she maintained, justifies giving parties a right to sue to resolve disputes in court.

The Rowells argued in favor of stare decisis, the doctrine that courts should adhere to rules previously adopted in resolving similar cases. While adhering to stare decisis is not an inexorable command, the Court held, it is “our preferred course because it promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.”

Even more than that, the Rowells maintained, the Massachusetts Rule is more sensible than the Hawaii Rule. The Court agreed. “We would discern a need to change the Massachusetts Rule if it were outdated and no longer fit the circumstances of contemporary life,” the Court said. But, the Court ruled, the Rule is still very relevant.

It may be true that people today are living in closer proximity to one another on smaller tracts of land than they were when the Massachusetts Rule was adopted in the early Twentieth Century. But if changes in property ownership would lead us to believe that tree owners are now better able to monitor their trees,” the Court said, “the same would be true for their neighbors to monitor and trim encroaching trees. It may be easier to recognize impending or potential harm to one’s own property from overhanging branches and intruding roots than it would be for the tree owner to recognize what is happening next door. And even if it is also true that trees today are more likely to cause property damage to neighbors’ property, it would be “undesirable to categorize living trees, plants, roots, or vines as a ‘nuisance’ to be abated.”

The Court recognized that other states, such as North Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia, had declared the Massachusetts Rule to be an antique. The Court rejected the rationales in those cases, observing that while the cases all said the Massachusetts Rule was outdated, none ever explained satisfactorily why that would be. True, as those decisions noted, the Massachusetts Rule law arose at a time when land was so unsettled and uncultivated that the burden of inspecting it and putting it in a safe condition would have been unduly onerous and out of all proportion to any harm likely to result. But this rationale seemed to apply to danger trees only. If a tree is healthy, it does not need to be put “in a safe condition” to begin with, and Massachusetts Rule trees must be healthy trees to begin with in order to come within the Rule.

Mary did not identify any consequences of the Massachusetts Rule, the Court observed, that would not have been thoroughly appreciated by when the Rule was adopted. The growth of trees “naturally and reasonably will be accompanied by the extension of boughs and the penetration of roots over and into adjoining property of others,” the Court declared in Michalson, and that has not changed.

Contrary to the criticisms of the Rule, the Court ruled, “multiple benefits to the Massachusetts Rule [are] still relevant to circumstances of contemporary life. The rule simplifies assignment of responsibility, leaving no doubt as to the rights and obligations of the parties and minimizing legal costs. It reduces “unnecessary burdening of courts” and vexatious lawsuits: “The Massachusetts Rule today, just as it did when Michalson was decided,” the Court found, “may prevent unnecessary legal harassment from neighbors who merely have an axe to grind for reasons other than purported tree problems.”

Thus, the Court ruled, “We retain the law that an individual whose property is damaged by a neighbor’s healthy tree has no cause of action against a landowner of the property upon which the tree lies.”

The dinosaur still roars.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Monday, July 18, 2022


proclaimers140502The 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.

treeoncar140502The 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.”

californiasycamore140502The 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


Case of the Day – Friday, July 15, 2022


lee140501Robert E. Lee (if we are still allowed to write favorably about him in this #metoo, woke and BLM era) adjured us all to “do your duty in all things. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.” Today’s case is about duty, which as far as we’re concerned is more the basis for determining legal liability than a moral concept.

In Kentucky, the Commonwealth (that’s what they call themselves, and who are we to dispute it?) is liable when it has notice of a defect in a highway. The defect in this case was a hole in the pavement, located at the curb end of a parking space. The Department of Highways people inspected that stretch of urban street regularly, but always by driving by. That area of town was teeming with commerce, so the parking spaces were always full and the hole went unseen.

When Mary Maiden fell by stepping in the hole, she sued. The Board of Claims, Kentucky’s tribunal for hearing claims against the Commonwealth, figured that the DOH employees had done all they could do to inspect the street. Thus, it found that DOH wasn’t on notice of the hole.

But the Court of Appeals reversed. In a two-to-one decision, it decided that a drive-by inspection that couldn’t see the whole street wasn’t a reasonable inspection. The case is interesting to us because the Court contrasted this situation to the decision in Commonwealth v. Callebs, a case we’ll look at tomorrow. There, when a tree in the right-of-way fell on a driver, the court found that requiring a “walkaround” inspection was unreasonable.


A maiden … but not Ms. Maiden

But Ms. Maiden’s Court said that Callebs was different: it placed an unreasonable demand on the DOH to require it to inspect every tree in a rural setting. Besides, to have seen the defect in the tree that fell on Mr. Callebs, the DOH workers would have to gone behind the tree onto private property in order to see the defect.

This case — and the one we’ll consider next — together illustrate the “touchy-feely” nature of some determinations of what is and is not “reasonable.”

Commonwealth v. Maiden, 411 S.W.2d 312 (Ct.App. Ky. 1966). Mary Maiden fell and was hurt when she stepped into a hole in Cumberland Avenue in Middlesboro. This being America, she sued.

Unfortunately for the Commonwealth, not every hole in the street is this obvious.

Unfortunately for the Commonwealth, not every hole in the street is quite this obvious.

The Kentucky Department of Highways had agreed to maintain the street as a part of the state road system. The block in which the accident occurred is in a busy commercial area with diagonal parking on both sides of the street which is usually full during business hours. The hole was about 24 inches long, 9 inches wide and 3 inches deep and was located almost entirely at the back end of a parking space, substantially concealed from view when a car occupied the space. It had been there for some six months.

It was the statutory duty of the DOH to inspect all state-maintained roads. A foreman inspected Cumberland Avenue at least every two weeks by driving along the street in a pick-up truck during business hours. It would have been impossible to see the hole in question if there had been a car parked there, and no DOH employee had ever made a ‘walk-around’ inspection, looking under the parked cars along the street.

The Board of Claims rejected Ms. Maiden’s claim, but the trial court reversed the decision, entering judgment for Mrs. Maiden. The DOH appealed.

Held: The judgment for Ms. Maiden was upheld.

The Court said the law in Kentucky is that if a defect in a highway existed for such a period of time that the authorities, by the exercise of ordinary care and diligence, should have discovered it, notice will be imputed. A “drive-along” inspection of a busy city street during business hours when parking areas normally were fully occupied – so that defects in the parking spaces cannot be seen – is not a reasonable inspection. Thus, the law assumed that the Department knew of the defect which caused her fall.

Kentucky, of course, is famous for unexpected holes, like the one that swallowed eight vintage Corvettes at a Bowling Green museum earlier this year.

Kentucky, of course, is famous for unexpected holes, like the one that swallowed eight vintage Corvettes at a Bowling Green museum in early 2014.

The Court acknowledged that while the burden of inspection may be a serious problem to the DOH, it was not too great a burden to require an inspection of streets in commercial areas to be made in ‘off’ hours when the parking spaces are not occupied. The Court distinguished the facts from the Callebs case (which we’ll look at tomorrow). In Callebs, the Court had held that DOH did not have a duty to make a ‘walk-around’ inspection of trees along the edge of the right of way. That defect, however, was not in the street itself but rather in the side of the road, and the area was a rural one with light travel rather than an urban one with heavy traffic. Besides, the Court observed, an effective inspection of the trees would have required the use of a considerable amount of time, whereas in this case, an effective inspection would not have involved more time but only the selection of a different hour in which to make it.

One judge dissented, arguing that there was really no distinction between this case and the Callebs case. A lone dissent, however, is an interesting footnote and little more.

You can ask the ghosts of Robert E. Lee and the leaders of the Confederacy about being mere footnotes.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Thursday, July 14, 2022


The archetype of a safe man ... he wears both a belt and suspenders.

The archetype of a prudent man … he wears both a belt and suspenders.

No matter how safe you try to be, there is always something else you could have done to be safer. We all make compromises when the utility of what we are doing to be safer becomes more burdensome than the incremental increase in safety our act attains. On one hand, it’s safer to wear seat belts than not to wear them, and the cost of wearing them is exceedingly slight compared to the benefit derived. On the other hand, while it would be a lot safer for all traffic not to exceed 15 mph, the cost of such an act far outweighs the benefits derived from enforcing such a rule.

A similar situation applied in this landmark municipal liability case from Omaha. During a windstorm, a motorist pulled over because he couldn’t see to drive. A tree belonging to the City fell, hitting his car and paralyzing him. The tree, a silver maple, was badly decayed. The motorist sued the City, arguing that for a tree owner to permit a danger tree to stand violated the City’s own ordinances. At trial, the disabled plaintiff was awarded $5 million.

On appeal, however, the Supreme Court of Nebraska was more persuaded by the City’s argument that if every person in its arborist crew spent an entire work year inspecting silver maple trees, each tree would only receive a 12-minute inspection. The City had a tree inspection program in place, and the Court found it reasonably conceived and discharged. Could the City have done more? Certainly. Had it done so, would the damaged tree have been found? No one could say.

The City’s tree inspection program was reasonable, and that was all that was required. The verdict was reversed.

treecar140425McGinn v. City of Omaha, 217 Neb. 579, 352 N.W.2d 545 (S.Ct. Neb., 1984). Mr. McGinn was driving in the City of Omaha on a rainy, blustery afternoon when the inclement weather made him pull over to park. As he was doing so, a silver maple tree fell in front of him, and a branch struck his car, rendering him a quadriplegic.

Photographs taken after the accident revealed that the trunk of the tree was extensively decayed. McGinn sued the City, arguing it was negligent in failing to inspect the tree for disease, decay, and structural defects, and in violating a city ordinance making it unlawful for a landowner to permit a dangerous tree to stand. The City countered that McGinn was contributorily negligent and that the storm, which could not have been reasonably anticipated, caused the tree to fall. The trial court rendered judgment in favor of McGinn and awarded $5 million in damages.

The City appealed.

Held: The judgment was reversed. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that city was not negligent for having failed to remove the tree where there was no evidence that the inspection program conducted by the city was negligently designed or carried out, or that the tree had been found to be hazardous as a result of any inspection made by the city.

Normally, governmental units are liable under ordinary negligence principles for injuries or damages which result from a tree falling onto a public road from land in possession of a governmental unit. In this case, while McGinn was correct that the City had violated an ordinance rendering it unlawful for any property owner to permit a diseased or structurally weak tree to stand on his property, the violation was at most evidence of negligence and did not impose strict liability upon the City. Rather, negligence must be measured against a particular set of facts and circumstances present in each case, and the utility of the City’s conduct has to be measured against the magnitude of the risk.

Here, the City had established an annual inspection program to check for hazardous trees. The program was neither negligently designed nor negligently carried out. Alternatives might have reduced the risk, such as cutting down any silver maple older than a certain age or conducting lengthy, individual tree inspections, but these remedies were expensive and unreasonable. There was no indication that the tree which fell on McGinn’s car during the severe storm had been found to be hazardous during any inspection made by the city.

Thus, the Court said, the city was not negligent in not having had the tree removed, and thus was not liable for personal injuries sustained by McGinn.

The takeaway here is that in a proper weighing of the reasonableness of a defendant’s actions, courts traditionally weigh the magnitude of the task. A homeowner with ten trees cannot reasonably fail to ascertain the condition of his or her trees. A municipality with 10,000 trees can get away with failing to ascertain the condition of any particular one of those trees if it has an inspection program that is a reasonable balance of cost and efficacy.

– Tom Root


Case of the Day – Wednesday, July 13, 2022


In the development of liability law for danger trees, the “every-dog-for-himself” school of thought has reigned supreme for 150 years. The authoritative Restatement of Torts (2nd) rule says that “a possessor of land is not liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land, except in an urban area, where the possessor is liable to people using a public highway for physical harm resulting from his or her failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of his or her trees.”

A real mouthful, the Rule said in so many words, “if you live in the country, you owe nobody anything. If you live in the city, you owe a duty to someone on the highway, but no one else.”

The Restatement – which ideally states the law as it generally exists in the 50 states – has instead become the driver. The rule is followed almost everywhere, with the Restatement being cited as the authority. So instead of summarizing what the various state courts have held, the Restatement has made the law in many places. 

But times change, populations shift, and what was a workable (or at least an acceptable) rule suddenly makes little sense. That happened in today’s case from the Hoosier State, in which a neighboring landlord neglected a danger tree. After all, he was a landlord, and what landlord will spend a dime that won’t increase his return?

So the neighbor pointed out the decaying tree, the City pointed out the decaying tree, and all the chattering passersby pointed out the decaying tree. And then, the landlord found a drive-by arborist who eyeballed the tree (without even being able to identify the species as a Basswood from his quick “look-see”), and pronounced it fit as a fiddle. A Basswood fiddle.

Except it was not so fit. When the tree fell on the neighbor’s house, her insurance paid for repairs and then (justifiably) came after the landlord. He said, “Tough luck. The Restatement rule says I’m only liable to people on the public street.”

And that was what the rule said. So the Court changed the rule. And that, boys and girls, is how the law evolves.

Marshall v. Erie Insurance Exchange, 923 N.E.2d 18 (Ind.App. 2010). John and Marjorie Marshall owned many rental properties, which John supervised. One was a vacant lot next to Cindy Cain’s home.

A tree stood on Marjorie’s lot near the boundary of the two parcels. From the time Cindy purchased the home, she worried about the tree’s health and the danger it might pose. Cindy talked to her neighbor about the tree but got nowhere. She talked to a City code enforcement officer about the tree. The officer told Marjorie’s property manager the tree had to come down. He also spoke to John, who said he would have the tree checked. Cindy told a guy who worked for the Marshalls’ maintenance worker and a woman who claimed her husband was the Marshalls’ new maintenance worker about the hazard tree. The man Cindy spoke to agreed that the tree should be taken down and said he would speak to John about it.

On New Year’s Eve, the tree fell onto Cindy’s house, knocking over her chimney and causing damage to the roof and frame. Cindy filed an insurance claim with Erie, which held her homeowner’s insurance policy. Erie reimbursed her for the necessary repairs to her home (minus her deductible, of course). Then, Erie sued the Marshalls for damages stemming from their negligent maintenance of the tree.

Jake Denlinger, a professional arborist, testified that before the tree fell, he had looked at the tree at John’s request. Jake inspected the tree but did not take any samples of the tree’s core. He testified he did not see enough evidence of decay in the tree to warrant removing the tree. His cross-examination must have been withering because Jake – filled with doubt –  Jake returned to the vacant lot after his testimony to look at the tree stump to determine what type of tree had fallen on Cindy’s house. He found it was a Basswood tree, and returned to testify that it is difficult to judge a Basswood’s health without internal sampling because the trees do not show many exterior signs of decay.

The trial court found for Erie, and the Marshalls appealed.

Held: The trial court’s decision in favor of Erie Insurance was upheld.

The Court said that to recover in negligence, a plaintiff must establish a duty on the part of the defendant to conform his conduct to a standard of care arising from his relationship with the plaintiff; a failure on the part of the defendant to conform his conduct to the standard of care; and (3) an injury to the plaintiff proximately caused by the breach.

Absent a duty, there can be no breach and, therefore, no recovery in negligence.

In Valinet v. Eskew, the Indiana Supreme Court adopted the rule in Restatement (Second) of Torts section 363, that a possessor of land is not liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land, except in an urban area, where the possessor is liable to people using a public highway for physical harm resulting from his or her failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of his or her trees.

The Court of Appeals observed that the Valinet rule seemed to foreclose the issue of whether the Marshalls owed a duty to protect Cindy from the fallen tree. The Court, however, was unwilling to “leave urban or residential landowners essentially powerless in the face of a neighbor who refused to remove or secure an obviously decayed and dangerous tree simply because it was a natural condition of the land.”

The Court concluded that it should depart from “the strict application of the Restatement rule in the context of urban or residential property.” That Rule was adopted when the land was mostly unsettled and uncultivated. In urban or residential areas, however, the Court held, it should not be an undue burden for a landowner to inspect his or her property and take reasonable precautions against dangerous natural conditions. “Living in close quarters with one’s neighbors in an urban or residential setting substantially increases the risk that a falling tree will cause damage to property or injury to persons, and, similar to the problem relating to a highway, the reduced size of property lots in an urban or residential setting makes the burden of time and money to inspect and secure trees on one’s property relatively minor, especially as compared to the potential damage that could result from the tree’s fall.”

Thus, the Court said, an urban or residential landowner has a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm to neighboring landowners, arising from the condition of trees on his or her property. Whether the land in question is of sufficient population density to invoke the rule is a factual question for the fact finder. In addition, in determining whether the landowner exercised the requisite reasonable care, the fact finder must weigh the seriousness of the danger against the ease with which it may have been prevented. In some circumstances, fulfilling this duty may require a landowner to conduct periodic inspections of his or her property.

In this case, the Court said, the trial court applied a duty of reasonable care to the Marshalls with respect to preventing the damage caused by the fallen tree. The trial court heard evidence that the code enforcement officer contacted the Marshalls to inform them of the dangerous tree and the need to remove it, and several witnesses testified to the physical state of the tree. True, the Marshalls provided some evidence they contacted a tree specialist, but he only performed a superficial examination of the tree and did recommend its removal. Because reasonable minds could draw different conclusions from the facts in evidence, it was for the trial court to determine whether the Marshalls’ conduct breached the duty of reasonable care. Sufficient evidence supported the trial court’s judgment that the Marshalls did so, and that Cindy’s home was damaged as a result.

– Tom Root