WINDSTORM BRINGS LANDOWNER LIABILITY FOR FAILING TREES INTO SHARP FOCUS

The storm system that blasted the Northwest this past weekend was both extensive and serious.  Gusts reached up to 59 mph in Seattle.  And with those winds came blow downs, power outages and death.

The News Tribune reports:

Jamie Fay, 36, died after a tree fell onto his moving station wagon about 10:45 a.m. Saturday near Borgen Boulevard and Olympus Way in Gig Harbor, as he was heading home from Costco.

His 3-year-old daughter was also in the car, but was not hurt.

If the tree that fell onto Mr. Fay’s car came from an adjacent landowner’s private property, is the adjacent landowner liable?

The answer may be yes.

Here is the rule in urban areas:

A possessor of land in an urban area is subject to liability to persons using a public highway for physical harm resulting form his failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of trees on the land near the highway.

An urban landowner’s duty includes the duty to inspect when the tree is adjacent to a public street.  And he cannot avoid liability by ignoring a dangerous condition because it is “natural”:

It is still the prevailing rule that the owner of rural land is not required to inspect it to make sure that every tree is safe, and will not fall over onto the public highway and kill a person. . . . But when the tree is in an urban area, and may fall into a city street, the landowner now has a duty of reasonable care, including inspection to make sure that the tree is safe.

[A] landowner in a residential or urban area has a duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on his premises, including trees of purely natural origin.

If the tree that killed Mr. Fay came from an urban landowner’s property, his family should investigate whether the landowner breached his/her duty of reasonable care to prevent the tree from falling onto the road, including his/her duty to inspect.

If the danger was there to be seen, then the landowner should have realized that the tree posed a danger and consulted an appropriate professional.

 

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