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Landowner liability on nearby roadways

Tiffany Lashmet discusses a case involving a landowner who had a negligence suit filed against them for a tree on their land that fell onto the highway and injured a driver. Who is liable?

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Agricultural Law

June 5, 2024

6 Min Read
tree across roadway
Alex Potemkin/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A recent Texarkana Court of Appeals decision in Bell v. Cain looks at the liability of a landowner when a tree falls onto an adjacent roadway and injures a driver. This case offers important considerations for all rural landowners.

Background

Mrs. Toole owned a 148-acre tract of land in rural Harrison County. In 2017, she appointed her daughter, Katherine Toole Belle, as her attorney-in-fact to manage her affairs. Mrs. Toole died in 2018 naming Katherine as her executor and leaving the property to Katherine.

In April 2019, a windstorm uprooted a large oak tree on the 148-acre tract owned by Katherine. The tree fell across the adjacent roadway (FM 9) and blocked both the north and southbound lanes.  Sharon Cain was driving to work when she hit the tree in the roadway.

Lawsuit

Sharon filed a negligence suit against Katherine and Mrs. Toole’s estate for her injuries, and Sharon’s husband brought a derivative claim for loss of consortium. They claimed that Katherine breached her duty to inspect her property to ensure that it was safe for travelers on the roadway. Sharon claimed that the fallen tree had leaned toward and over the roadway for many years.

Katherine moved for summary judgment, arguing that she owed no duty to inspect the property for possible dangers to travelers on the roadway. She noted that there was no evidence that she or her mother received any notice regarding problems with the tree. She also included an affidavit from an expert arborist who said the tree was “quite large and established” and that a tremendous amount of force would have been required to force it over. The trial court denied her motion but allowed for an interlocutory appeal.

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The Texarkana Court of Appeal granted her permission to appeal on the following question: Whether Katherine, as a rural landowner, owed a duty to Sharon as a traveler on an adjacent public highway to inspect her land to identify any dangers such as a tree that was susceptible to being uprooted and falling from her property onto the highway.

Opinion

The Court of Appeals sided with Katherine and reversed the trial court to grant her summary judgment motion.  [Read Opinion here.] The Court set forth its analysis as follows.

First, generally, no duty is owed to parties injured off-premises. The court noted that a defendant’s “possession and control” over the property where the plaintiff is injured is generally a requirement for liability to accrue. Thus, to succeed on a premises liability claim, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owned, occupied, or controlled the premises where the injury occurred.

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Second, the court discussed the duty that a property owner owes to travelers on an adjacent highway. The Texas Supreme Court recently held that, generally speaking, “a property owner or occupier owes no duty to make an adjoining public road safe or to warn travelers thereon of any potential danger in the roadway.” There are, however, four situations in which the court has recognized a duty of a defendant for injuries occurring on a premises not owned by the defendant:

  • A person who expressly or impliedly agrees or contracts to make safe a known dangerous condition of real property may be liable for failing to remedy the condition.

  • A lessee who assumes actual control over a portion of adjacent property not included in a lease also assumes legal responsibility for the adjacent portion.

  • Where an obscured danger exists on land directly appurtenant to the land owned or occupied and near where the invitees enter and exit the landowner’s property, the owner owes a duty to those invitees entering or exiting to warn of the danger.

  • A person who created a dangerous condition may be liable even if they do not control the premises where the injury occurred because the property owner may have a duty to avoid jeopardizing or endangering the safety of travelers on an adjacent roadway.

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Third, only the last category of cases–where the landowner created a dangerous condition and had knowledge thereof–is at issue.  This exception to the rule of no landowner liability for injuries caused off-premises is known as the Kraus Duty Rule. In Alamo Nat’l Bank v. Kraus, a property owner was demolishing a structure and had notice that a mason wall was leaning and presented a danger to the roadway. When the wall collapsed into the roadway, the property owner was found to owe duty to the travelers because he caused the dangerous condition and had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition on the premises that threatened roadway travelers. Importantly, the Kraus Rule only applies in situations where the defendant created or permitted to remain an “excavation or other artificial condition” so near an existing highway that the owner realized or should have realized it involved an unreasonable risk to highway travelers. In other words, the landowner is liable only if he or she “releases a dangerous agency on the highway” and either knows or should know that the condition is unreasonably dangerous.

Here, there was no evidence that Katherine released the tree onto the roadway. The court distinguished these facts from other cases where a railroad company started a grassfire and released smoke onto the roadway and an oil and gas company had cooling towers that blew water onto the adjacent roadway. Here, there was no evidence that Katherine caused the tree to fall into the roadway, released a dangerous agency into the roadway, or otherwise committed a negligent act.

Additionally, there was no evidence that Katherine knew or should have known of the danger posed by the tree.  There was no evidence that she visited the property or otherwise received notice of any danger posed by the tree prior to it falling.

The court held that no duty existed for Katherine in this case. Further, the court noted that “while landowners in urban areas have a duty to inspect and remove trees that may fall onto a roadway, courts have been reluctant to impose such a duty in rural areas.” This court, likewise, declined to impose this type of duty on rural landowners.

Thus, the court reversed the trial court’s denial of Katherine’s Motion for Summary Judgment and entered a judgment that Sharon take nothing.

Key takeaways

This case is important for any landowner who has property abutting a roadway. Understanding the duty–or lack thereof–owed to travelers on the adjacent roadway is critical for landowners. Specifically, landowners should take note of the following:

  • Landowners are generally not liable for injuries that occur on property they do not own or control, such as an adjacent property or roadway.

  • If a landowner expressly or impliedly agrees or contracts to make safe a known, dangerous condition of real property, they may be liable for failing to do so.

  • If a lessee assumes actual control over a portion of adjacent property not included in a lease, it also assumes legal responsibility for the adjacent portion.

Where an obscured danger exists on land directly appurtenant to the land owned or occupier and near where invitees enter and exit the property, the landowner owes a duty to those entering and exiting to warn of the danger.

If a landowner creates a dangerous condition and knows or should know about the danger, the landowner may owe a duty to avoid endangering the safety of travelers on an adjacent roadway.

It is also important to note here the law regarding falling trees generally. A key question in analyzing cases involving injuries caused by trees is whether the landowner knew or should have known the tree was dangerous. Do note, there is not a duty to inspect rural land for trees that might fall on the roadway. If, however, the landowner does have actual knowledge or should have actual knowledge of the dangerous tree, liability could potentially occur if an injury is caused on the landowner’s property.

About the Author(s)

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet

Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Agricultural Law, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet is Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Agricultural Law, Texas A&M Department of Agricultural Economics.

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