Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Trees, Roads, and Duties to Travelers: The Supreme Court of Virginia's Decision in Cline v. Dunlora South, LLC

Several clients have asked me whether property owners have any legal duties related to public roads that border their property. 

Like many of the questions that clients come up with, this one is not easy.


The Supreme Court of Virginia provides some guidance in its recent opinion, Cline v. Dunlora South, LLC (June 7, 2012). You can read Justice Goodwyn's opinion here

Albemarle County was the tragic setting for the events in Cline.  Mr. Cline was driving along Rio Road when a tree fell onto his car. He was seriously injured, and he sued several parties including Dunlora South, LLC, the owner of the property adjacent to Rio Road on which the tree was located.


Mr. Cline alleged that Dunlora South, LLC, as the owner of the property, owed a duty to him -- as a traveler on Rio Road -- to prevent trees from falling onto the road.  The Circuit Court for Albemarle County dismissed Cline's complaint and the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed Judge Peatross's decision.


Cline argued the property owner owed a duty to him in light of of the Court's 2007 decision in Fancher v. Fagella

In Fancher (2007), the Court held that a property owner can be held liable for damage caused by a tree to a neighboring owner's property.  In Cline, Justice Goodwyn refines the rule to state that an owner may be liable for property damage caused by trees, but not for personal injury.  The Court's rationale appears to be that a general duty to keep dead or rotten trees from falling onto roads would be unduly burdensome to landowners.

Instead, the duty of landowners is limited to avoiding taking actions that would increase the danger of personal injury to travelers on the road: "The duty owed by adjoining landowners is to refrain from engaging in any act that makes the highway more dangerous than in a state of nature or the state in which it has been left" (emphasis added).


A critic of the Cline decision might reasonably ask why the Court imposes on landowners a greater duty to protect buildings from trees (per Fancher) than to protect people from trees (per Cline).

I thought Justice Lemons had the better argument in his dissent. Justice Lemons argued for a fact-based inquiry, under which a court would determine whether a property owner knew or should have known about the potential of a tree injuring someone using the adjoining road.  An owner in a suburban or urban area, for instance, might more reasonably be expected to cut down a potentially dangerous tree than would the owner of a large parcel in a rural area with sparsely-traveled roads.

Since Justice Lemons's view did not prevail, the takeaway from Cline is that property owners' duties with respect to trees that border public roads is extremely limited.

The Fourth of July is approaching!  Where will you celebrate in 2012?  Stanardsville? Scottsville? McIntire Park?  Or just in your own backyard?