#TreeLaw - If a Tree Falls in the Woods, Can You Sue???

A few years ago I wrote this post about liability issues for neighbors where a tree limb hangs over the property line.  A focus of the article was the Illinois appellate court ruling in Ortiz v. Jesus People U.S.A., a case in which a large tree branch extended over a public sidewalk, and fell, injuring a pedestrian.  The appellate court affirmed a trial verdict finding the defendant liable - they negligently failed to meet their legal duty of reasonable care, and that the resulting injury was a foreseeable result.

The Ortiz case arose in Chicago, an urban setting obviously. Two more recent cases further clarified the law of tree liability - for trees next to a road, and for trees located on a park-like property, such as a private golf club.

In Belton v. Cook County Forest Preserve District, the plaintiff sued the District after a tree fell on on his car as he was driving on a road adjacent to the forest preserve. The trial court had granted summary judgment for the District, based on traditional Illinois caselaw that landowners did not owe a duty of care to someone outside its property to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from unsound or dead trees, except in urban areas.  The Belton court went through more recent caselaw, concluding that the traditional urban/rural road distinction was no longer determinative, and that other factors such as traffic patterns, land use, and the specifics of the case should be considered before summarily dismissing such a case.  The court remanded so the parties could conduct further discovery.

In Stackhouse v. Royce Realty and Management Corporation, the plaintiff was severely injured when a tree on a country club property fell and struck her as she was walking on a path next to the golf course that was owned by the country club. After a jury verdict for the plaintiff, the golf course appealed, but the appellate court affirmed the ruling.  In this case, there was a significant previous incident, in which a tree right next to this one, and the same species, had fallen a year or two earlier, and plaintiff had reported the incident to the course management, along with commenting as the tree's condition, that it appeared diseased.  The court found that this incident put the course on notice of the danger, and so even if no duty would have otherwise been present, the course now had a duty of reasonable care upon receiving such notice. The court found that a reasonable person, having been informed about the first tree, would have inspected the second tree right next to it, found it had the same disease, and taken steps to remove it.

The lesson in these cases is that courts are moving beyond the old "rural vs urban" distinction and looking at the actual facts of each case, to determine whether the defendant's conduct was reasonable under the circumstances.  That means a more fact-specific inquiry, which means such cases may become more difficult to get dismissed quickly, since factual matters are in dispute.


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