Our firm sometimes receives inquiries about areas of the law that few even consider until they are facing a potential lawsuit. Recently, one of those inquiries was whether one can be responsible for his or her tree falling and harming another or their property.
Generally, land owners do not owe a duty with regard to harm caused to another as a result of some natural condition of the land, provided that the harm occurs outside of the land. Heckert. V. Patrick, 473 N.E.2d 1204, 1206 (Ohio 1984). However, there are some exceptions with regard to injuries resulting from falling trees and/or branches. Id. at 1207.
“[A]n owner of land abutting a highway may be held liable on negligence principles under certain circumstances for injuries or damages resulting from a tree or limb falling onto the highway from such property.” Id. For example, “a possessor of land in an urban area is subject to liability to persons using a public highway for physical harm arising from the condition of trees near the highway.” This duty of an urban landowner includes a duty to inspect the tree to make sure that it is safe. Id. This is because urban landowners are thought to have fewer trees – thus, it is not too great of a burden to do so. See id.
However, for rural landowners, who potentially own entire forests of trees, an affirmative duty to inspect the trees would likely amount to a very heavy burden. Id. Therefore, the Ohio Supreme Court has adopted a distinction between rural and urban landowners in this respect. Id. As such, rural landowners have no duty to inspect trees growing on their property adjacent to rural highways, or to ascertain defects that may result in injury to someone travelling on the highway, but, to the extent a rural landowner has “knowledge, actual or constructive, of a patently defective condition of a tree,” that landowner must exercise reasonable care to prevent harm. Id. Constructive knowledge can result from the appearance of the tree, thereby giving notice to an owner that the tree is not in good shape and could fall. In recognition that the distinction between rural and urban areas may not always be an easy one to make as suburbia continues to grow and expand, the Court also provided a list of factors to be considered when making such determination, including “the location of the highway, its size and type, as well as the number of people utilizing it.” Id. at 1208.
Courts have generally applied the law as it relates to rural landowners to cases involving trees falling onto neighbors’ property (i.e., the landowner will be liable to the neighbor where the landowner has actual or constructive knowledge that the tree is defective. See Johnston v. Filson, 2014-Ohio-4758 (12th Dist. 2014) (granting summary judgment to a landowner upon finding that the landowner did not have actual or constructive notice of the tree’s condition); Motorists Mut. Ins. Co. v. Flynn, 2013-Ohio-1501 (4th Dist. 2013) (finding that photographs of a tree significantly leaning toward the neighbor’s house presented a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a reasonable person should have known that the tree posed a danger); Wertz v. Cooper, 2006-Ohio-6844 (4th Dist. 2006) (granting summary judgment in favor of landowner for damage resulting from the landowner’s tree falling onto its neighbor’s property because the neighbor failed to establish that the landowner had either actual or constructive knowledge of a patent dangerous condition of the tree).
So while, in most cases, you will not have an affirmative duty to go out and inspect every single tree on your property, actual or constructive (visible) notice that the tree is not in good shape could create liability if that tree were to fall and cause harm. The lesson? Don’t ignore unhealthy or potentially problematic trees/limbs.