A recent decision by the Kansas Supreme Court held that a landowner whose property abuts a rural intersection does not owe a duty of care to passing drivers to either trim those trees or remove other vegetation from the property.
Florida, meanwhile, has taken a different approach on this issue, as carefully laid out in the 2007 Florida Supreme Court case of Williams v. Davis. The conclusion involved the same issue – whether non-commercial owners of property that contains foliage that blocks motorists’ view of an adjacent intersection causing an accident with injuries should be liable. Citing the 1992 Florida Supreme Court decision in McCain v. Florida Power Corp. (which ruled that defendants who create a foreseeable zone of risk can be held negligent) and the 2001 case of Whitt v. Silverman, which based on McCain imposes a duty of care upon landowners to maintain their property free of unsafe obstructions to the view of passing motorists.
According to court records in the Williams case, a fatal Orlando car accident in August 1997 killed the daughter of plaintiff, who filed her complaint in 1999. Numerous defendants were named, but at issue before the Florida Supreme Court were allegations against just one of those, who owned property adjacent to the intersection where this fatal crash occurred. Plaintiff was in a procession of other rental car customers, driving their rented vehicles to an end destination to return her rented car. She entered an intersection as part of those procession and was struck and killed by a dump truck that struck her vehicle broadside from the left.
Among the defendants named was a property owner whose land was fenced and overgrown with bushes and trees, to the point, plaintiff alleged, it obscured the view for westbound traffic to a distance of about 12 feet from the intersection. Plaintiff alleged defendant property owner had a duty to make sure the vegetation on her property wasn’t going to obstruct the view of drivers moving through that intersection, and that her failure to fulfill that duty by allowing the property to become overgrown meant that she was liable (at least in part) for decedent’s wrongful death.
Defendant argued in a motion for summary judgment that there was no duty of care to a passing motorist to prevent trees and bushes from blocking sight lines at the intersection and neither defendant property owner nor her late husband had any such duty, nor was there any evidence of a contract with the county to maintain the overgrowth (as plaintiff alleged) to indicate they had assumed this duty.
The trial court granted defendant property owner her summary judgment motion, a decision that was later reversed by the appellate court. The state supreme court affirmed the appellate court’s reversal. The simple issue on appeal was whether owners of non-commercial property with vegetation that blocks motorists’ view at an adjacent intersection owe a duty of care under the foreseeable zone of risk analysis, as established by McCain. The court ruled: Yes. There was not a ruling on whether defendant in this case had breached that duty, but establishing simply that a duty exists is important because “duty of care” is critical to proving negligence. The court held the defendant property owner in this case had a duty to keep the vegetation on their property from blocking the line of site and other motorists, but the factual question of whether they breached that duty will go to a juror.
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Williams v. Davis, 2007, Florida Supreme Court
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