In order to operate their motor vehicles safely, drivers need to be able to see what’s in front of them – and coming at them from the side.
Part of this is the job of traffic engineers and city planners. However, it’s also up to property owners, both commercial and private.
When overgrown shrubs, tree limbs or other landscaping features obstruct the view of motorists and result in a crash, the property owner may be held liable for damages. However, it must be proven that the landscaping feature was a known (or knowable) hazard as well as a proximate cause of the crash.
The legal standard often applied to determine whether property owners owed a duty of care to passing motorists is that of the foreseeable zone of risk, as established in McCain v. Florida Power Corp. (Florida Supreme Court, 1992). As the Florida 5th DCA ruled in the 2004 case of Davis v. Dollar Rent A Car Systems Inc., et al., the traditional view of the courts on this issue has been that a property owner owed no duty of care to drivers whose vision was obscured by natural conditions on the owner’s property adjacent to the highway, though the property owner could be liable for artificial conditions (i.e., foliage planted by land owner). However, the court noted the Florida Supreme Court had rejected this differentiation between “natural” and “artificial” and recognized simply that the issue should be decided by the foreseeable zone of risk. That is, the court has to consider whether defendant’s conduct foreseeably created a broader zone of risk, which posed a general threat of harm to others.
The Davis case involved a rental car patron who was making a left turn onto the road where the business was located when she was broadsided by a dump truck. Driver’s estate alleged foliage on private property adjacent to that intersection obstructed her view of oncoming traffic, and the appeals court ruled she had the right to have that claim heard.
A more recent case out of New Jersey deals with a similar situation. In Townsend v. Pierre, the New Jersey Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether a commercial property owner could be held liable for failure to maintain shrubbery, allegedly contributing to a driver’s inability to see oncoming traffic and resulting in a fatal car accident.
The trial court had dismissed plaintiff’s expert witness’s testimony because it was not supported by facts on record. At-fault driver and her passenger had said the shrubs on private property initially blocked her view, but she inched up four times until her view was unobstructed before proceeding. Plaintiff was suing private property owner as well as driver, and expert witness opined at-fault driver was mistaken about her ability to see the road.
Appellate court reversed and planned to allow plaintiff expert witness testimony, but the state supreme court reversed. The court ruled that although a property owner could be held liable for failing to maintain landscaping on their property so it didn’t obstruct the view of drivers, in this case, that argument wasn’t supported by the underlying facts.
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Townsend v. Pierre, March 12, 2015, New Jersey Supreme Court
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