If a Tree Falls in a Roadway, Is Anyone Liable?: Proposing the Duty of Reasonable Care for Virginia's Road-Maintaining Entities

73 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2018  

Ian McElhaney

Washington and Lee University - School of Law, Students

Date Written: April 5, 2018

Abstract

“If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody around to hear, does it make a sound?” While the answer to that question is “yes,” not all questions involving trees are so easily disposed.

The case of Matthew Cline presents an unfortunate example of such a question. Cline was traveling in Charlottesville, Virginia, “when a tree fell and crushed the roof, windshield and hood of the vehicle Cline was driving. Cline suffered severe and permanent injuries, including fractures of his cervical spine.” In the subsequent suit, Cline alleged that Dunlora, the owner of the tree and land, was responsible on a theory of negligence. The Supreme Court of Virginia disagreed — the court found that the law did not “impose a duty upon landowners to protect individuals traveling on an adjacent adjoining public highway from natural conditions on the landowner’s property...” Thus, a question of law remained unanswered: if a private landowner owes no duty with respect to trees adjacent to the roadway, who, if anyone, does?

Following this case, Cline asserted that liability fell to the Commonwealth of Virginia. The claim, however, resolved on assumption-of-duty grounds, and did not turn to the question of whether a road-maintaining entity has a duty to inspect for or cut down dangerous trees adjacent to the roadways it maintains. The question deserves an answer for safety’s sake in the Commonwealth. This Note calls for an answer in the affirmative: a road-maintaining entity should have a duty of reasonable care to remediate dangerous trees adjoining the roadways it maintains.

Part II of this Note considers whether a duty for road-maintaining entities is tenable under Virginia law. The Part also explores the rationale for imposing differing liabilities between landowners and road-maintaining entities. Part III reviews the various duties other states use with respect to dangerous roadside trees, and concludes that the duty of reasonable care is most appropriate for Virginia.

Sovereign immunity is a companion issue, and is addressed in Part IV. The Part provides a brief overview of the policy arguments for sovereign immunity, before reviewing immunity’s impact at the state, county, and municipal levels. The Part also addresses a government employee’s entitlement to immunity, before considering a potential legislative solution to some of the present difficulties associated with sovereign immunity.

Finally, this Note reviews anticipated impacts in the world of litigation as a result of the duty of reasonable care, before addressing the legal and policy arguments of those who say the impact of such a duty would be negative.

Keywords: Sovereign Immunity, Virginia Law, Tort Law, Tree, Cline, Dunlora, Virginia Supreme Court, Supreme Court Of Virginia, VDOT, Road-Maintaining Entity

Suggested Citation

McElhaney, Ian, If a Tree Falls in a Roadway, Is Anyone Liable?: Proposing the Duty of Reasonable Care for Virginia's Road-Maintaining Entities (April 5, 2018). Washington and Lee Law Review, 2019. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3157315

Ian McElhaney (Contact Author)

Washington and Lee University - School of Law, Students ( email )

204 W Washington St
Lexington, VA
United States

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