Recently I shared a decision from the Coroners Court where a tree shading a streetlight contributed to a road death. A recent case from Kansas has taken a different approach to the obligations of owners of trees.
It was mid-afternoon on 14 September 2011, and Darren Manley was driving north on Anderson Road in Labette County, Kansas. At the same time a truck driven by John Patton was being driven west on the intersecting County Road 20000. Trees growing on land adjoining the intersection obscured the drivers’ view of each other. Manley was killed in the resulting collision.
Mr Manley’s estate sued the owners of the land where the trees grew. It was alleged that they had wrongfully caused his death by allowing the trees to obstruct the vision of passing motorists. The owners sought summary dismissal of the claim which was granted by Labette County District Court. The plaintiff’s appeal to the Court of Appeals was also dismissed: Manley v Hallbauer, 387 P. 3d 185 (2016). They further appealed to the Supreme Court of Kansas.
The Supreme Court rejected the appeal, finding that the landowners had no duty of care. It noted that any duty of care would need to be consistent with public policy. Kansas common law reflected a public policy not to impose tort liability on persons in the position of the landowners in this case.
As our primary policy consideration, this court adheres to precedent “‘unless clearly convinced that the rule was originally erroneous or is no longer sound because of changing conditions and that more good than harm will come by departing from precedent.'” …. Manley does not persuade us to abandon the traditional rule that a landowner owes no duty in the circumstances of this case. We conclude the determination of the existence of duty is better resolved by following our precedent that embraces the traditional rule, especially because of the public policy that underlies that rule.
The Court duly concluded that “a landowner whose property abuts a rural intersection owes no duty to passing drivers to trim or remove trees or other vegetation on the property”.