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Court rules on duty of care for healthy trees in residential areas

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has reiterated its stance that urban or residential area landowners have a duty to take reasonable precautions regarding their own trees, healthy or otherwise, and make sure they don’t harm a neighbor’s property based on the size and where they are planted.

A unanimous ruling today in Stephen M. Scheckel v. NLI, Inc., No. 02A04-1010-SC-645, reanalyzes an issue that the intermediate appellate court has dealt with regularly in past years and last addressed more than a year ago.

The root of the Allen County case is a dispute between property owner Stephen Scheckel and neighboring property owner NLI over damage caused by a tree. Scheckel lives next to a lot separated by a chain-link fence. A tree planted nearby grew into the fence and its roots grew under the sidewalk and damaged both the fence and pavement, leaving the fence gate unusable and the walkway cracked and buckled. The cost to remove the tree and repair the damage was $2,510, according to the court records. Scheckel complained to the property owner, NLI, about the damage, but NLI didn’t take any action and Scheckel filed a small claims complaint on negligence and nuisance theories.

After a bench trial, the judge granted judgment in favor of NLI on the grounds that the size and placement of the tree caused the damage to the fence and walkway and the landowner isn’t liable for harm caused outside the land by a natural condition of the land.

But the trial judge erred in that decision, the appellate panel found, based on the evolution of natural conditions common law theory during the past 20 years.

Relying on its March 2010 ruling in Marshall v. Erie Ins. Exch., 923 N.E.2d 18,22 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010), the appeals judges focused on the exception to the natural condition rule created by the Indiana Supreme Court two decades ago. Agreeing with what other states have held, the Indiana panel in Marshall moved away from a strict application of the Restatement (Second) of Torts when it came to urban and residential properties.

Specifically, the appellate court disagreed with the finding that the tree’s healthy condition didn’t pose an unreasonable risk of harm to neighboring landowners because it wasn’t an unhealthy or dead tree – something that past cases have focused on. This is the first case in which the Court of Appeals has analyzed the natural rule exceptions in the context of a healthy tree, and the judges found no difference.

“As noted in Marshall, in urban or residential areas, placing a duty on the landowners to inspect his or her property and take reasonable precautions against dangerous natural conditions is not an undue burden,” Judge James Kirsch wrote. “Property lots in urban or residential settings are much smaller in size – putting neighboring landowners much closer in proximity – and thus, the burden of time and money to inspect and secure trees on those properties is relatively minor compared to the potential damage that could result from a defective tree. As such, we hold that an urban or residential landowner has a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect neighbors from the risk of personal injury or property damage caused by a tree growing upon the landowner’s property. Accordingly, the trial court erred in concluding that the natural condition rule of the Restatement bars the plaintiff’s recovery.”

The Indiana Supreme Court hasn’t addressed this issue specifically since it ruled on a natural conditions rule issue in 1991, and the justices denied transfer on Marshall in December.

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