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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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  1. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  2. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  3. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  4. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  5. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

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