In ‘catastrophic’ motorcycle crash case, justices rule for Tyson Foods, adopt bright-line rule

In adopting a bright-line rule Tuesday, Indiana Supreme Court justices ruled that a meat plant accused of contributing to a serious crash owed no duty to the motoring public because the tall grass at issue was confined to the plant’s property.

In August 2014, motorist Harold Moistner pulled out into an intersection and collided with motorcyclist Walter Reece. The crash left Reece with catastrophic brain injuries, prompting his guardian, Judy Reece, to sue Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. Moistner was 92 at the time and has since died.

Judy Reece alleged overgrown grass on Tyson’s Cambridge City property near the location of the crash was a contributing factor to the collision. But the Wayne Superior Court entered summary judgment for Tyson, and a divided Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the company negated the element of duty in Reece’s negligence claim.

Senior Judge John Baker dissented from the COA’s August 2020 decision.

But the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the appellate majority in a Sept. 21 ruling in Judy Reece, as Guardian of Walter Reece, and Judy Reece v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., and Tyson Foods, Inc., 21S-CT-435. The justices ruled that the tall grass that inhibited Moistner’s view was wholly contained on Tyson’s property.

“Accordingly, Tyson owed no duty to the motoring public to avoid creating or maintaining the particular visual obstruction and therefore, could not be negligent,” Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote for the high court.

“Today, we examine and synthesize decades of caselaw to determine whether the duty applies when a condition on the land imposes a visual obstruction but is confined to the land,” Rush wrote. “Court of Appeals panels have reached divergent answers to that question, and we now firmly endorse the position from Sheley v. Cross, 680 N.E.2d 10, 13 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), trans. denied. Under these circumstances, there is no duty.”

The justices adopted the bright-line rule in Sheley, which provides that landowners owe a duty to passing motorists on adjacent highways not to create “hazardous conditions that visit themselves upon the roadway.” However, when a land use or condition that may impose a visual obstruction is “wholly contained on a landowner’s property, there is no duty to the traveling public.”

 The high court explained that Indiana precedent persuaded it to adopt the bright-line rule, looking back at the line of cases beginning with Pitcairn v. Whiteside, 109 Ind. App. 693, 700, 34 N.E.2d 943, 946 (1941), which “definitively established a duty for owners or occupiers of land to prevent dangerous conditions originating on the land from intruding upon the roadway.”

But Pitcairn was interpreted narrowly in Blake v. Dunn Farms, Inc., 274 Ind. 560, 413 N.E.2d 560 (1980), which requires courts to look at the landowner’s role in causing a dangerous condition on the highway when such a condition exists.

It proceeded to cite related cases, including Snyder Elevators, Inc. v. Baker, 529 N.E.2d 855, 856–57 (Ind. Ct. App. 1988), Holiday Rambler Corp. v. Gessinger, 541 N.E.2d 559 (Ind. Ct. App. 1989), and Justice v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 908 F.2d 119, 121 (7th Cir. 1990), among others.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court found Sheley’s bright-line rule “lends itself to easy application.”

“It is also the most logical extension of Indiana precedent, particularly this Court’s decision in Blake, in which one of the negligence claims was based on the landowner’s alleged failure to maintain a fence, an obviously artificial condition,” the high court wrote.

But the court noted its holding “in no way prevents the General Assembly or local legislative bodies from enacting statutes or ordinances to impose a duty on landowners to refrain from creating or maintaining visual obstructions on land adjacent to highways in favor of the motoring public.”

“We hold only that Indiana common law imposes no such duty,” Rush wrote. “Second, our holding is confined to visual obstructions that do not come in contact with traveling motorists, and it does not address situations where a motorist comes in contact with a condition that is wholly contained on the land.”

Justice Christopher Goff concurred in result with a separate opinion, joined by Justice Steven David, who instead would have adopted the rule in Justice v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

 “In my view, the rule articulated in Justice is the more practical solution, allowing our trial court judges to sensibly balance a landowner’s right to peaceful enjoyment of private property against the public’s interest in safe travel on public roads,” Goff wrote. “But, even under this rule, the Reeces’ claim falls short because they failed to designate evidence that could show the tall grass unreasonably imperiled travelers. Therefore, I concur in result.”

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