Indiana law has long held that property owners have a duty to exercise “reasonable care” to prevent injuries to motorists on adjacent roads.
For example, if the smoke from a bonfire you started on your property drifts over the road and obscures a motorist’s view, you may be held liable for any injuries that result.
But how far should this duty extend?
The Indiana Supreme Court recently wrestled with this question in a motorcycle accident case and its decision has repercussions for landowners and motor vehicle drivers.
The motorcycle accident that gave rise to the lawsuit
On August 10, 2014, 92-year-old Harold Moistner was driving on Hunnicut Road in Cambridge City, Indiana. He was heading east to the intersection of Hunnicut Road and Boyd Road.
A Tyson Foods building was located on the northwest side of the intersection. The grass on the property was tall and limited the ability of Harold to see any vehicles traveling south on Boyd Road.
As Harold crossed the intersection, he collided with a motorcycle carrying Judy and Walter Reece.
Walter suffered catastrophic brain injuries as a result of the crash.
Following the accident, the responding officer compiled a report which included the following observation:
“Grass on the northwest corner of Hunnicut Road and Boyd Road was tall. This grass would have limited or prohibited the view of Driver 1 to see Vehicle 2 traveling southbound.”
On August 24, 2015, Judy Reece filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods.
The lawsuit alleged that Tyson Foods negligently allowed grass to grow so high on their property that it blocked the view of the road where Hunnicut Road and Boyd Road intersect.
The lawsuit raised an important question:
Do property owners have a duty to refrain from causing or maintaining a visual obstruction on land adjacent to roads?
The trial court didn’t think so and ruled in favor of Tyson Foods. The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed the decision. Judy Reece appealed the case to the Indiana Supreme Court.
In her opinion, Chief Justice Loretta Rush explained that Indiana law has long required a landowner to use reasonable care to prevent injury to the motoring public on adjacent roadways from risks created by the landowner.
However, Chief Justice Rush acknowledged that the law has not always been clear with respect to how far this duty extends.
In an attempt to create a “bright-line” rule, Chief Justice Rush held that the landowner’s duty to use reasonable care to prevent injury to the motoring public on adjacent roads does NOT apply when a condition on the land imposes a visual obstruction but is confined to the land.
In other words, because the tall grass that inhibited Judy and Walter Reece’s view was indisputably confined to Tyson’s property and did not intrude on the public right of way, Tyson did not owe them a duty and could not be held negligent.
What does the Indiana Supreme Court decision mean for Indiana landowners and motorists?
The Indiana Supreme Court decision means that landowners don’t have to worry if a condition that is wholly contained within their property (such as tall grass or a billboard) presents a visual obstruction for drivers.
There are, however, a couple of important caveats to keep in mind.
First, the court explicitly warned that local governments can enact statutes or ordinances that require landowners to refrain from causing or maintaining visual obstructions, even if they’re contained on their land.
Second, the ruling doesn’t let landowners off the hook if something that was contained on their property becomes uncontained. For example, if a dead tree in your yard falls into the road, you may be liable for any damages that result.
Finally, it’s important to note that while the ruling may limit the ability of accident victims to file lawsuits against landowners in certain situations, accident victims may be able to sue other responsible or partially responsible parties. For example, in addition to suing Tyson Foods, Judy Reece filed a negligence lawsuit against Harold Moistner, the driver who hit her and her husband.
Unfortunately, Harold died shortly after the lawsuit was filed.
To make sure your legal rights are protected, it’s important to meet with an attorney following a motor vehicle accident. An experienced Indiana attorney can review your case and identify all possible defendants and avenues of recovery.