Deaths and Serious Injuries Caused by Fallen Trees in Virginia
Massive trees fall from private land into roadways more often than we may think, particularly during periods of prolonged rainfall like the one we are seeing at present in Hampton Roads. Sometimes these trees cause serious injury and even deaths. What options do people or families who have been harmed due to a tree falling into a roadway?
The answer is more complicated and fact specific than one would think. Personal injury and wrongful death claims against a business or landowner can often be based upon (1) the negligent act of the property owner, or (2) the negligent failure to act by the property owner.
In the case of fallen trees, the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled in Cline v. Dunlora South, LLC. that a landowner’s duty is limited to refraining from engaging in acts that make the land (and trees) adjoining a highway more dangerous than its natural state.
Essentially, the rule in Virginia appears to be that if the dangerous condition of the tree occurs naturally on the land, then the property owner owes no duty to protect travelers on nearby roads. This harsh rule would seem to prevent a personal injury or wrongful death claim even if a tree has visible and obvious signs of rot or decay, or has signs of compromise what would make clear to any observer that the tree would imminently fall. As long as the dangerous condition of the tree occurred naturally, a landowner’s failure to act is not enough to bring a viable personal injury or wrongful death claim under these circumstances.
Virginia, however, does seem to permit a personal injury or wrongful death claim if there is evidence of some affirmative act of negligence by the landowner that makes the natural condition of the tree or land more dangerous. For example, if actions by a landowner damage a tree or compromise its root system in a manner that provides notice to the property owner that the tree was dangerous and would imminently fall, there may be a viable case. Recovery appears to be limited to affirmative or active acts of negligence.
Therefore, if you have been harmed by a dangerous tree that has fallen into a roadway, it is important that a detailed investigation is performed to determine the reason the tree fell.
What if it is determined that the tree that caused your injury fell solely because of natural causes? Are you left with no means to recover? Maybe not. Again, each case is fact specific, however there is an argument to be made that your local municipality or the Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for keeping roadways safe and clear. If a dangerous tree is within VDOT’s right-of-way along a highway, then it may be possible to file a claim against the Commonwealth under the Virginia Tort Claim Act, which arguably does have an affirmative duty to act when it has knowledge of dangerous trees along its highways. While you may have a claim, the amount of damages you can recover may be limited by law. Consider reading our blogs involving the Virginia Tort Claim Act.
A VDOT Contractor is blamed over the death of a snow plow driver
The State Tort Claims Act in Virginia limits recovery
As you can gather, these cases can be challenging, and each case is fact specific. If you or a loved one has been injured or killed by a fallen tree on a roadway, I encourage you to contact a personal injury lawyer with my office to discuss. Call me at 757.455.0077.