If a Tree Falls on a Public Street, Will the Town Listen?

If a Tree Falls on a Public Street, Will the Town Listen?

bird's eye view of a winding road surrounded by trees

The Second Department Clarifies Municipality’s Role in Protecting Motorists from Falling Trees

By Terrence James Cortelli

The issue is whether a municipality owes a duty to protect against dangerous trees falling on public roadways where the tree is located beyond the municipality’s boundary lines. The Second Department answered the question in the affirmative.

In Jourdain v. Metropolitan Trans. Auth., — N.Y.S.3d —-, 2023 WL 5598571, 2023 N.Y. Slip Op. 04421 (2nd Dept. [Aug. 30, 2023]) (StolzenbergCortelli LLP on the brief for Plaintiff) the Plaintiff, a motorist, was severely injured when, while stopped at a red light, a sick and dying tree fell and struck her motor vehicle. The tree had been located along a steep embankment that supported a set of MTA train tracks in Spring Valley, New York. The roadway where the incident occurred was owned and controlled by the Town of Clarkstown. It was undisputed that the MTA owned the embankment where the tree was located. A fence separated the MTA’s property from the Town’s right of way with regard to the roadway.

The motorist sued the MTA, contending that, as the property owner, it owed a duty to motorists to protect against trees falling from its property and injuring others. The motorist also sued the Town, contending that it owed a similar duty to motorists to take reasonable precautions to protect them from falling trees, notwithstanding that the tree was located on non-Town property.

The Town moved to dismiss. The Town argued that its obligations regarding falling trees ended where the pavement stopped and the adjoining property started. Supreme Court agreed and dismissed the Plaintiff’s Complaint insofar as it concerned the Town.

Upon appeal, the Second Department reversed, holding that the Town did owe a duty to Plaintiff. According to the Court, “Although the tree was not located on the Town’s property, it is undisputed that the Town owned and maintained the road where the plaintiff’s vehicle was struck by the tree.” As such, the Court warned: “A municipality’s duty to maintain its roadways in a reasonably safe condition encompasses those trees, adjacent to the roads, which could reasonably be expected to pose a danger to travelers.” This includes the concomitant duty “to inspect trees adjacent to their roadways.” In short, the Court aptly waxed: “The Town’s duty to maintain that road thus extended to the tree in question, which was adjacent to the road.”

In short, in no uncertain terms, the Second Department has now clarified the somewhat confusing caselaw and confirmed that a municipality’s duty to protect motorists encompasses the obligation to inspect and if necessary remove dangerous trees located beyond its streets if such conditions present a potential threat to motorists lawfully using the public roadway.

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