From the desk of Kyle Riley: A government entity has a duty to maintain its roads so that they are reasonably safe for ordinary travel. However, in some situations there must be evidence that the government entity had actual or constructive notice of a hazardous condition.
Claims Pointer: A city’s duty to persons using public roads arises from its status as a municipality, not as a landowner. Therefore, the city does not have a duty to inspect trees along the side of a roadway and will only be liable when it has actual or constructive knowledge of a tree’s hazardous condition.
Nguyen v. City of Seattle, 317 P.3d 518 (Wash. Ct. App. 2014)
The–Anh Nguyen sued the City of Seattle for personal injuries and damages he sustained when the rented U–Haul truck he was driving struck a portion of an overhanging tree in a planting strip adjacent to Olson Place Southwest in Seattle. The truck was a 1997 Ford with a box-like cargo compartment extending over the passenger cab that measured 11 feet tall, 8 feet wide, 22½ feet long, and had a 161 inch wheel base. The top right front corner of the truck’s cargo box struck an overhanging tree branch where the large branch of the tree connects to the trunk. The force of the impact damaged the cargo box’s upper corner and uprooted the tree. Because of the impact, the truck drove up onto the curb, as Mr. Nguyen and the passenger next to him struggled with the steering wheel to control the truck. The truck traveled about 40 feet on the planting strip, its right rear bumper nicking another tree before returning to the roadway. Mr. Nguyen was not at fault.
Nguyen’s complaint against the City of Seattle alleged that the City was negligent because it failed to properly maintain the overhanging tree branch. Nguyen further alleged that the City had a duty to inspect trees alongside public roadways as part of its duty to provide streets that are reasonably safe for ordinary travel. In response, the City argued that there was no evidence that it had actual or constructive notice that the tree at issue posed a hazard to street users and that there was no evidence that the branch hung over the roadway as to obstruct ordinary travel. Moreover, the City argued that there is no statutory or common law duty to inspect trees and that its policy to rely on complaints from citizens satisfied its duty of care. After a three day bench trial, the court concluded that the City breached no duty to maintain the tree in a reasonably safe condition and that no act or omission by the City proximately caused Nguyen’s accident. It entered judgment in the City’s favor. The court also concluded that the City lacked notice of any alleged danger posed by the tree. The court denied Nguyen’s motion for reconsideration raising a res ipsa loquitur argument. Nguyen appealed.
On appeal, the Court stated that government entities are held to the same negligence standards as private individuals. The Court noted that the question at issue, whether the City breached its duty to maintain the tree in a reasonably safe condition, turns on whether the City had actual or constructive notice of the tree’s alleged dangerous condition. The Court stated that actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition is an essential element of the duty of reasonable care. But the notice requirement does not apply to dangerous conditions created by the governmental entity or its employees or to conditions that result from their conduct. Nor is notice required where the City should have reasonably anticipated the condition would develop. In sum, if the government entity created the unsafe condition either directly through its negligence or if it was a condition that the governmental entity should have anticipated, the plaintiff need not prove notice. In line with this analysis, the Court noted that there is no statutory or common law duty requiring the City to inspect trees alongside a road. The Court ruled there was no evidence on the record indicating that the tree was hazardous or that the City was aware of any potential hazardous conditions before the subject accident. The ruling of the trial court was affirmed.
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