Virginia: Car Accident – a Lawyer’s Fall

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On June 7, 2012, the Virginia Supreme Court held in the 4-3 split decision of Cline v. Dunlora South, LLC, No. 110650 (Va. Jun. 7, 2012) that a landowner was not responsible for an auto accident caused by a tree on private land falling on a public highway in Albemarle County, Virginia. Despite the motorist suffering “severe and permanent injuries, including fractures of his cervical spine,” the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the “duty owed by adjoining property owners is to refrain from engaging in any act that makes the highway more dangerous than in a state of nature or in the state in which it has been left,” id. at 9; not an affirmative “duty to protect travelers on an adjoining public road from natural conditions on his or her land”. Id. at 10.

Cline found no car collision liability notwithstanding that the tree was “’dying, dead and/or rotten’ at the time it fell, and had been in this condition for a period of ‘many years and exhibited visible signs of decay, which were open, visible and/or obvious,’… ‘the tree’s dead or decaying condition was or should have been known, by Defendant Dunlora’ and ‘Dunlora knew or should have known of the hazards presented by the dead, dying and/or rotten tree adjacent the public highway’.” Id. at 2-3. However, a lengthy dissent in Cline urges that “[w]ell known and ordinary principles of negligence should control this case,” including Restatement Second or Torts §363(2)Id. at 10-19.