Indiana Court of Appeals Finds Landowner Owed No Duty to Motorist Injured As a Result of Tall Grass on Land Adjoining Roadway

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a property owner finding it had no duty to the traveling public as a result of tall grass on its property. In Reece v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., a 92-year-old motorist, Harold Moistner (“Moistner”), pulled out into an intersection and collided with a motorcycle being driven by Walter Reece. Walter suffered catastrophic brain injuries in the motorcycle-vehicle collision. The investigating police officer completed a report and documented that tall grass on the northwest side of the intersection would have limited or prohibited Moistner’s view of Walter on his motorcycle. Judy Reece (“Reece”), individually and as Walter’s guardian, filed a lawsuit against various defendants, including Moistner and Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. and Tyson Foods, Inc. (collectively “Tyson”), which owned a plant on the northwest side of the intersection. Tyson moved for summary judgment as to duty, which the trial court granted.

To prove negligence in Indiana, a plaintiff must show the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, the defendant breached that duty, and the breach proximately caused injuries to the plaintiff. Whether one party owes another party a duty is generally a question of law for the court to decide. If there is no duty owed by the defendant, there can be no breach and therefore no negligence.  Although Moistner certainly owed Reece a duty under the rules of the road applicable to motorists, whether a landowner owes a motorist operating a vehicle on a public roadway presents an interesting question for auto accident attorneys and the courts.

Under well-established Indiana law, a landowner owes a duty to the traveling public to exercise reasonable care in the use of his property so as not to interfere with the safety of public travelers on adjacent roadways. Courts have, for instance, found a duty of care on behalf of a railroad when its employees started a fire that caused smoke to blow over a nearby road obstructing the view of motorists, on behalf of a manufacturing plant that created a congestion of vehicles exiting the plant resulting in a collision, and on behalf of a landowner whose tree fell on a roadway. However, there is generally no liability for harm caused outside land by a natural condition on the land, except for unreasonable risks of harm from trees in urban areas, and even with respect to artificial conditions, there is no liability except for the creation of hazardous conditions that intrude upon a roadway. Thus, there is no duty where the activity is wholly contained on a landowner’s property.

Here, the Court of Appeals found the alleged dangerous condition created by the tall grass on Tyson’s property was confined to the property, and therefore, Tyson owed no duty to travelers as a result of the grass growth. The Court also rejected Reece’s argument that Tyson assumed a duty of care, which can occur when one is negligent in undertaking to perform services for another because one of Tyson’s employees had mowed the grass for many years prior to retiring, which occurred two years before the incident. The Court noted there was no evidence the employee’s mowing was for motorists and in any case, the employee had ceased mowing when he retired and therefore was not undertaking to provide any services in the two years prior to the incident. Lastly, the Court rejected Reece’s argument that the trial court erred in two evidentiary rulings excluding an interrogatory response from Moister that was duplicative of other evidence and a part of Reece’s expert’s affidavit that was speculative given the testimony of a single eyewitness.

You can read the full opinion here.

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