Indiana Supreme Court Adopts Bright-Line Rule that Landowners Owe No Duty to the Traveling Public from Conditions Wholly Contained on Property Despite any Visual Obstruction

We previously wrote about the Indiana Court of Appeals decision in Reece v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. affirming a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a property owner finding the property owner owed no duty to the traveling public as a result of tall grass on its property. In Reece, Judy Reece (“Reece”), as wife and guardian of Walter Reece, sued Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. and Tyson Foods, Inc. (collectively “Tyson”) because tall grass on Tyson’s property impeded the view of a driver, Harold Moistner, who pulled out into an intersection causing a collision between himself and Walter Reece. Walter Reece suffered catastrophic brain injuries in the collision.

The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer in Reece and adopted a bright-line rule: landowners owe a duty to passing motorists on adjacent highways not to create hazardous conditions that visit themselves upon the roadway; but when a land use or condition that may impose a visual obstruction is wholly contained on a landowner’s property, there is no duty to the traveling public. Reece v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., 173 N.E.3d 1031, 1034, 1041 (Ind. 2021).

In adopting this bright-line rule, the Indiana Supreme Court surveyed numerous prior landowner negligence cases. Factors noted in the prior cases included harms caused by conditions contained on land and those intruding upon the roadway, natural versus artificial conditions, and population density. As to its bright-line rule, the Court specifically noted that Indiana’s state and local legislatures could enact laws imposing different duties on landowners. The Court also noted that its decision did not apply to situations where a motorist comes in contact with a condition wholly contained on the land.

In applying the bright-line rule to the facts in Reece, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for Tyson. In Reece, it was undisputed that the tall grass on Tyson’s property was wholly contained to the property and did not intrude upon the roadway. Thus, Tyson did not owe a duty to motorists traveling on the adjacent highway.

Justices Goff and David concurred in the result but with a separate opinion. They did not support the Court’s adoption of a bright-line rule that denies recovery to all travelers injured due to obstructed views from conditions wholly contained on a landowner’s property. In their view, the Court’s rule will prevent trial court judges from exercising discretion. They also noted a concern as to the potential for a patchwork of local ordinances resulting in less predictability. Justices Goff and David would have preferred a standard providing for a duty to refrain from creating visual obstacles that unreasonably imperil the users of adjacent public roadways, even if from conditions wholly confined to the property. However, they nonetheless concurred because there was no evidence in Reece establishing that the tall grass unreasonably imperiled travelers on the roadway.

You can read the full opinion here.




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