Fla. Homeowners Can Be Liable if Trees, Bushes Cause Traffic Accidents

November 26, 2007

Homeowners who let bushes, shrubs and trees extend into the public right of way may be held liable if the foliage contributes to accidents by blocking motorists’ view, the Florida Supreme Court ruled last week.

The high court’s 4-3 decision came in the case of a fatal crash in Orlando. It was alleged that foliage from a residential property blocked the view of a dump truck, which broadsided a car, killing the driver.

The justices, though, unanimously agreed the Orlando property owner cannot be held responsible for the crash because her vegetation did not extend beyond her property lines.

The majority said residential property owners could be forced to pay damages if foliage that overlaps into the right of way causes a foreseeable hazard by obstructing cross traffic or traffic signs and signals. That standard already applies to commercial property.

“We simply cannot ignore the fact that every year highway accidents kill thousands and injure millions of our citizens, while inflicting economic costs in the billions of dollars,” Justice Harry Lee Anstead wrote in the controlling opinion.

Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis disagreed. He wrote the majority unnecessarily and inappropriately imposed the “foreseeable zone of risk” standard on residential property.

“It is foreseeable that drivers may not only travel at, but may exceed, the speed limit and, therefore, under the majority’s approach, the clear cutting and leveling of all forms of trees and other vegetation may be required in a near limitless fashion,” Lewis wrote.

That shouldn’t be the case, Justice Raoul Cantero responded in a concurring opinion. Cantero, part of the majority, noted Orlando has an ordinance saying foliage usually will obstruct a driver’s vision, if at all, only between two and six feet above street level.

“Oak trees, for example, may have branches 20 feet high that rise over the street, but block no one’s view of traffic,” Cantero wrote. “In fact, our state is home to many ‘canopy roads,’ some of which are considered historic, whose charm is precisely the thick green foliage that hangs over the road like a ceiling.”

The decision doesn’t jeopardize such landscaping as long as it doesn’t create a traffic hazard, Cantero concluded.

The ruling resulted from the 1997 Orlando crash that killed Twanda Green. The truck collided with the car Green was in as she made a left turn.

Cecilia Davis, personal representative of Green’s estate, sued Beverly Williams, who owned property at the intersection.

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