Warnings: “TRAIL CLOSED…STOP, RESTRICTED AREA”: Did Hikers Nevertheless Have a Claim After Being Hit By a Falling Tree?

This was originally posted on the SGR Blog.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that some lawsuits never should have been filed. A recent case makes that point.

Unidentified parents, on behalf of themselves and their child (let’s call them the “Walkers”), brought a premises liability action against New York State. They sought damages for injuries sustained when they were struck by a falling tree at Letchworth State Park — and alleged that the State was negligent in failing to inspect the park’s trees and protect visitors to the park from injury.

The Court of Claims denied the Walkers’ motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability and granted the State’s cross motion for summary judgment dismissing the claim. The Walkers appealed.

The Walkers were injured when a tree fell under its own weight and knocked down a second tree, which struck them while they were walking along a dirt path in a restricted area of the park. The dirt path on which the incident occurred had been closed to visitors for at least the past 45 years, primarily due to the risks associated with its access to a riverbed and areas with slippery and falling rocks. The dirt path was not marked on the park map and was not maintained.

In order to enter the area, the Walkers had to traverse a log positioned across the path, to which a sign reading “TRAIL CLOSED” had been affixed. In order to reach the location on the path where the tree fell, they passed three signs reading “STOP. TRAIL ENDS HERE,” “END OF TRAIL. RESTRICTED AREA,” and “STOP. RESTRICTED AREA” and two additional signs reading “TRAIL CLOSED.”

Park employees knew that visitors ignored the signs and accessed the path and riverbed. Park employees conducted daily patrols in order to remove visitors who entered the restricted area. Visitors found in the restricted area were instructed to leave and sometimes ticketed or arrested for the violation. Alternative measures had been considered in the past in order to prevent visitors from accessing the closed path. However, visitors had removed fences that had been erected. And the size and soil composition of the area rendered more substantial physical barriers impractical.

After the incident, inspections of the tree revealed signs of rot and decay that the experts for both the Walkers and the State opined would have been observable, prior to the incident, upon visual inspection. The park employed a policy of conducting year-round tree inspection and removal in “developed areas” such as picnic sites, campgrounds, and cabins, as well as along open roads and trails. But the park did not conduct inspections of undeveloped areas such as the closed dirt path where the incident occurred, instead allowing trees in such areas to fall naturally.

The appellate court rejected the Walkers’ contention that the Court of Claims below erred in granting the State’s cross motion to dismiss. A landowner has a duty to exercise reasonable care in maintaining his or her own property in a reasonably safe condition under the circumstances. The nature and scope of that duty and the persons to whom it is owed required consideration of the likelihood of injury to another from a dangerous condition on the property, the seriousness of the potential injury, the burden of avoiding the risk and the foreseeability of a potential presence of people on the property.

Ordinarily, a landowner’s duty to warn of a latent, dangerous condition on his or her property is a natural counterpart to the duty to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition. And the State was subject to the same rules of liability as applied to private citizens, and thus must have acted as a reasonable person in maintaining its property in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances.

When determining whether a property owner fulfilled its duty to warn the Walkers, the issue was not whether another type or configuration of warning sign—one that is larger in size, brighter in color or stronger in tone—would have persuaded them not to enter the closed path or, having entered it, compelled them to turn back, but rather whether the signs that were provided by the State sufficiently conveyed the specific danger to which the Walkers would be exposed by entering the closed path.

In this case, the sign affixed to the log placed across the opening of the closed path, along with the other signs affixed along the path, clearly advised the Walkers that the path was closed; the marked trail had ended; and  the area was restricted and warned visitors to stop. Although the sign did not specifically warn of a danger of falling trees in the restricted area, the record reflected that the reasons behind closing the dirt path were multiple and included dangers posed by falling rocks, slippery surfaces, and the danger posed by the riverbed to which the path led. Under these circumstances, the Court concluded that the State fulfilled its duty to warn by affixing, in multiple locations, signs that sufficiently conveyed to visitors that the trail was closed and the area restricted and that they should proceed no further.

The Court also concluded that the State fulfilled its duty to exercise reasonable care in maintaining its own property in a reasonably safe condition. Although the State had a duty of reasonable care, that duty did not require that more primitive or undeveloped areas, of what was an approximately 14,350-acre park, be sanitized.

Under the circumstances of this case, the State fulfilled its duty to keep the park in a reasonably safe condition by inspecting and removing trees in developed areas and along open trails, by warning visitors at multiple locations that the path where the incident occurred was closed, and by policing the closed path by removing, warning, ticketing, and even occasionally arresting visitors who entered it, especially given that the record reflected that additional efforts at more robust physical barriers had either failed or were impractical for the purpose. Contrary to the Walkers’ contention, the fact that a relatively small group of the park’s total visitors would disregard posted warning signs and violate park rules did not demonstrate either the existence of a pervasive enforcement problem or that the State’s efforts to curb such illegal conduct were deficient. And proof of such violations was not, under all of the attendant circumstances, sufficient to raise a question of fact as to either the adequacy of the warning signs provided or the reasonableness of the State’s efforts to keep park visitors out of harm’s way.

The appellate court concluded that the State established its entitlement to summary judgment by demonstrating that it fulfilled both its duty to warn and its duty of reasonable care in maintaining its property. The Walkers failed to raise an issue of fact in opposition. Thus, the Court of Claims properly granted the State’s cross motion. For the same reasons, the Court of Claims properly denied the Walkers’ motion.

Comments are closed.