Cyclists injured on a bike path after running into a downed tree, could not recover because the association that assisted in taking care of the bike path owed no duty to the cyclists.Posted: June 17, 2019
If there is no duty, there is no liability. Always check to make sure there really is a duty owed to someone before you start to claim or defend negligence actions.
State: Texas; Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth
Plaintiff: Norman Delamar
Defendant: Fort Worth Mountain Biker’s Association
Plaintiff Claims: general negligence and gross negligence
Defendant Defenses: No Duty
Holding: For the Defendants
City parks had an agreement with the local cycling group to assist in keeping the bike pats in good shape. The ultimate responsibility for the bike paths was still held by the city. An injured cyclist who ran into a downed tree could not sue the cycling group because they owed no duty to the cyclists because the association did not have the authority from the city and did not accept a duty with the agreement with the city.
On July 12, 2014, Norman was riding his mountain bike on a trail in Gateway, a park owned by the City, when he came upon a downed tree resting across the trail at head level. Although known to be a “really good rider,” Norman asserts that because he did not have time to stop or avoid the tree, the tree “clotheslined” his head and neck and knocked him off of his bicycle, causing him injuries.
Norman sued the City, asserting claims of general negligence and gross negligence. In a single pleading, the City filed an answer and identified the Association as a responsible third party because of an “Adopt-A-Park Agreement” (Contract) that made the Association “responsible for constructing and maintaining the bike trail in question.” Norman then amended his petition and added the Association as a defendant in the suit.
The city’s contract with the association outlined things the association was to do to assist the city in keeping the trail available and generally covered trail maintenance. The city did not give up its right to control and manage the park where the trails were located.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, and this appeal ensued.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The first issue the court reviewed was this, a negligence claim or a premises liability claim.
Although premises liability is a form of negligence, “[n]egligence and premises liability claims . . . are separate and distinct theories of recovery, requiring plaintiffs to prove different, albeit similar, elements to secure judgment in their favor.”
The differences are subtle, but:
To prevail on a premises-liability claim, a plaintiff must prove (1) actual or constructive knowledge of some condition on the premises by the owner; (2) that the condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) that the owner did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk; and (4) that the owner’s failure to use such care proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries, whereas under the common law doctrine of negligence, a plaintiff must prove (1) a legal duty owed by one person to another; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach.
The difference is, one is based on the actions of the defendant, and the other is based on a condition of the land.
While, theoretically, a litigant may maintain causes of action for both general negligence and premises liability, to be viable, the general negligence theory of recovery must be based not upon an injury resulting from the condition of the property, but upon the defendant’s contemporaneous activity. (analyzing claimant’s negligence and premises liability claims together). If the injury is one caused by a premises defect, rather than a defendant’s contemporaneous activity, a plaintiff cannot circumvent the true nature of the premises defect claim by pleading it as one for general negligence.
As similar as they may appear to be, you cannot recover on the same set of facts for both a negligence action and a premise’s liability action. Even the court stated understanding the differences could be “tricky.”
The trial court and appellate court found the plaintiff’s claims sounded in premise’s liability.
However, the court went on to discuss the plaintiff’s allegations that his claim was a negligence claim. The issue was whether the association had a legal duty to the plaintiff.
The question of legal duty is a “multifaceted issue” requiring courts to balance a number of factors such as the risk and foreseeability of injury, the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the consequences of imposing the burden on the actor, and any other relevant competing individual and social interests implicated by the facts of the case. “Although the formulation and emphasis varies with the facts of each case, three categories of factors have emerged: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured; and (3) public policy considerations.”
Of the three, foreseeability as the dominant consideration, but not the sole consideration the court must review. Foreseeability alone is not sufficient to create a duty. “Foreseeability means that a person who possesses ordinary intelligence should have anticipated the danger that his negligent act would create for others.”
Although the association had some contractual responsibility for the trails, there was nothing the association could do about the trees. Only the city had the use of the chainsaws, and only the city could determine if a tree could be removed and then remove it.
And although it was foreseeable, a tree could fall on the trail; the issue required more analysis than that. The bike path was surrounded by thousands of trees. The plaintiff had ridden that path just two days earlier and admitted that the tree could have fallen two hours before he hit it. Although a tree falling was foreseeable, it was outside of the scope of something that you can do anything about, and on top of that the association had no authority to do anything about trees.
Finally, the agreement between the city and the association said nothing about the association agreeing to assume a legal duty to maintain the safety of the trails.
Based on our de novo review of the record, we hold that Norman failed to establish that the Association owed him a legal duty to protect him from the downed tree across the trail that the Association did not cause to fall, that may have fallen only hours-but no later than a day or two-before Norman struck it, and that the Association was not even authorized to unilaterally remove.
Because there could be no gross negligence if there was no general negligence, the plaintiffs gross and ordinary negligence claims were dismissed.
So Now What?
Foreseeability is a good thing for non-lawyers running a business or program to understand. Are your actions or inactions going to create a danger to someone.
The case does not state whether the city had any liability to the plaintiff, only the issues discussed in this decision were between the plaintiff and the defendant association.
More importantly, the court looked at trees falling as something that no one could really control. It was not liked anyone, the association or the city could come close to identifying trees that may fall in parks.
Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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