Homeowner not liable for sweetgum spiky seed pod slip and fall

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Sweetgum treeIn the past, I have written about whether property owners can be liable for slip-and-fall accidents caused by ice and snow on their sidewalks. (Click here, here, and here for examples.) This is the first time I will address the related topic of whether property owners can be liable for accidents caused by "spiky seed pods" that fall from sweetgum trees on their property. Turns out that the source of the slippery sidewalk does not change the law too much for residential property owners.

In Neilson v. Dunn, plaintiff was injured when she slipped on spiky seed pods that fell from a sweetgum tree on defendant's property onto an adjacent sidewalk. The tree had been on defendant's property since she and her husband bought it, and plaintiff knew that there were seed pods on the sidewalk when she began her walk. Defendant also "employ[ed] a lawn maintenance contractor whose services include fall and spring clean ups." The most recent clean up occurred two month's prior to plaintiff's accident.

After plaintiff sued, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that she could not be liable for plaintiff's injuries because she had neither created nor exacerbated a dangerous condition on the sidewalk. She argued that the "seed pod accumulation" was a natural condition over which she had no control, and that she acted reasonably in retaining a lawn maintenance service to "periodically clean up any debris, [including the seed pods,] on her lawn and sidewalk." Plaintiff countered that defendant had a duty to ensure that her property was spiky seed pod free and that her failure to do so created a hazardous condition.

The trial court sided with defendant and granted her summary judgment motion. In doing so, the trial court cited to Luchejko v. City of Hoboken , the leading case on property owner liability for accidents cause by ice and snow on their sidewalks. It cited Luchejko for the proposition that "a residential homeowner was only responsible for an accident on the adjoining sidewalk if they created or exacerbated a dangerous condition." The trial court held that the "presence of seed pods" was not a dangerous condition, therefore, under Luchejko, defendant was entitled to summary judgment.

The Appellate Division affirmed but for a slightly different reason. It found Luchejko to be "helpful," but not dispositive. It endorsed the central holding of Luchejko — that residential homeowners are generally exempt from liability for failing to maintain public sidewalks in front of their homes in a safe condition — but found a Law Division decision, Deberjeois v. Schneider, to be "more instructive." Deberjeois involved a defective sidewalk caused by tree roots coming from a tree located on defendant's property.  Plaintiff sued after tripping on a raised slab of the public sidewalk. The court held that defendant's liability turned on whether the defect was "caused by a natural condition of the land or by an artificial one." If natural, then the homeowner was probably off the hook; if artificial, however, then the homeowner could be liable. For example, the Deberjeois court noted that if a homeowner planted the tree that caused the "root condition on the sidewalk," then the general, "non-liability rule" would not apply and the landowner could be liable. 

The Appellate Division applied these principles to the facts in Neilson, and concluded that defendant was not liable for plaintiff's injuries. Sweetgum trees were on defendant's property when she and her husband bought it more than 50 years ago, and the trees' "natural cycle includ[ed] the growth of its fruit in the nature of the spiky seed pods, which then fall naturally to the ground below." Defendant did nothing to cause or exacerbate this natural condition — and, in fact, tried to control it by retaining a lawn service to periodically remove the pods — therefore she could not be liable for plaintiff's injuries.

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