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Property Owners Duty of ____?

Authored by attorney Ned Nicholas

Everyone has a duty to exercise care in the use and management of his property. That duty is owed to people who come onto the property. So if you stack lumber outside your building, you should take care to prevent the stack collapsing and injuring an employee or visitor.

What about people who do not enter your property? What if the stack of lumber cuts off the sightline of drivers using a nearby road? Until earlier this year, many in Virginia thought that this was not something that landowners had to worry about.

That changed as a result of a 2014 ruling by Supreme Court of Virginia. The court held that by stacking lumber and blocking the view of drivers at railroad crossing, a business became legally responsible for the death of a truck driver whose truck was hit by a train. The crossing was private and by controlled only signs. It was unclear from the trial testimony whether the train engineer sounded the train’s horn as it approached the crossing.

One of the key issues on appeal was whether a landowner is responsible for interfering with sightlines even though the interference was caused by material on its own property.

The court held that, at least with respect to man-made conditions, a landowner owes a duty of care to those not on his property. The limits of the duty are not yet clear, but the holding might mean that parking a truck in a way that cuts off a sightline could be negligent. The reasoning behind the ruling might also mean that allowing vegetation to obscure a sightline would violate the duty of care, although the court cited to several cases from other jurisdictions holding that there is no such duty.

It is unclear how far Virginia courts will extend the newly-revealed duty, but landowners and tenants should nevertheless consider assessing their property in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision.             



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