Does a landowner owe a duty of care to a visitor who was killed while crossing a Farm-to-Market road leaving the landowner’s property? This was the question recently before the Beaumont Court of Appeals in Jones v. Wright. [Read Opinion here.]
In December 2018, Daylen Jones, a minor, was killed when he was hit by a truck while crossing across FM 1960 after visiting property owned by the Wrights. For years, the Wrights set up a Christmas display known as “Wrights’ Lights” and allowed the public to walk their property to view the lights. The Wrights did not charge people to enter and the only funds they received were from sponsors who provide free candy canes to visitors.
On the night of the accident, the Joneses (Darrell and Dimples, and their son, Daylen) stopped to see the lights. They parked on the shoulder of the north side of the two-lane Farm-to-Market road across from the Wrights’ property. They safely crossed the road and stayed on the Wrights’ property for approximately 25 minutes.
When the Joneses headed back to their vehicle, they testified to looking both ways and seeing no oncoming traffic. After Dimples Jones made it safely across the road, a dark colored truck driven by Barbara Jean Herndon “came out of nowhere” and hit Daylen. The Joneses claimed Herndon was driving in the dark with no headlights. Daylen was airlifted to the hospital but died before his parents arrived.
There had been no other similar accidents on the road. The Wrights had previously requested law enforcement assistance with traffic but were told no officers could be spared. The Wrights testified to having a voiceover playing on speakers telling people not to park on the other side of the road and to be careful crossing the FM road. After the accident, the State put up “no parking” signs along FM 1960, and when people ignored the signs, the State put up barricades to prevent parking.
The Jones family sued the Wrights for survival, wrongful death, and negligence. They argued that the Wrights owed them a duty of care as an invitee on the property, and the Wrights breached that duty by failing to make safe or warn the Joneses of a dangerous condition on the premises.
The Wrights filed a Motion for Summary Judgement arguing that they did not own or control FM 1960 where the accident occurred, so they could not be liable on a premises liability claim. Specifically, they argued they did not owe a duty to the Joneses.
In response, the Joneses claimed the Wrights did owe them a duty, specifically, the duty imposed on an adjacent landowner who creates a dangerous condition even on land he or she does not own.
The trial court granted the Wrights’ Motion for Summary Judgment. The Joneses appealed.
To succeed on a negligence claim, a plaintiff must first show that the defendant owed them a duty. Generally speaking, a landowner’s duty to provide protection arises from the control of the land and does not extend beyond the limits of the landowner’s control. Thus, normally a person cannot be held liable for a dangerous condition on real property he or she does not own or control. This is true for adjacent roadways as well. “An owner or occupier of property is not an insurer of the safety of travelers on an adjacent highway and is not required to provide against the acts of third persons.” Dixon v. Hous. Raceway Park, Inc., 874 S.W.2d 760 (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.] 1994).
However, there are four recognized exceptions to this general rule of no-duty for adjacent landowners, which are referred to as “assumed duty exceptions.” First, if a person expressly or impliedly agrees or contracts to make safe a known, dangerous condition of real property, he or she may be held liable for failure to remedy the condition. Second, a person who creates a dangerous condition may be liable even if they do not control the premises when the injury occurred. Third, a lessee who assumes actual control over a portion of adjacent property not included in a lease also assumes responsibility for that adjacent portion. And fourth, when an obscured danger exists on land directly appurtenant to the land owned or occupied and near where invitees enter and exit the landowner’s property, the landowner owes a duty to those invitees entering and exiting to warn of the danger.
Court of Appeals Opinion
The Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed. [Read Opinion here.]
Dangerous condition exception
The Joneses argued the second assumed duty exception applied. They claimed the Wrights created a dangerous condition and, therefore, may be liable even if they did not control the premises where the injury occurred. Specifically, the Joneses argued that by releasing a crowd, the Wrights created a dangerous condition on the roadway.
The Court did not agree. Daylen was killed by a vehicle driven by a third party the Wrights did not control on a highway they did not own. There was no evidence the Wrights “released a crowd” or that a crowd killed Daylen. Instead, the Joneses (and every other guest on the property) chose how long to stay at Wrights’ Lights and decided when, where, and how to cross the road to leave. Daylen was neither released onto the roadway by the Wrights, nor was he with a crowd when he was hit. His cause of death was being struck by a vehicle driven by a third-party without headlights operating on a public road. Thus, the exception did not apply, and the Wrights owed no duty.
Alternatively, the Joneses asked the court to recognize a new exception to the general no-duty rule for crowds originating from an owner’s premises released onto a roadway. When analyzing whether to recognize a new duty, courts balance several considerations known as the Phillips factors. Under these factors, the court must weigh the risk, foreseeability, and likelihood of injury against the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the magnitude of the burden of guarding against injury, and the consequences of placing the burden on the defendant.
In looking at foreseeability, the court noted that the general risk of being hit by a car while crossing a road may be foreseeable, but nothing made that risk specifically more foreseeable here. The Wrights had a voiceover playing on their property advising visitors to be cautious due to the general danger of crossing a highway. No other similar accidents had occurred at Wrights’ Lights. Moreover, the risk of harm was equally, if not even more, foreseeable to the Joneses. They could view the traffic conditions at the moment they crossed the roadway to decide whether it was safe to cross. They were better suited to access their physical safety and act accordingly. Additionally, the fact that the vehicle was driving in the dark with no lights on further undercut the foreseeability of this specific danger. Thus, while the general danger of being hit by a car may have been foreseeable to the Joneses, the court said it was not foreseeable to the Wrights, particularly where they had no control of the driver or over the Joneses.
The remaining Phillips factors also weighed against imposing a duty. The court noted the lack of control of the Wrights over the public roadway, drivers on the roadway, where people parked, or even what signage the State placed along the roadway. “The burden on private property rights and usage were we to recognize such a duty would be far-reaching with potential implications for anyone owning property along a public roadway who may have a group of visitors at any time.” Because of this, the court declined to create another exception to the no-duty rule.
Status of Joneses
The court also noted that despite the Joneses claiming to be invitees, the facts did not support this categorization. Instead, the Joneses were licensees, as they were entering the property for their own benefit. The Wrights gained no economic benefit from visitors to Wrights’ Lights and the Joneses did not pay to enter the light show. They were not invitees on the property.
Because the Joneses survival and wrongful death claims are wholly derivative of the decedent’s negligence cause of action, they were properly dismissed as well.
This case is important for rural landowners, especially those opening up their property to the public that accidents can occur, and lawsuits may be filed. This is why carrying liability insurance is critical for every landowner. Keep in mind that liability insurance includes a duty to defend, meaning that if a landowner finds himself or herself a defendant in a lawsuit involving a covered claim, the insurance company provides the attorney for the landowner.
Additionally, this case is a good reminder that while landowners are generally not liable for accidents that occur off their property, there can be four situations where such liability may arise. It is also good information that an accident occurring on an adjacent roadway after people leave a landowner’s property, alone, is not enough to impose liability on a landowner.