Written by attorney Melvin Bowen Wright

Guide to Landowner Liability For Motor Vehicle Accidents In Florida

Commercial Landowner Liability:

The current status of landowner liability law in Florida imposes a duty squarely upon commercial landowners to maintain their premises to permit safe ingress, egress and use of surrounding sidewalks and roadways. This duty also clearly encompasses a duty to maintain both artificial and natural conditions to satisfy this obligation to the general public.

The so-called “agrarian rule'' of landowner liability provides that a landowner owes no duty to persons who are not on the landowner's property and therefore a landowner is not responsible for any harm caused to them by natural conditions on the land. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 363(a) (1965); 5 Fowler V. Harper et al., The Law of Torts§ 27.19, at 308-309 (2d ed. 1986 & Supp.1991); W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts§ 57, at 390 (5th ed. 1984 & Supp.1988). Commentators trace the ancient origins of this rule to times when much land was unsettled or uncultivated, and the burden of inspecting it and putting it in a safe condition by the owner would have been unduly onerous and out of all proportion to any harm likely to result. See Keeton et al., supra,§ 57, at 390; see also Evans v. Southern Holding Corp., 391 So.2d 231, 233 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980) (Schwartz, J., dissenting) (citing Roberts v. Harrison, 101 Ga. 773, 28 S.E. 995 (1897)). The rule was predicated upon a perceived public policy that a landowner has a right to use and enjoy his property in any manner he sees fit.'' Morales v. Costa, 427 So.2d 297, 298 (Fla. 3d DCA 1983). Early supporters of the rule also reasoned that because a natural condition is by definition one which no human being created, a landowner was free from any duty to change or maintain it in order to prevent harm. See Spreche v. Adamson Companies, 30 Cal.3d 358, 178 Cal.Rptr. 783, 636 P.2d 1121, 1125 (1981).

Despite its dated origins, many courts have continued to apply the agrarian rule to bar actions in changed conditions, including those based on claims that natural or artificial conditions on a landowner's private property constituted an unsafe condition and obstructed the view of motorists. Not surprisingly, the rapidly developing State of Florida, with its growing population and busy commercial thoroughfares, is no longer one of those jurisdictions that applies this outdated concept of landowner liability.

In 2001, the Supreme Court of Florida abandoned any adherence to the “agrarian" rule, in favor of the concepts of foreseeability. The Supreme Court of Florida, in upholding and elaborating upon the “zone of foreseeability" analysis outlined in McCain v. Florida Power Corp., 593 So.2d 500 (Fla. 1992), held that a legal duty will arise whenever a human endeavor creates a generalized and foreseeable risk of harming others. Justice Anstead wrote specifically, as those concepts apply to a commercial landowner, that conditions on a landowner's property resulting in injuries or damages to a plaintiff off the landowner's premises should be evaluated by the established principles of negligence law, even if the conditions on the landowner's property are natural ones, such as foliage. Whitt v. Silverman, 788 So.2d 210 (Fla. 2001). [1]

In Whitt, the Supreme Court found that a service station owner owed a duty of care to pedestrians who were injured on adjacent property when struck by a motorist whose vision upon departing the station was allegedly obscured by foliage on the service station's premises, as the owner's conduct in permitting foliage to grow created a foreseeable zone of risk. By its very nature, the Court held, the service station involved a continuous flow of traffic entering and exiting the premises for the owner's commercial benefit, the owner had exclusive control over foliage and landscaping on its premises, and it apparently would not have been unduly burdensome for landowners to have maintained foliage consistent with safe egress and ingress of vehicles attracted to the business and persons affected thereby.

Residential Landowner Liability:

The Supreme Court of Florida recently distinguished the potential liability and duties owed by commercial landowners from those of residential landowners in Williams v. Davis, 974 So.2d 1052 (Fla. 2007). In Williams, the Supreme Court of Florida limited residential landowner liability. Writing for the Court, Justice Anstead stated the following:

We conclude that these prior decisions can best be reconciled by a recognition that ordinarily a private residential landowner should be held accountable under the zone of risk analysis principles of McCain only when it can be determined that the landowner has permitted conditions on the land to extend into the public right-of-way so as to create a foreseeable hazard to traffic on the adjacent streets. In Hardin, we talked in terms of a landowner being free of responsibility “unless the owner has done or permitted something to occur on his lands which he realizes or should realize involves an unreasonable risk of harm to others outside his land." 175 So. at 228. This, of course, is very similar to the foreseeable zone of risk analysis we established in McCain to determine the existence of a legal duty. Applying that test here, we can see little basis for imposing liability on the owner of a wooded residential lot for passively permitting the property to remain in its natural condition so long as the growth does not extend beyond the property's boundaries. Unlike the situation in Whitt, wherein we concluded that it should be foreseeable to the operator of a commercial service station that obstructions to the vision of an exiting motorist could constitute a danger to adjacent pedestrians, we find it unlikely that a residential landowner would foresee that adjacent motorists would be endangered by the mere presence of foliage on the property.

In short, while we conclude that McCain's principles of duty should be extended in appropriate circumstances to owners or occupiers of commercial property and to other property owners who permit conditions on their property to extend into the public right-of-way, we do not believe McCain's principles lead to a finding of duty here. While all property owners must remain alert to the potential that conditions on their land could have an adverse impact on adjacent motorists or others, we are not convinced the existing rules of liability established by our case law that distinguish conditions having an extra-territorial effect from those limited to the property's boundaries should be abandoned.

Accordingly, residential landowner liability is limited, generally, under current case law to situations where dangerous conditions invade the public right of way or extend beyond the boundaries of the property.

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