If A Tree Falls In The Forest, Does It Make A Claim? (NJ)

In the recent unreported decision of Defreese v. Spizziri and Township of Mahwah, New Jersey’s Appellate Court upheld the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ complaint based upon the immunities of the New Jersey Torts Claims Act.

On August 10, 2008, Defreese was driving her car when a tree fell on top of it causing her and her mother to be injured.  The Township had a tree preservation ordinance governing removal of trees.  The tree at issue was located in a heavily wooded area, approximately 32 feet from the center of the road.  There were no prior complaints concerning that specific tree.

Defreese’s liability expert opined that the subject tree had been dead for a number of years and that the decay was visible.  Moreover, in the years prior to the accident, the Township received sporadic reports regarding issues with other trees on the same road.  The defendants moved for summary judgment claiming immunity from suit under the Torts Claims Act.  The court granted the motion.

On appeal, Defreese argued that the Township had notice of the tree’s dangerous condition and it was palpably unreasonable for the Township not to address the condition.  The Appellate Court disagreed, noting that the tree was not in a readily visible area and Township employees driving on the roadway would not have been able to see the tree.  Moreover, it was unreasonable to expect Township employees to inspect every tree in the woods adjacent to the roadway.  Additionally, the court noted that the sporadic complaints regarding other trees did not constitute constructive notice of a dangerous condition.

Special thanks to Johan Obregon for his contributions to this post.  For more information, please contact Paul F. Clark at pclark@wcmlaw.com.