Court of Appeals: Div I – Landowner Not Responsible Tree that Crushes Person
December 12, 2004: Timothy Ruiz is driving along State Route 410. He drives through forestland. Earlier on the same day, the Washington State Patrol closes the road because of dangerous trees tend to topple over. Wind speeds reach 75 miles per hour on that day and trees had previously toppled over under such circumstances. As Ruiz passes through, a tree falls and crushes his vehicle. He is injured. He sues the landowner and the state.
The trial court dismisses his lawsuit against the landowner and the state under the Forest Practices Act of 1974 (FPA). The FPA purports to give immunity to all landowners and the state for unharvested timber on land used to grow, harvest or process timber.
Mr. Ruiz argues that the state and the landowner should not be immune because they have allowed a dangerous condition to occur by leaving exposed trees at the edge of a riparian zone. The Court of Appeals states that “[w]hile this argument has some attraction, particularly on the facts her that underscore a collision between the important policy of public safety and that of environmental protection,” public safety loses (at least insofar as the court doesn’t want to stick its neck out too far). This choice is left to the legislature. Poor Mr. Ruiz.
Does this mean that under no circumstances can a landowner be held responsible for dangerous trees that hover over places where people pass? What if they’ve cut it half way down and know that it will inevitably fall and kill someone? Is that what the legislature meant when it enacted the FPA?