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No Duty Owed by Private Utility to Remove Dead Tree

By on February 11, 2014 in Blog with 0 Comments

No Duty Owed by Private Utility Company to Remove Dead Tree in Right of Way to Prevent Accident

The Plaintiffs in McGlynn v. State of New Jersey, no. L-2-06 (App. Div. Jan. 3, 2014) claimed that Jersey Central Power and Light Company (“JCP&L”) owed a duty of care to remove vegetation in its right of way that posed a risk of harm to users of the highway. The Appellate Division found that no such duty existed.

The Plaintiffs asserted a negligence claim against JCP&L when a tree fell on their car as they were traveling on a rural road. It killed one occupant and injured the other three occupants. As the tree fell, it brought down power lines with it.

The tree was located on privately owned land, situated within JCP&L’s right-of-way. The tree was also in the right-of-way maintained by the New Jersey Department of Transportation (“NJDOT”). NJDOT would trim the trees in the right-of-way unless the work needed to be done was located near utility poles or power lines. Then NJDOT would contact the utility company to do the work.

The Appellate Division considered whether there was any duty owed by JCP&L to the plaintiffs. It was undisputed that JCP&L had a commitment to keep vegetation controlled to prevent interruptions in service. However, the court found that it would create an onerous burden to expand that commitment to include maintenance of vegetation for the benefit of passing motorists where this responsibility already exists on the individual property owner and NJDOT.

The Court pointed out that there was no contractual obligation of JCP&L to do more than to maintain its lines within its right-of-way so as to provide uninterrupted service. The obligation to monitor trees over hundreds of miles of roadway to ensure the safety of passing motorists would be overwhelming to a private entity.

Hence, the Appellate Division concluded that JCP&L’s failure to remove a dead tree from a stretch of woods, despite having such tragic consequences, was neither foreseeable, nor within the scope of its day-to-day activities. The Court found that this duty fell on the private landowner and NJDOT.

Our appeals courts often liberally construe the circumstances to impose a duty on a defendant so as to find a remedy for an injured party. Likely, because there were other culpable parties (the landowner and the NJDOT), the Appellate Division did not impose such a duty on this private utility company.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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