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Gaines v. CSX Transportation Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division

January 24, 2019

Cynthia Parker Gaines, individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Michael W. Gaines a/k/a Michael Gaines, Sr. Plaintiff,
v.
CSX Transportation, Inc., Defendant.

          ORDER

          R. BRYAN HARWELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Cynthia Parker Gaines (“Plaintiff”), who represents the estate of her deceased husband Michael W. Gaines, Sr. (“Mr. Gaines”), brings this wrongful death and survival action against Defendant CSX Transportation, Inc. (“Defendant”). Defendant has filed a motion for summary judgment, and the Court denies the motion for the reasons herein.[1]

         Background

         During the very windy afternoon of February 24, 2016, Mr. Gaines was driving his truck on Gilchrist Road, a paved public road located in Darlington County. He encountered a broken tree limb blocking the roadway, so he parked his truck, walked to the limb, and attempted to remove it. While Mr. Gaines was bending down to pick up the limb, a pine tree fell on him and seriously injured him. The pine tree had been located on property (an abandoned railbed) owned by Defendant; it had not been planted there but was naturally occurring and indigenous to the area. Mr. Gaines died from his injuries approximately two hours later.

         On July 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed this wrongful death and survival action in state court against Defendant. See Complaint [ECF No. 1-1]. Plaintiff alleged, among other things, that the fallen tree was “damaged or diseased” and that Defendant had “a duty to maintain its property to make certain trees on its property safe, and a duty of reasonable care to make certain trees on its property are safe for travelers of streets adjoining its land.” Compl. at ¶¶ 10, 13.

         On August 4, 2017, Defendant removed the action to this Court based on diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and it subsequently answered and filed a motion for summary judgment. See ECF Nos. 1, 4, & 32. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition, and Defendant filed a reply. See ECF Nos. 35 & 36.

         Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Reyazuddin v. Montgomery Cty., Md., 789 F.3d 407, 413 (4th Cir. 2015); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) (“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”). “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . .; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The facts and inferences to be drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Reyazuddin, 789 F.3d at 413, but the Court “cannot weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations.” Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 569 (4th Cir. 2015).

         Moreover, “the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). “A dispute of material fact is ‘genuine' if sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party exists for the trier of fact to return a verdict for that party.” Seastrunk v. United States, 25 F.Supp.3d 812, 814 (D.S.C. 2014). A fact is “material” if proof of its existence or nonexistence would affect disposition of the case under the applicable law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         At the summary judgment stage, “the moving party must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Once the moving party has met his burden, the nonmoving party must come forward with some evidence beyond the mere allegations contained in the pleadings to show that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Baber v. Hosp. Corp. of Am., 977 F.2d 872, 874-75 (4th Cir. 1992) (internal citation omitted). Summary judgment is not warranted unless, “from the totality of the evidence, including pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and affidavits, the [C]ourt believes no genuine issue of material fact exists for trial and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Whiteman v. Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C., 729 F.3d 381, 385 (4th Cir. 2013); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

         Discussion

         Defendant moves for summary judgment by arguing “that South Carolina law does not require an owner of rural land to inspect trees on its property so as to prevent a defective tree from falling onto a public highway causing injury.” ECF No. 32-1 at p. 4. Defendant further contends “there are no disputed issues of material fact.” Id.

         To prove a negligence claim under South Carolina law, a plaintiff must show: (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; (2) the defendant breached that duty by a negligent act or omission; (3) the defendant's breach was the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury; and (4) the plaintiff suffered injury or damages. Roddey v. Wal-Mart Stores E., LP, 784 S.E.2d 670, 675 (S.C. 2016). The sole issue here is whether Defendant owed a duty of care.

         “In Israel v. Carolina Bar-B-Que, Inc., 356 S.E.2d 123 (S.C. Ct. App. 1987), cert. denied, 360 S.E.2d 824 (S.C. 1987), [the South Carolina Court of Appeals] adopted the rule that a landowner in a residential or urban area has a duty to others outside the property to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm from defective or unsound trees on the premises.”[2]Ford v. S.C. Dep't of Transp., 492 S.E.2d 811, 814 (S.C. Ct. App. 1997); see Israel, 356 S.E.2d at 127 (adopting the reasoning of Mahurin v. Lockhart, 390 N.E.2d 523 (Ill.App.Ct. 1979), and holding “a landowner in a residential or urban area has a duty to others outside of his land to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from defective or unsound trees on his premises, including trees of purely natural origin”). However, this duty does not extend “to an owner of trees of natural origin growing on rural, undeveloped land.” Ford, 492 S.E.2d ...


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