Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds dead tree which fell on trail jogger was a natural condition and City had not duty to warn

City of Arlington v. Monique Ukpong, 02-21-00078-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, Oct. 14, 2021)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”)/premise defect case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the Plaintiff’s claims.

Ukpong went running on the park’s trail, as she had done “many times before.” That day, while she was running on the trail, a dead hackberry tree next to the trail fell on her, causing injury. Ukpong sued the City.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and asserted a lack of waiver of immunity. The trial court denied the plea and the City appealed.

The Tort Claims Act also provides that “if a claim arises from a premise defect, the governmental unit owes to the claimant only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property…”  When property is open to the public for “recreation,” however, the Recreational Use Statute (“RUS”) further limits a governmental unit’s duty by classifying recreational users as akin to trespassers.  Under the RUS, a landowner has no duty to warn or protect trespassers from obvious defects or conditions.  A property owner “may assume that the recreational user needs no warning to appreciate the dangers of natural conditions, such as a sheer cliff, a rushing river, or even a concealed rattlesnake.”  Nature is full of risks and it is certainly foreseeable that human interaction with nature may lead to injuries and possibly even death. The City did not owe Ukpong a duty to protect her from obvious defects or conditions and generally did not owe a duty to warn or protect her from the dangers of natural conditions in the park, whether obvious or not.  Ukpong’s own pleadings asserted the dead tree was an obvious condition. Further, even if the dead tree was not an obvious condition, it was a natural condition, and no duty to warn existed regardless.  The City did not owe a duty to warn or protect Ukpong from the dead tree that fell on her. Therefore, the plea should have been granted.

Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, and Justices Womack and Walker. Reversed and rendered. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Womack can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.