Recently, a Houston court of appeals found that a premises owner was not liable under negligence or premises-liability theories of recovery for the death of invitee who fell from a tree and died while removing Christmas lights. In Ledezma v. Turner, No. 01-18-00700-CV, 2019 WL 4774094, (Tex. App.—Houston Oct. 1, 2019, mem. op.), Abdon Leyva fell to his death when a tree limb broke while he was removing Christmas lights for Sean Tuner in a tree at Turner's residence. Subsequently, Mr. Leyva's widow and children sued Turner for wrongful death, asserting negligence and premises liability claims. The Leyvas contended, among other things, that a recent freeze, the occurrence of which was known to Turner but not Mr. Leyva, caused the tree branch to die in between the time Mr. Leyva hung the Christmas lights and removed the lights. 

In response to the lawsuit, Turner moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted.  

On appeal, the court analyzed the threshold issue in a premises-liability claim: whether the premises owner had actual or constructive knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition.  Under Texas law, “an owner or occupier is not liable for deterioration of its premises unless it knew of or by reasonable inspection would have discovered the deterioration.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that, assuming the branch had died because of the recent freeze, there was no evidence that Turner had actual or constructive knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition—that the branch was dead and could break—at the time of Mr. Leyva's accident. Further, there was no evidence that a reasonable inspection would have discovered that the branch was dead and could break.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed summary judgment dismissing the Leyvas’ negligence claims. In regard to the Leyvas’ first negligence allegation—that Turner failed to warn Mr. Leyva of the dangerous condition on the property—the court concluded that the allegation was based on an allegedly dangerous condition of the property, not a negligent activity, and was therefore limited to a premises-liability theory of recovery.  In regard to the Leyvas’ second negligence allegation—that Turner directed Mr. Leyva to perform work in a dangerous manner without regard to his safety (i.e. “to go as high as you can go”—the court concluded there was no evidence that Turner was engaged in any activity when Mr. Leyva fell from the tree, as it was undisputed that Turner was not present when Mr. Leyva was removing the lights.

Editor’s Note: Be careful hanging or taking down those lights!

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