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a. Trees:  One frequent setting in which the “natural hazard” issue arises involves trees. Traditionally, courts have distinguished between thickly-settled and rural areas. In thickly-settled urban and suburban areas, owners have generally been required to prevent trees on their property from posing an unreasonable risk of harm to persons on the public roads. This means not only that owners must remove rotten trees where they know of the danger, but also that they probably have an affirmative duty to inspect to discover such defects. See Rest. 2d, §363(2). In less-densely-populated rural areas, by contrast, owners have generally been held not to have any duty to remove rotten trees or to inspect for defects.

b. Rural/urban distinction rejected:  But some modern decisions have rejected the rural/urban distinction in fallen-tree cases. In one case, for instance, this distinction was abandoned in favor of a general requirement that the landowner exercise “reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm.” Taylor v. Olsen, 578 P.2d 779 (Or. 1978).

2. Artificial hazards:  Where the hazardous condition is artificially created, however, the owner has a general duty to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm to persons outside the premises. This includes not only man-made structures, but also living things which have been artificially placed on the land (e.g. shrubs) as well as changes in the physical conditions of the land (e.g. excavations). Rest. 2d, §363, Comment b.

a. Danger to persons on highway:  Most of the cases falling under this rule have involved danger to persons on an adjoining public road (usually called a “highway,” even if only a seldom-travelled public street).

b. Foreseeable deviations:  This duty is owed not only to those who use the public road, but also those who, while using it, predictably deviate slightly from it onto the owner’s land. Thus a property owner will be liable where she places an unreasonably dangerous excavation next to a public side walk, and the plaintiff unwittingly falls into it. Similarly the defendant will be liable if he places a building next to the sidewalk, with a side door in it which is not locked and which opens into a steep drop to the basement, injuring a person who leans against the door. The issue is whether the plaintiff’s deviation is “reasonably foreseeable”; it is usually held that deviations by children are more foreseeable than those by adults.

c. Telephone poles and other above-the-ground objects:  But where a property owner maintains a necessary above-the-ground object, such as a telephone pole or mailbox, courts are reluctant to impose liability when a person using the adjoining road collides with the object.

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