A farm owner in Northern Kentucky hired a tree removal service to clean up some fallen tree limbs on his property. There's nothing peculiar about this; it happens all the time. The result, though, was unexpected and tragic and led to lawsuits filed against both the farm owner and the tree removal company by the owner of a neighboring farm.
As part of the clean-up process, employees of the tree removal company operated a wood chipper, a mechanical device that grinds limbs into sawdust that can be carted away. Wood chippers are very efficient—and very noisy. According to the lawsuits, the racket from the wood chipper spooked some horses in a field adjacent to the clean-up work. One of the horses ran into something that severed an artery in his neck, causing the animal's death; another horse suffered injuries serious enough that he could not race. The horse owner claimed that either the farm owner who hired the company, or the tree removal company and its employees, or both, were negligent and caused the injuries to his horses.
This dispute never reached a jury. The trial judge short-circuited the process by granting summary judgment in favor of the farm owner and the tree removal company. Summary judgment is a legal result in which a judge determines that there are no facts in dispute requiring a jury trial, and that one party to a lawsuit wins as a "matter of law." In this case, the trial judge relied on a 100-year-old case to rule that neither the farm owner nor the employees operating the wood chipper had a legal duty to warn the horse owner on the neighboring farm that noise from the machine might scare the horses.
A finding of negligence requires several things: that the defendant owed a legal duty of care to the plaintiff, that the defendant breached the legal duty, that there was harm, and that the breach of duty actually caused the harm. If there is no legal duty in the first place, which the trial judge determined, there can be no breach and no finding of fault. With no fault, there can be no legal responsibility. Whether the farm owner or the tree removal company employees should have warned the neighbor of the potential risk as a matter of courtesy was not the issue. While doing so might have been prudent, the trial judge said there was no legal duty to warn.
The horse owner appealed the decision, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge. The Court of Appeals said that the farm owner and the tree removal company employees were "not acting in any improper manner," that the wood chipper was a "piece of equipment routinely used for tree removal," and that the "landowner and the contractor hired to remove branches did not have a legal duty to the adjoining landowner to warn him of loud noises when performing work upon their property." The Court also determined that there was no overriding "general duty of care" that covered the situation.
The cases were decided earlier this year: Wright v. R & M Fence and Construction (No. 2007-CA-001000-MR) and Wright v. Kelly (No. 2007-CA-001014-MR). The decision is unpublished, which means that it cannot be used as precedent in other proceedings. The decision does show, however, that in some situations there is no legal duty to be a good neighbor.