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Michigan Supreme Court rules landowner not liable for tenant maintaining a nuisance

Diane Sholberg sued both the keeper of the farm animals and the owner of the farm after her daughter, Terri, was killed when her car struck an animal running loose in the road.  The Sholberg family maintained that the landowners should have responsibility for the animal running loose, as farm animals running loose from the farm were a long-standing nuisance that they condoned and failed to correct. 

The owners, the Truman family, argued that they were unaware that the family member-tenant was failing to maintain fences and keep the farm animals contained. The asked the Court to dismiss any claim of nuisance against them.  The Republican majority agreed; it held that simply having the right to control the farm didn't make the owners responsible to the public.

The Court of Appeals had ruled that the onwers owed a duty not to maintain a nuisance on property they owned.  The Michigan Supreme Court overturned this decision and held that the owners owed no duty to the dead woman or her family.  To his credit, new Justice Viviano disagreed with the majority's opinion holding that a "mere landowner," regardless of the facts, is not responsible for controlling the property and eliminating a nuisance condition.  Justice Viviano pointed out that the owners held title to the property, insured it, helped their brother buy out his ex-wife's interest in the land, and executed a mortgage on the property that required them to maintain the property.  Under these circumstances, Justice Viviano only agreed with dismissing the landowners from the liability claim because there was no evidence that they "knew or should have known" of the continuing nuisance allegations.  It was his opinion that if they enjoyed the right to control the property--whether or not they exercised that right--and if they knew or should have known of the nuisance, they could be held responsible for the woman's death.  Needless to say, that was a minority opinion in an insurance-dominated court.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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