Michigan Supreme Court Holds No Liability for Public Nuisance for Real Property Owners

On June 10th, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court held in a civil case that owners of real property cannot, under the specific facts of the case, be held liable for a public nuisance simply because of their status and property owners.  

In Sholberg v Truman, Docket No. 146275, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed an appeal arising from a collision between an automobile owned by the decedent and a horse that was standing in the road at the time of the collision.

From the opinion's syllabus:

Terri A. Sholberg died when the car she was driving hit a horse standing in the road. Diane K. Sholberg, as personal representative of her estate, brought an action in the Emmet Circuit Court against Daniel Truman (the owner of the horse, which had escaped from its stall) and Robert and Marilyn Truman (the title owners of the farm that Daniel Truman operated). Other than being the title owners, Robert and Marilyn Truman (hereafter “defendants”) had nothing to do with the farm or the animals on it. Plaintiff presented evidence of at least 30 instances of animal elopement near the farm between 2003 and 2010, each allegedly creating a hazard on surrounding public roads. The court, Charles W. Johnson, J., entered a default judgment against Daniel Truman, but granted summary disposition in defendants’ favor, concluding that they could not be held liable for a public nuisance because they were not in possession of the property. The Court of Appeals, TALBOT, P.J., and BECKERING and M. J. KELLY, JJ., affirmed in part and reversed with regard to the public nuisance claim in an unpublished opinion per curiam, entered November 15, 2012 (Docket No. 307308), holding that defendants’ ownership of the property from which the alleged nuisance arose was sufficient to allow a nuisance action against them. Plaintiff applied for leave to appeal with respect to an issue concerning violations of the Equine Activity Liability Act, MCL 691.1661 et seq., and defendants filed a separate application for leave to appeal on the nuisance claim. The Supreme Court denied plaintiff’s application, 493 Mich 974 (2013), but ordered and heard oral argument on whether to grant defendants’ application for leave to appeal or take other action, 494 Mich 867 (2013). 

In an opinion by Justice MARKMAN, joined by Chief Justice YOUNG and Justices KELLY, ZAHRA, and MCCORMACK, the Supreme Court held

The title owner of real property cannot be held liable for a public nuisance that arose from that property when someone other than the title owner was in actual possession of the property, exercised control over the property, and created the alleged nuisance. 

1. A public nuisance is a tort that involves the unreasonable interference with a right common to all members of the general public. To be held liable for the nuisance, a defendant must have possession or control of the land. Ownership alone is not dispositive. The person in possession is normally in a position of control and thus normally best able to prevent any harm to others. 

2. In this case, defendants merely owned the property. They never possessed or exercised any control over the property and had not even visited it in more than a decade. They had no contact with Daniel Truman, the person who was in actual possession and exercised control over the property. Defendants also did not own, possess, or control the horse that caused the accident or any other horse on the property, and did not even know that Daniel Truman owned the horse. There was no evidence that defendants knew or had reason to know that Daniel Truman’s animals had been escaping the property when the accident happened. Because defendants did not control or possess the property or the horse, there was no basis for imposing tort liability on them for a public nuisance. Daniel Truman was the person best able to prevent any harm to others, and given that defendants had resigned all charge and control over the property to him, he was the person exclusively responsible for the alleged public nuisance he created on the property. 

Court of Appeals’ judgment reversed in part with respect to public nuisance claim; trial court order granting defendants summary disposition reinstated.