Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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A Lake County resident had a problem with a tree limb that needed to be removed.

In the spirit of friendship, two friends showed up at his house to help.

Larry, Moe and Curly weren’t available to pitch in. But the trio was there in spirit as the tree-cutting episode went awry and litigation ensued.

In the end, a state appeals court threw out the lawsuit that was filed, delivered an informative lecture on “negligence” legal theories vis a vis a homeowner’s duty to protect visitors and, for good measure, issued a timely warning about how not to cut down a tree limb.

The facts are these: In October 2011, Young Rok Lee was working at home when the pastor of his church, Seung Jang, and a fellow church member, Kun Mook Lee, showed up with equipment in hand “to cut a tree limb on” Young Rok’s property.

“Young Rok did not provide, maintain or otherwise supply any of the equipment used in the subsequent tree trimming,” appellate Justice Joseph Birkett wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

The trio examined the limb in question, Kun Mook announcing that it was “too large and too high and the work would be dangerous.” It was better, he said, to leave the work to professionals.

Kun Mook should have taken his own advice. But the “knucklehead factor” reared its ugly head.

Despite his concerns, Kun Mook and Seung “unloaded the equipment from the truck,” and “began affixing two small ladders together with wire.”

Young Rok, the property owner, advised the pair to stop because of the danger. But Kun Mook and Seung proceeded onward.

As the appellate court noted, they placed their jury-rigged double ladder against “the very limb to be cut” — Birkett italicized those six words in his decision. Kun Mook climbed up and began cutting, but doesn’t remember much after that because of the “life-threatening injuries” he sustained.

Kun Mook “recalled only cutting the limbs and falling. Pastor Jang believes Kun Mook fell when the limb hit the ladder as it fell after being cut,” Birkett wrote.

What happened next was easily predictable in a country where everybody sues everybody.

It became a lawyers’ convention.

Kun Mook sued Young Rok. Then he sued Seung. He alleged Young Rok and Seung failed to provide “appropriate tools,” “safe instruction,” “a safe place to perform the work,” “appropriate safety equipment” and “adequate supervision.”

Seung’s insurance company ultimately paid Kun Mook $100,000, the limit of the pastor’s homeowner’s insurance policy.

But Young Rok resisted, his lawyer insisting that Kun Mook acted negligently himself and ignored the “open and obvious” risk he took when he climbed the ladder to cut down the tree limb.

The trial court agreed, pitching the lawsuit. Kun Mook appealed, and the three-judge panel took up the issue, granting summary judgment in Young Rok’s favor.

Courts grant summary judgment when the facts are not in dispute and judges interpret the applicable law to decide whether the case should proceed.

Property owners have a duty to protect visitors to their property and can be held liable if they breach that duty. But that rule applies only if the property owner recognizes a potential danger to a visitor and fail to take “reasonable care to protect them against the danger.”

Further, there is an “open and obvious” exception to the negligence rule, meaning some dangers are so clear that the property owner cannot be held liable if someone is hurt.

Examining the facts, Birkett and his colleagues politely expressed amazement at the limb-cutting technique at the heart of the case.

“We fail to understand how any reasonable person could not have appreciated the open-and-obvious danger of tying two ladders together and placing those two ladders against a tree limb 20-25 feet above the ground, the very limb he was attempting to cut down,” Birkett wrote.

Further, the court found, the manner in which Kun Mook approached the limb cutting — “with dress shoes on and a chain saw in hand” — constituted “as a matter of law, freakish, bizarre and fantastic circumstances.”

If that wasn’t enough to reject Kun Mook’s claim, the court found he was more than 50 percent responsible for his injuries because he “assumed the risk when he knew that cutting the limb under these circumstances was dangerous but decided to do so anyway.”

Remember that the next time a neighbor volunteers to help with an unwanted tree limb.

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.