Towe v. Sacagawea, Inc.

July 7, 2017 | By Pickett Dummigan LLP

Billie Towe was a resident of rural Jackson County, driving on a forest public access road for pleasure, but also to look for real estate that he had reason to believe was for sale in the area. After the access road was a privately-owned road, one which Towe had travelled before. However, on this day, the owner of the road had strung a cable across the road—to block access—but had not marked the cable to warn drivers or riders that it was there. Towe was going close to 25 mph when he hit the cable, causing his motorcycle to “slingshot” back and causing severe injuries.

Towe sued, among others, the owners of the private road. Represented by Pickett Dummigan McCall attorneys J. Randolph Pickett and R. Brendan Dummigan, along with Mark L. Webb of the Law Offices of Mark L. Webb, P.C., Towe argued that the landowner was responsible to anyone who came onto the property to avoid injuring them. Either the landowner should have not hung the cable, or should have marked the cable with warning devises or signs, to keep from causing an injury like the one that happened to Mr. Towe.

The landowner argued two things: First, that it had no responsibility to Mr. Towe at all, since Mr. Towe had not been directly invited to come onto private property; second, that even if it had responsibility to him, that it didn’t matter because Mr. Towe had caused his own injuries by failing to pay attention. The trial court agreed with the second argument, and found against Mr. Towe. Attorneys Pickett and Dummigan, along with Kristen West McCall and Kimberly O. Weingart and Robert K. Udziela appealed Mr. Towe’s case to the Oregon Court of Appeals, which agreed with the trial court’s decision, giving the reason that Mr. Towe had technically been a trespasser, and that the landowner was not responsible to Mr. Towe.

The Oregon Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court agreed that the road was private property. But the Supreme Court also recognized that a road which is often open to public use—as this one was—invites people to drive on it. Moreover, when it is not completely clear to a driver where the public road ends and the private one begins, a landowner does have a responsibility to the public to avoid punishing those who stray onto private land by injuring them.