STAKING A CLAIM
We’re rather hesitant to wander into the political morass. But today, presumptive Republican (or is he?) nominee Donald Trump told CNBC that he was the “king of debt.” “I love debt,” he said. “I love playing with it.”
But what do you do when you play with debt? If you’re the government, “playing” means spending it. Indeed, the wisdom and prescience of the government is so awe-inspiring, we should be giving all of our extra money to our needy Washington, D.C., relative, and our cousins in the state capital, or even the folks downtown.
What? You question whether the government spends our dollars wisely? “Like what thoughtful investments will the government make? Well, how about all those spindly trees that cities and towns plant by the hundreds, pathetic things supported by one or more posts and guy wires, standing on tree lawns and in medians with not much more than a pathetic possibility that they might someday be majestic shade trees? We bet the Donald could make a great deal on buying some of those.
Well, maybe those aren’t the best investment. Take what happened in Kenner, Louisiana, one day. One of these staked and wired sentinels fell in high winds, and the City of Kenner, Louisiana, sent one of its crews to repair it. They replanted it in the same hole and rewired it with the same guy wires — hardly a prescription for a tree with a future. But what a prudent use of existing resources!
Maybe not this time. As it turned out, that the tree’s future after replanting could have been measured on a stopwatch. Within hours, it fell again in some more high winds, this time squarely onto Mrs. Sampedro’s car.
You’d think the Sampedros would have cheered the frugality of the City. They did not. Instead, the Sampedros sued, claiming that the City had negligently placed guy wires on the tree, and that anyway, the City should be strictly liable whenever one of its trees fall. The trial court granted summary judgment for the City.
Strict liability’s a great thing for a plaintiff. He or she is generally relieved from proving any more than that something injured him or her, and that the defendant owned or controlled it. Negligence is irrelevant. But in 1995, the Louisiana legislature gutted strict liability where a municipality was a defendant. Even in strict liability cases, the lawmakers said, the plaintiff had to prove that the municipality had notice of the defect.
The Court here ruled that it didn’t matter that the Sampedros had an expert who testified that the guy wires should have been placed differently. There were no published guidelines on how to guy a tree, and anyway, the City had planted hundreds of trees in the year before the accident, with only about a dozen of them falling. That’s about a 4% failure rate for those math whizzes among us. Not bad: imagine if the airline industry only had 2,000 crashes per day out of its 49,000 flights.
But the numbers seemed right to the Court. High winds had knocked over the tree, it said, not bad guy wires. Of course, this begs the question of why guy wires were there to begin with, if not to keep trees from falling in high winds. But Mrs. Sampedro had to repair her own car. The City was not liable.
Sampedro v. City of Kenner, 989 So.2d 111 (La.App. 5 Cir., 2008). Rosa Sampedro was driving past the intersection of Williams Boulevard and Granada Street when a tall, slender oak tree fell into the path of her vehicle. Mrs. Sampedro, who was wearing her seat belt, braked quickly and struck her knees on the dashboard of her vehicle. The tree damaged her vehicle but no other vehicles were involved. A police officer said he thought that high winds caused the tree to fall. The Sampedros sued the City of Kenner and its insurer.
Trial testimony showed that the day before the accident, a driver lost control of his pickup truck at the same intersection and knocked down the oak tree in question. The next day, a maintenance crew from Kenner’s Department of Public Works re-planted the tree, securing it with guy wires on three sides as it had been prior to the accident. The Public Works crew used the same guy wires attached to the tree and placed them close to the base so as not to interfere with the mowing of the grass on the median. A witness from the city admitted the alternative would have been to put the guy wires farther out and instruct the mowers to be careful. The Public Works Department had planted 200 to 300 trees in Kenner in the prior year, and the department had received about a dozen complaints of leaning or fallen trees since that time. It had never received a complaint regarding the tree in question.
The court found for the City, concluding it did not have notice of a defect before the accident so it was not strictly liable for Mrs. Sampedro’s damages. Even if it had had notice, the City was not negligent under for the placement of the tree in question. The Sampedros appealed.
Held: The City was not liable. Louisiana law provided two theories under which the City might be held liable for damages: negligence under Louisiana Civil Code § 2315 and strict liability under Civil Code § 2317. Under strict liability, a plaintiff was relieved of proving that the owner of a thing which caused damage knew or should have known of the risk involved. In 1985, however, the Louisiana Legislature eviscerated this distinction in claims against public entities by requiring proof of actual notice of the defect which causes damage, thus making the burden of proof the same under either theory.
The Sampedros argued the City of Kenner was negligent because of its “want of skill” in replanting the tree that had been struck by a car the previous night. They claimed the City was negligent because the Public Works Department improperly erected the tree by placing the guy wires too near the base of the tree and too low on the trunk of the tree. They presented an affidavit from a horticulturist stating that the City “improperly tied the guy wires too low on the trunk to provide adequate stability.” The record, however, contained no guidelines for guy-wire placement that were not followed by the City of Kenner or procedures that were lacking in its installation of trees. By 2003, the City had planted between 200 and 300 trees since 2000 in the same manner as the tree in question under the direction of a landscape architect and had received only a dozen complaints of leaning or falling trees.
The Court ruled that the Sampedros had not met their burden by merely arguing that the placement of the guy wires was improper, causing the tree to fall over in high winds.
As for the Sampedros’ claim that the City was strictly liable for their damages because it knew of the defective guy wires and failed to correct the defect, the Court ruled that the complaint was foreclosed by law. Under the 1995 amendment to Louisiana’s Civil Code, “no person shall have a cause of action against the public entity for damages caused by a condition under its control absent a showing of actual or constructive notice of the particular condition and a reasonable opportunity to remedy the defective condition.”
The Sampedros had to establish that the thing which caused the damage was in the custody of the defendant, that it was defective, and that the defendant had actual or constructive notice of the defect and failed to take corrective measures within a reasonable time. The law defines constructive notice as the “existence of facts which infer actual knowledge.”- The Sampedros contended that the City of Kenner was aware that the tree had been knocked downed the night before this accident so it was aware that “the defective guy wire locations … had failed the night before the accident.” The Court didn’t buy it. The record supported the theory that the tree fell because of high winds the night before. The fact that a tree was knocked down then re-planted “securely” did not constitute constructive notice of a defect in the guy wire or the tree’s placement.