Running a swine farm is a smelly but serious business. When a tree fell onto a power line on his neighbor’s land and interrupted his electricity, farmer Timmerman was glad that Northern States Power came out to his neighbor’s place and promptly trimmed the tree and fixed the lines.
But his relief turned to dismay when 10 minutes after the trimmer left, the remainder of the same tree collapsed onto the power line. It turned out the tree that had caused the first outage was completely rotten and, even after being trimmed, it remained a hazard.
The first power failure was an inconvenience. The second power failure was a catastrophe: it cut off the ventilation to Timmerman’s hog barn, and 160 pigs met an untimely demise.
Timmerman sued both his neighbor for not having inspected the tree — which had been rotten for at least five years — and the power company for being grossly negligent in trimming the tree. He claimed gross negligence because Northern States Power’s tariffs excluded it from liability except for gross negligence. The trial court turned him down.
The Court of Appeals agreed. It noted that gross negligence is a pretty serious derelection of duty, and Timmerman’s saying it didn’t necessarily make it so. The neighbors didn’t have a duty to Timmerman, it held, because he wasn’t an invitee (or even a trespasser) onto its land. It noted that NSP had trimmed the tree to the national code, and meeting a national standard was performance enough.
It’s fairly well established that an owner has a duty to inspect trees (with a degree of care that varies according whether the land is urban or rural). If Timmerman had been driving by and the tree had fallen onto his truck, there might have been liability. Why not when the damage isn’t an F-150, but instead 160 hogs’ worth of bacon?
Timmerman v. Manguson, Not Reported in N.W.2d, 1996 WL 266404 (Minn.App. 1996). Timmerman owned and operated a hog farm, to which Northern States Power provides electrical power. The power lines run north across the Mangusons’ farmland and continue onto Timmerman’s land. One afternoon, limbs on a willow tree located on the Mangusons’ land broke, striking the power line and causing a power outage on Timmerman’s farm.
NSP investigated the site, found the burned tree limb that had struck the power line, and trimmed some branches back. The tree trimmer investigated the trunk of the tree from his position on the power pole, but he did not see any signs of cracking or damage to the tree trunk. Ten minutes after he left the area, the power went out a second time. The trimmer returned to the site and trimmed back the tree sufficiently so that, if it continued to topple over, the tree would not hit the power lines again. The next morning, he called another NSP representative to report the outages and suggest that they send in the tree trimming crew to clean up the area.
The second power outage left about 160 pigs in Timmerman’s barn without ventilation, and despite Timmerman’s efforts, nearly all of the pigs in two of the five rooms in the barn died. The tree turned out to be rotten and, according to Timmerman’s expert witness, “undergrown … or there was a lot of trees in that area.” The expert determined that the tree had been rotting for at least the past five years and posed a significant hazard to the power lines.
Timmerman sued NSP for gross negligence and the Mangusons for negligent maintenance and inspection. Both NSP and the Mangusons moved for summary judgment. The district court granted both motions, finding, as a matter of law, that NSP had not been grossly negligent and that the Mangusons owed Timmerman no legal duty.
Held: The decision in favor of the Mangusons and NSP was upheld. The Court held that gross negligence was substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude than ordinary negligence. It was materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence, an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care.
Timmerman presented evidence that the tree and power lines at issue could not be viewed properly from the road, but required an on-site, on-foot inspection. He also presented evidence that NSP failed to trim the tree near the lines and allowed them to become overgrown with vines and vegetation.- But the Court said that this evidence did not rise to the level of gross negligence. NSP did not demonstrate an “indifference to present legal duty” nor did it act without “scant care” or “slight diligence.”
NSP had most recently trimmed this tree within NSP’s policy of trimming every four years. Since 1990, NSP had routinely checked the power lines at issue here in accord with the National Electric Safety Code (NESC). NSP representatives have viewed the power lines and trees from the road when driving through the area. NSP also trimmed portions of the tree after the first power outage to restore service. Although, the Court found, the evidence suggests that NSP could have more diligently exercised its duties, that evidence only raises the question of ordinary negligence, for which NSP is not liable under its own tariffs.
As for the Mangusons, the Court held that they had no legal duty to protect Timmerman because they did not have a “special relationship” in which Timmerman had entrusted his safety to the Mangusons. The parties’ relationship as neighboring farmers does not fall into any of the limited number of “special relationships” that the Minnesota supreme court has recognized. Although Timmerman contended the Mangusons had a duty to inspect and repair the tree or else warn him of the dangers on their land, the Court held that the theories of duty and liability don’t apply here because Timmerman was not an “invitee” or “licensee” on the Mangusons’ property. Furthermore, the Court said, even if the Mangusons knew the old tree was near the power lines, knowledge of a dangerous condition, by itself, without a duty to protect, was not sufficient to establish liability for negligence.
Given that no legal duty existed, Timmerman’s negligence claim against the Mangusons could not stand.
– Tom Root