Case of the Day – Thursday, September 26, 2019

DON’T BET AGAINST THE HOUSE

As I have noted many times before, the ancient doctrine of sovereign immunity (you can’t sue the king) remains alive and well in this country. You cannot sue the federal government, a state government, or even a city or county, unless the same government you intend to sue has passed a law saying you may do so.

And face it, who is daft enough to give you advance permission to sue them?

That’s why tort claim statutes are written so narrowly. Many of the rights they purport to give are illusory. Today’s case is a great example.

At first blush, the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act seems expansive, letting a private party sue the government for negligence, or even – without negligence – where the roadway is controlled by the government and is dangerous, provided the government has notice of the dangerous condition.

Ah, but the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Today’s case recites a lot of facts, necessary to establish the mood. The facts seem to me (and, I bet, to most fair-minded people) to easily push the plaintiffs over the finish line, making the County liable. But in the end, the court decided that the evidence was not enough to even reach a jury.

Getting a court to declare the very government of which it is likely a part to be liable to pay out big bucks is like asking the Las Vegas house to even up the odds – not very likely to happen.

Graham v. Bradley County, 2013 Tenn. App. LEXIS 611, 2013 WL 5234240 (Ct. Appeals Tenn. 2013). On July 21, 2008, Ronald Graham, M.D., and his wife, Winifred, were driving their VW convertible past property owned by Henry and Gayle Evans on Tunnel Hill Road. The top portion of a sugar maple tree fell onto the car, seriously injuring them.

It turned out that 25 years before, the tree had been damaged so badly that it had decayed, losing about 85% percent of its strength. Believing that the tree was defective, unsafe and dangerous, the Grahams sued the Evanses and Bradley County. The County asserted that it was immune from suit pursuant to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act. The Grahams argued that GTLA immunity should be denied because the County had actual or constructive notice of the tree’s condition. The Grahams eventually settled with the Evanses, but after they did, the County amended its answer to allege comparative fault of the Evanses.

At trial, the County’s road superintendent admitted the County was specifically responsible for maintaining the road and was required to inspect and repair any unsafe conditions. He agreed that the County had taken action to remove other hazards that were above the roads. He said that when conditions on private property affected the roads, he either asked the property owner to remedy the condition or obtained an entrance permit to enter the property and remedy the condition. If the condition presented an emergency situation, the County did not wait for permission. The county does not hire professionals to ascertain whether trees posed an emergent situation, but the employees notified the road superintendent of dangerous conditions. County paved the road, patched potholes, mowed county property near the road, removed litter, and trimmed trees, brush, and bushes near the road.

The road superintendent acknowledged that the tree was visible from the road ,and that county workers had likely passed by the tree as they responded to complaints and performed general maintenance nearby. He admitted that the tree had been trimmed in 2006 but did not have any record of whether the County trimmed that particular tree even though the County was trimming other trees in the area.

The County was responsible for maintaining about 750 miles of county roads, with “countless” trees alongside the roadways. The County had no budget or manpower to inspect each tree to determine whether that tree was in a weakened condition.

The road on which the accident occurred, Tunnel Hill Road, was about 7.4 miles long, passing pastures and wooded areas. The road superintendent said the County did not touch the trees unless a specific tree posed a hazard. He claimed that he had neither noticed nor received a specific complaint about the tree in question. There had been no other falling-tree accidents along Tunnel Hill Road, but on the day of the accident, the County experienced a severe storm, and the superintendent received about ten reports concerning fallen trees or tree limbs.

Mr. Evans, owner of the tree, acknowledged that an oak tree had fallen onto the tree. He and his son had once attempted to remove the oak tree but were unsuccessful. He said that anyone walking on the roadway would have noticed the Tree’s limb that extended over the roadway, that the Tree and its limbs appeared to be alive, and that the Tree was as “green as every other tree down there.” He did not notice that the tree had decayed and did not believe it posed a danger. He claimed that there had been a severe thunderstorm the night of the accident, with thunder, lightning, and strong winds. Mr. Evans acknowledged that the tree appeared to have been trimmed at some point but asserted that he had never trimmed the tree.

A board certified master arborist found that an older oak tree had fallen onto the tree and split the tree, causing one portion to lean over the road. He explained that a casual observer might think that two trees were simply growing side by side. He stated that in reality, the tree had lost about 85% of its strength and had suffered extensive decay. He said that the portion of the tree that was “leaning over the road was damaged” and “badly decayed.” He believed that the tree’s defects were visible from the road. He said that the top of the tree was “too heavy” for the “decayed trunk to support” and that it fell onto the car from a height of about 25 feet. He believed that the wind from the thunderstorm was the “final straw” that caused the tree to fall but asserted that a healthy tree would not have been affected by the storm.

The arborist conceded that despite the tree’s defective state, it yielded green foliage and was positioned among other trees. He asserted that the tree was the largest one in the row and was noticeable because of its size and because of the position of the oak tree. He admitted that one would have to be “looking up in the trees” to see the scar caused by the oak tree. He acknowledged that someone simply walking alongside the road would not notice the tree’s defects and that even if an untrained observer noticed the defects, he or she would probably not realize that the tree needed to be removed.

Another decayed limb from the tree had been trimmed in summer 2006. The arborist testified that the limb was at a height of 20 to 25 feet, and that he had to use a lift to inspect the limb. He observed no reason for any entity other than the County to have trimmed the tree, and that the person who cut the limb would have had to see the tree’s defects. He believed that county workers performing maintenance on the road would have viewed the tree’s condition and would have been prompted to investigate the condition of the tree if they had been exercising reasonable diligence. If he had been asked, the arborist would have recommended that it “either be pruned or removed.”

Based on all the evidence, the trial court held that the County was immune from liability. The court found no proof that the roadway was unsafe as a result of the presence of the tree, or that the County had constructive or actual notice concerning the tree’s condition.

The Grahams appealed.

Held: The County immune from liability.

In 1973, the General Assembly enacted the GTLA (Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-201(a)) to codify the general common law rule that all governmental entities shall be immune from suit for any which may result from the activities of such governmental entities.

Passage of the GTLA constituted “an act of grace through which the legislature provided general immunity to governmental entities from tort liability but removed it in certain limited and specified instances.” The Grahams maintained their claim skirted municipal immunity, based on a simple negligence claim for failure to maintain the county roadways and Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-203.

The elements of a negligence claim include (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant falling below the standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) an injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; and (5) proximate or legal cause. Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-20-205 removes governmental immunity for injuries caused by negligent acts or omissions of county employees. The legislature, provided in § 29-20-205(4) that governmental immunity shall not be removed for failure to inspect property not owned by the County.

All parties admit, however, that immunity may be waived for the negligent failure to maintain county roadways. The Grahams argued that the County’s duty to maintain its roadways included a duty to inspect for unsafe conditions that may exist along the roadway and that extend over and above the roadway. The County denies having such a duty.

Here, the County had a duty to maintain its roadways and that the duty likely extended to maintaining obstructions located above the roadway. Duty is defined as “the legal obligation owed by defendant to plaintiff to conform to a reasonable person standard of care for the protection against unreasonable risks of harm,” and a duty exists “if defendant’s conduct poses an unreasonable and foreseeable risk of harm.” A risk is unreasonable where the foreseeable probability and gravity of harm posed by defendant’s conduct outweigh the burden upon defendant to engage in alternative conduct that would have prevented the harm. The question of whether a duty exists requires consideration of whether ‘such a relation exists between the parties that the community will impose a legal obligation upon one for the benefit of others — or, more simply, whether the interest of the plaintiff which has suffered invasion was entitled to legal protection at the hands of the defendant.

Here, the Court refused to impose upon the County a duty to inspect every tree that “leaned” over the roadway. Imposing such a duty, the Court ruled, would place an insurmountable burden upon the County and detract from its ability to maintain the roadways. The County maintained its roadways by trimming trees that posed obvious issues and by responding to complaints concerning specific trees, brush, and bushes. The evidence reflects that the tree in question continued to sprout green leaves, was located among other healthy trees, and did not appear to be decayed or damaged to the extent that was discovered after the accident. The County had never received a specific complaint about the tree, and the only evidence offered concerning the County’s interaction with the tree was conjecture at best.

The Grahams also based their claim on Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-203(a), which removed “immunity from suit of a governmental entity… for any injury caused by a defective, unsafe, or dangerous condition of any street, alley, sidewalk or highway, owned and controlled by such governmental entity.”

Suits brought pursuant to § 29-20-203 must show three elements: “The local government must own and control the location or instrumentality alleged to have caused the injury;” The location or instrumentality must be “defective, unsafe, or dangerous;” and the local government entity must have “constructive and/or actual notice” of the condition.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has defined actual notice as “knowledge of facts and circumstances sufficiently pertinent in character to enable reasonably cautious and prudent persons to investigate and ascertain as to the ultimate facts.” “Constructive notice” is defined as information or knowledge of a fact imputed by law to a person (although he may not actually have it) because he could have discovered the fact by proper diligence, and his situation was such as to cause upon him the duty of inquiring into it.

Here, the Court said, the County never received a specific complaint about the tree. While the tree had been trimmed in 2006, and the Grahams argued that the County was the only entity that would have had reason to trim the tree, there was no actual evidence that it was the County that did so. Based on the witnesses’ testimony that the tree did not appear to be damaged or decayed, and the arborist’s testimony that one would have to look up into the trees to see the damage caused by the oak tree, the Court concluded that the County did not have sufficient knowledge of facts that would have required it to investigate the tree’s condition.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

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