TOO CUTE BY HALF
Years ago, I often crossed swords with a crusty old lawyer who favored flannel shirts and corduroys, as well as awful-smelling stogies that fogged up a deposition room like a sunny day in Beijing. When I would explore the state of any pending litigation with him, he always complained that my client needed to “get the money flowing,” by which he meant start the settlement talks.
A lot of personal injury lawyers live and die by that mantra, sometimes litigating a dog of a case because they are confident that before they have to face a summary judgment motion or, God forbid, an actual trial, the defendant will open its checkbook and pay their clients to go away.
That’s what happened in today’s case. To be sure, the deaths of two young men when a tree fell on their car was a tragedy. But somewhere along the way, the families of the decedents lost their way, and decided – when an expert told them frankly that they had no case – that they could fake it, shucking and jiving until the defendant’s insurance company paid up.
Sadly for the plaintiffs in today’s case, the defendant – a nonagenarian – passed away before trial, leaving a tough-minded executor who wasn’t going play footsie with some oily out-of-town lawyers. Also passing away before trial was the defendant’s insurance carrier: the company went bankrupt, so the liability coverage that might have otherwise paid a settlement went away, too. The plaintiffs, perhaps because the estate had money, perhaps because – like fighters in a 15th-round clinch – they were too exhausted to do anything else, played fast and loose with the discovery rules, not answering interrogatories, delaying trial in hopes of a settlement, even hiding the first expert’s report. But, as sometimes (but not often enough) happens from time to time, the truth was found out.
The result was a vindication for a blameless old lady (who, although dead, nevertheless faced post-mortem indignity at the plaintiffs’ hands) and a well-deserved spanking for some lawyers who were about too cute by half.
Wade v. Howard, 232 Ga.App. 55 (Ga.App. 1998). Chris Wade and Ed Barnsley were driving along Briarcliff Road in unincorporated DeKalb County immediately after a thunderstorm. As they passed Grace Nesbitt’s 8-acre tract of property, they were killed when their car was struck by a large tree that fell across the road. At the time, Grace was 90 years old and very ill, and had not lived on her property for three years before the accident. The families of the deceased young men sued Grace for wrongful death.
During the 1980s, Grace had had trees removed from her property from time to time. In October 1987, she hired a man to remove two trees that were dying because they had been struck by lightning. At the same time, she asked a friend who was caring for her and seeing to her affairs to inspect her property for any other dead or diseased trees, He did so and found no other trees that needed cutting. This caretaker also testified that he looked at the trees along the roadway “many times” on later occasions as he walked Grace’s property at her request.
As for the tree that fell, he saw nothing about the tree that appeared unusual. The base of the tree was over 20 feet from the roadway, behind a fence and across a gully in a heavily overgrown area. Before it fell, the tree’s base was covered with heavy overgrowth and vines. The tree grew towards the sun over the roadway like other trees along the road. The caretaker observed the fallen tree while it was being cut up and saw no dead limbs on it; it was “just healthy on the outside, and this is what baffled everybody, you know.” He said that nothing visible on the tree indicated it was dangerous.
No one ever notified Grace or the caretaker of any problem with the particular tree.
The plaintiff families initially hired an expert who inspected the stump of the fallen tree within six months of the accident. He said the tree was severely decayed and hollow at the base, but that “this internal defect would not have been readily apparent [to] an untrained casual observer.” While the tree leaned over the road, predisposing it to fall in that direction, the expert explained it leaned and had more branches on one side because it was an “edge tree” seeking sunlight over the roadway, doing what all edge trees do. He stated that all edge trees behave like this. The plaintiffs didn’t much like his opinion, and fired him along with the lawyer who had hired him. Three years later, they hired a second expert, who filed an opinion based on looking at pictures of the accident scene. He never authenticated the photos in his report, however, and the trial court therefore rejected his opinion. Plaintiffs also obtained an affidavit of a neighbor who testified she believed the tree was dangerous because it leaned over Briarcliff Road. She admitted she had never told Grace or the caretaker of her opinion.
Grace died before trial, and her estate was substituted as a defendant. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Grace’s estate. The plaintiffs appealed.
Held: Grace was not liable for the fallen tree. The Court said that Georgia law governing a landowner’s responsibility for trees is well established. The prevailing rule distinguishes between rural landowners and urban landowners (who iare held to a standard of reasonable care in inspecting trees to ensure safety). Rural landowners are liable only where one of their trees has “patent visible decay and not the normal usual latent micro-non-visible accumulative decay.” In other words, rural landowners have no duty to consistently and constantly check all trees for non-visible rot, as the manifestation of decay “must be visible, apparent, and patent so that one could be aware that high winds might combine with visible rot and cause damage.” Just as the owner of a tree has no duty to check it constantly for non-visible rot, a city has no duty to check limbs overhanging a public road for non-visible rot. The Court held that while Grace’s land was unimproved, she did not live on it, and she was old and infirm, it nonetheless would assume for the sake of the case that it was urban land, because it was located in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Even under the urban landowner standard, however, the Court ruled that the plaintiff families had not shown that there was any question of fact that Grace had breached her duty to inspect. The Court said the Plaintiffs
failed to demonstrate patent visible decay in the tree before its fall. Their own expert witness testified that the decay would have been invisible to a layperson on inspection of the tree. Moreover, plaintiffs have not demonstrated that the decay would have been visible, apparent, or patent before the fall of the tree because of its inaccessible location and the heavy undergrowth and vines surrounding the tree’s base.
The Court of Appeals was not very happy with Plaintiffs. It noted they had fired their expert and first lawyer when they received an opinion that did not match their belief that they should make some money in this case. They “shopped” the case through a number of law firms before they found an attorney from out of town, who then proceeded to hide the first expert’s report from the defense until it was accidentally revealed. The plaintiffs did not respond to discovery requests, filed an expert’s opinion without authenticating photos, and sued everyone – Grace, the County, county employees, and even automobile insurers – in a “shotgun” approach that forced a number of blameless defendants to spend money defending themselves. Plaintiffs filed the day before the statute of limitations expired, and used every procedural trick in the book to delay the day of reckoning.
“Throughout the lengthy course of this action,” the Court complained, “plaintiffs have avoided stating a legal basis for their claims or the supporting facts until faced with an imminent ruling against them. While plaintiffs as laypersons may not have been informed of the controlling law or the substantial delay that occurred as a result of their counsel’s conduct, it is clear that counsel was well aware from the inception of this litigation that these claims have no merit.” The Court thus socked the plaintiffs’ lawyer with a $1,000 fine.
– Tom Root