WE DON’T KNOW NUTHIN’
When the Santiagos parked on a side street in Vineland, New Jersey, to attend the christening of their god-daughter, they had no idea that Mrs. Santiago was about to get christened with a 60-foot tall maple tree.
It seems that the tree’s roots had girdled — which is what happens when the roots grow back around themselves and essentially strangle the tree. Girdling is a problem with city trees, the roots of which may grow in confined places. When it happens, trees have no subsurface support and often fall in conditions that wouldn’t affect normal trees.
That’s what happened to the tree that struck Mrs. Santiago, and her lawyer and expert witness arborist did an excellent job of explaining the problem to the court. But the City won on summary judgment anyway. It seems that the city workers responsible for the trees all testified that they were nothing more than glorified leaf-rakers — one of them, when asked what he knew about trees, responded “[t]rees have leaves, that’s about it” — and none of them knew how to inspect a tree to determine whether it might have girdled roots.
Now you’d think that the fact that the city owned the urban tree and its tree people had no idea how to care for them ought to make this case a dunker for the injured Mrs. Santiago. But in New Jersey, the Tort Claims Act requires that a plaintiff show that the city’s failure to act was “palpably unreasonable.” The fact that the city’s tree workers couldn’t find the business end of a chainsaw turned out to be a fact that favored the city. The Court of Appeals agreed that the city’s decision not to devote its resources to a program for the regular inspection and maintenance of trees throughout the municipality was not “palpably unreasonable.”
Compare this decision to holdings in other jurisdictions where an urban owner has a heightened duty to inspect his or her trees (see Conine v. County of Snohomish, a Washington State decision, for example). Seems if you’re a New Jersey city worker, the less you know, the better off you are. We don’t know much about girdling, but we know nonsense when we read it.
Santiago v. City of Vineland, 2007 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1551, 2007 WL 2935035 (N.J.Super. A.D., Oct. 10, 2007). The Santiagos drove to 8th Street to attend the christening of their god-daughter. As they crossed the street, a 60-foot maple tree fell and struck Mrs. Santiago. She sued the City, claiming it was responsible for the care and maintenance of trees on its property and was negligent, careless, and reckless in permitting a dangerous condition to exist.
Mrs. Santiago submitted a report prepared by Russell E. Carlson, a master arborist, saying that the tree broke at its base, a few inches below the surface of the ground, because it lacked a root system sufficient to support the tree. He found that girdling roots had effectively strangled the tree, resulting in the decay of the base of the trunk and inadequate development of the root system. Girdling roots form when a root grows in a direction that crosses the trunk of the tree. Ordinarily, roots will grow away from the trunk of the tree but when a root meets an obstruction, it will change direction and may grow around the edges of the planting pit.
Carlson said that eventually, circling roots will come in contact with the growing tree trunk. The cells of the bark of both trunk and root are compressed. Symptoms of this are a thinning of foliage and reduction of twig growth in the crown, followed by twig and branch dieback. The tree may eventually die above the area of contact. When this girdling condition persists for many years, the roots that normally extend away from the tree may atrophy and eventually decay. While healthy trees usually withstand winds over 70 mph, trees that have lost their structural support at the base can topple in much lower winds, and in some cases when there is no wind at all.
Even when the roots are underground, the expert said there are signs that girdling roots may be present. The trunk of the tree goes straight into the ground, without the normal flare from trunk to roots. Carlson stated that excavation of the soil at the base of the tree is “sometimes necessary” to determine the extent of the girdling. This process could take a few minutes, or several hours, depending on the size of the tree, soil conditions, and the extent and depth of the girdling roots.
Only one of three city employees whose depositions were taken knew anything about trees, and even he had no experience identifying diseased or dying trees. The general supervisor of streets and roads for the City said it would be a hardship both economically and logistically for the City’s Department of Public Works to inspect every tree within the City’s borders, or even within the City’s right of way and on City property, for the multitude of diseases that are capable of causing damage to any or all of the varieties of trees within the City’s borders.
The City moved for summary judgment, arguing that Santiago had not presented sufficient evidence to support a claim under the Tort Claims Act because she did not establish that the City had actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition. The judge concluded that the City’s actions respecting the tree were not palpably unreasonable. Santiago appealed.
Held: The suit was properly dismissed. The New Jersey Tort Claims Act provides that a public entity may be liable for an injury caused by a condition of its property if a plaintiff establishes (1) that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, (2) that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, (3) that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and (4) that either (a) a negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or (b) a public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.
A public entity is deemed to have “actual notice of a dangerous condition” when it had “actual knowledge of the existence of the condition and knew or should have known of its dangerous character.” In addition, a public entity is deemed to have “constructive notice” of a dangerous condition if a plaintiff establishes that the condition had existed for such a period of time and was of such an obvious nature that the public entity, in the exercise of due care, should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character.
Here, Mrs. Santiago had the burden of showing that the City’s action or failure to act was palpably unreasonable. Although the term “palpably unreasonable” is not defined in the TCA, it has been interpreted to mean “more than ordinary negligence, and imposes a steep burden on a plaintiff.” For a public entity to have acted or failed to act in a manner that is palpably unreasonable, it must be obvious that no prudent person would approve of its course of action or inaction. The trial judge correctly determined that the Santiagos had not presented sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the City’s actions in this matter were palpably unreasonable. The City’s public works employees were not trained to identify girdling roots or whether a tree was in danger of imminent failure as a result of such a condition. The judge also pointed out that the City had not retained an arborist to “go around and inspect trees for girdling roots and perhaps a myriad of other types of similar problems, which would make a tree unsafe.” Based on the evidence, the judge correctly found that a jury could not find that the City’s failure to have such an inspection program was “patently unacceptable under any given circumstance.”
The evidence showed it is obvious that a regular program to inspect the City’s trees for imminent failure due to girdling roots would require additional manpower and resources. In this case, the City elected not to devote its resources to a program for the regular inspection and maintenance of trees throughout the municipality. Such a determination, the Court said, was not palpably unreasonable.