Case of the Day – Tuesday, August 7, 2018

SO WHAT’S THE DAMN PROBLEM?

reptiles151223Poor Capital One. First they wore us out with Alec Baldwin and his band of pillaging Vikings, all hawking Capital One credit cards with the annoying tagline, “What’s in your wallet?”

Now it’s Samuel L. Jackson, who lectures us in a mildly imperious way about how he is not amused by some credit card offers, like we care whether he’s amused or not. Initially, he promised credit card rewards “every damn day,” and you’d think the republic was collapsing. Wasn’t this the guy who spoke so colorfully about snakes on a plane? No matter – angry customers threatened to close their accounts over his use of the word “damn.” Capital One promptly folded like a cheap suit, and edited the offensive word out of the ad.

It sort of makes you long for the Viking horde. Or for Jennifer Garner. We definitely prefer perky Jennifer Garner, especially when she’s paired with her father. Certainly, we can play on the Capital One question and ask ‘what’s in your file cabinet?’ That may be a lot more important than whether you have an American Express Centurion card, a Capital One VISA, or even just a SNAP card in your wallet. There are probably people who have all three in their wallets, anyway.

All of that brings us to today’s case, where a conspiracy buff ran headlong into a City of Omaha tree-trimming crew. It seems that Ms. Richter didn’t think much of the City trimming her trees. She approached the crew to lodge her protest, only to find no love. In fact, one of the workers told her (in colorful language, perhaps) to step away from the truck. She did so, tripping on a hole in her tree lawn.

consp140523A “grassy knoll” fan, Ms. Richter claimed that the hole obviously had been created by the City’s removal of a street sign, which was mysteriously replaced sometime soon after the accident. It didn’t help the case that the City had a habit of destroying work orders on sign replacement several years after the work was done, and so couldn’t completely rebut her claims.

Lucky for Omaha (home to famous steaks), the Nebraska Supreme Court was little impressed by Ms. Richter’s “I-believe-it-so-that-proves-it” approach to the case. It held that the City’s normal-course-of-business document destruction wasn’t the effort to hide the “truth” Ms. Richter so badly wanted to be. Omaha prevailed.

Still, there’s a lesson here for businesses — sometimes, when it comes to document preservation, what’s in your file cabinet had better be more rather than less.

And a note to Alec Baldwin – chill, man!

Richter v. City of Omaha, 729 N.W.2d 67, 273 Neb. 281 (Sup.Ct. Neb., 2007). A city work crew was trimming overhanging branches from a tree located in front of Ms. Richter’s home. Ms. Richter walked outside and asked the workers to stop trimming the trees. The workers refused and told her to back away from them and their truck. As Richter backed away, she stepped into a hole with her right foot and fell to the ground, injuring her ankle and twisting her knee.

The Nebraska Supreme Court did not tell Ms. Richter to "chive on."

The Nebraska Supreme Court did not tell Ms. Richter to “chive on.”

The hole in which Ms. Richter fell was located on a grassy area between the street and the sidewalk in front of her residence. Although this section of land is a public right-of-way, Richter was responsible for maintaining the area. She claimed the City had removed a sign some time prior to the accident, thus creating the hole, but replaced it some time thereafter. City records — while nonexistent for periods of time prior to the accident — showed no change in signage at the location during the relevant period.

Not to be detained by the facts, Ms. Richter sued under the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act. She alleged that the City was negligent in failing to warn the public of a dangerous condition, failing to provide safe passage of a right-of-way, and failing to exercise due care in the operation of its business. The trial court found in favor of the City, holding that the evidence was insufficient as to how the hole came to be, when it came to be a hole, and whether the City knew of this hole prior to Ms. Richter’s injury. There was insufficient evidence that the City caused the hole or that it knew it was there so it could be repaired in a timely manner.

Richter appealed.

Held: The City was not liable.

Ms. Richter said the evidence was "spoliated," not "spoiled." Either way, the Court said her argument stank.

Ms. Richter said the evidence was “spoliated,” not “spoiled.” Either way, the Court said her argument stank.

Ms. Richter argued that Omaha had destroyed old work orders from years prior to the accident, and this conduct indicated fraud and a desire to suppress the truth. The Court disagreed, holding that she was not entitled to the adverse inference allowed under the rule of spoliation because the record indicated that the work orders were destroyed in the ordinary course of the city’s business. The Court said that the intentional spoliation or destruction of evidence relevant to a case raises a presumption, or, more properly, an inference, that this evidence would have been unfavorable to the case of the spoliator; however, such a presumption or inference arises only where the spoliation or destruction was intentional and indicates fraud and a desire to suppress the truth, and it does not arise where the destruction was a matter of routine with no fraudulent intent.

In order to be successful on her negligence claim Ms. Richter had to establish, among other things, that the city created the condition, knew of the condition, or by the exercise of reasonable care should have discovered or known of the condition. Other than her belief that this was so, she had no evidence to support her contention.

Sorry, Ms. Richter … you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Monday, August 6, 2018

DANGER TREES

It sounds like some kind of leafy hero – you know, “look, out in the woods, it’s a fern, it’s a shrub, no, it’s … Danger Tree!!!

Alder, Hemlock and Big Leaf Maple - the "bad boys" of danger trees.

Alder, Hemlock and Big Leaf Maple – the “bad boys” of danger trees.

To arborists, a danger tree is no superhero, but rather a menace. In the non-utility context, a danger tree generally has two attributes. First, there’s something wrong with the tree – old age and decay, disease, an injury … something that adversely affects the tree’s structural integrity.

Second, the tree has to be in such a location that its falling or shedding branches is a hazard to people or property. A weakened and decayed tree in the middle of the forest might concern the fauna, but it’s like a shark in the middle of the Pacific – no cause to empty the beaches a thousand miles away.

Today’s case illustrates again – as did yesterday’s tree falling on a car – that good trial preparation trumps purity of purpose. Perhaps proving in the starkest of terms that no good deed goes unpunished, young and sharp-eyed Patrick Connelly spotted a brush fire burning next to the road. Unaware that the fire had been started after a power line was knocked downed by a poplar tree that had fallen in the wind, our hero jumped from his car to stamp out the flames. But sadly (and terminally), what he stomped on was the live power line tangled in the flaming grass.

Death lasts an eternity; litigation only seems to. Mr. Connelly’s estate sued after the 2003 accident. Nearly ten years later, the case was finally over.

gooddeed140521Besides the pathos, our interest is in the power utility’s own Transmission & Distribution Guidelines, which defined a “danger tree” from the electric company’s perspective. For a utility, a tree can be structurally unsound to be a “danger tree,” but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, just being too close to the wires will be enough. In fact, three trees – the hemlock, the adler and the big leaf maple – pose an existential threat, according to the T&D Guidelines.

But here, the tree in question was not even within the clearance zone under the lines, and by all reports was strong and healthy. Connelly’s executor was unable to convince the court that the utility should be held responsible for what happened beyond its 12’ clearance zone. The power company’s adherence to its own standards, as well as to national guidelines, was its salvation.

That’s the takeaway in most of these cases. Adherence to an accepted standard is enough to show that you’re meet the applicable standard of care.

Connelly v. Snohomish County Public Utility District, Case No. 66714-9-I (Ct.App. Wash. 2012). During a high windstorm, one of the Lombardy poplar trees located on the property owned by a local school district fell approximately 40 feet across a road onto three high-voltage electrical distribution power lines. Two of the power lines shut off, but the third broke off and landed in a ditch on the north side of the road. The energized power line started a small brush fire.

cartoon140521Michael Varnell and Patrick Connelly were driving westbound on the street when they saw the brushfire. Connelly suggested they stop and stomp out the flames. He was electrocuted when he came into contact with the downed power line.

The Connelly Estate filed a wrongful death action against the Public Utility District No. 1, charging that it negligently performed vegetation management and designed and operated the electrical distribution system. But after a trial, the court ruled that the PUD did not have a duty to inspect trees that did not obviously pose a danger, and did not breach its duty of utmost care in the design, operation, or maintenance of the distribution power line system.

The Estate appealed.

Held: The PUD was not liable.

The parties agreed the PUD owed Connelly a duty of the “utmost care.” However, they disputed whether this meant that the PUD had a duty to inspect every tree outside of the 10- to 12-foot power line “clearance zone,” and whether the protection devices the PUD used were sufficient to meet the duty to protect the public and prevent exposure from high-voltage power lines.

Connelly’s expert testified that the standard of care required the PUD to inspect every tree outside the 10- to 12-foot power line clearance zone that was tall enough to fall on a power line. Relying on prior testimony regarding the condition of the poplar tree, the expert also testified that the PUD had a duty to remove the poplar tree located on the School District property. However, on cross-examination, he admitted that he did not know when the tree would have been an imminent danger and that “I, of course, didn’t see the tree and don’t know anything — don’t know much about the trees.” Bollen also admitted the last time he oversaw a vegetation management program was from 1951-56.

dangertree151222

Now THIS is a Danger Tree.

A PUD expert examined the tree in 2007 and 2009, and reviewed photos of the fallen tree. He testified the poplar tree that fell showed signs of preexisting rot, decay, and disease. Furthermore, a PUD arborist had inspected the tree within a week of the accident, and found were no external indicators of rot or decay. He said that he would not have identified the tree as a hazard for removal or trimming.

Another PUD expert, Stephen Cieslewicz ­– a certified arborist and a national consultant on vegetation management practices for utility companies –testified that PUD’s vegetation management practices were consistent with industry standards during the period in question. Mr. Cieslewicz testified that the objective of “line clearance inspections is to review the air space between the lines and along the lines for trees or limbs.” PUD periodically inspected the trees within the 10- to 12-foot clearance zone of the power lines, and removed trees or tree limbs that posed a threat to the power lines. As well, PUD also identified “danger trees” outside the clearance zone that pose a threat to the electrical lines. Mr. Cieslewicz said that the vast majority of electrical utility companies do not routinely inspect trees outside the clearance zone simply because the trees are tall enough to fall on the line.

Powerlinetotreeclearance140521Mr. Cieslewicz also said that absent an obvious danger or notification from a property owner, the PUD had no duty to inspect every tree outside the clearance zone. In fact, such inspection would border on being impossible. He also testified that inspecting every tree outside the clearance zone in Snohomish County was impossible. Cieslewicz also testified that “[t]here likely would not be records” of the inspection of East Sunnyside School Road “if there was no work required.”

A PUD line clearance coordinator testified that he inspected the area several years before the accident. He said that he had looked down the line segment “and saw that the line was clear; that no tree was in the line.” At no time did the School District notify the PUD that any of the poplar trees located in the area posed a hazard. The evidence showed that during the five years before the accident, the poplar trees were healthy.

The trial court found the testimony of the PUD witnesses more credible than the Estate’s experts, neither of whom had inspected the trees. It held that absent obvious signs or notice that a tree posed a danger, the standard of care did not require the PUD to investigate every tree outside the 10- to 12-foot power line clearance zone. The court also concluded the PUD did not breach its duty of utmost care in the design of the electrical power distribution system.

The Court of Appeals held that in order to prevail on a negligence claim, the Estate had to establish duty, breach, causation, and damages. The standard of care for a utility in Washington is daunting: a power company must exercise “the utmost care and prudence consistent with the practical operation of its plant” to prevent injury.

Although the Estate disputed it, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court had correctly applied this “utmost care” standard.In so doing, the trial court did not improperly emphasize the practical operation of the utility; rather, such practical operation is a relevant factor in determining “whether the utility has conducted its operations under the known safety methods and the present state of the art.” The trial court was within its discretion to let PUD present testimony about whether it was practical to inspect trees outside the clearance zone that did not obviously pose a danger.

The Estate challenged a number of the trial court’s factual findings as well, but the Court of Appeals held that there was substantial evidence to support the determinations. That was all the law required. In particular, the appellate court held that “the evidence established the PUD vegetation management met the standard of care, and the PUD was only required to inspect trees outside the clearance zone if there is ‘obvious evidence of decay or rotting or threat to the power line’.”

The Estate also claimed the trial court’s findings were inconsistent with the utility’s own Transmission and Distribution Guidelines. The T&D Guidelines are evidence of the standard of care, but the state statute relied on by Connelly – RCW 64.12.035 – did not require PUD to comply with the T&D Guidelines. Instead, it only provided electric utilities with immunity for cutting or removing vegetation. The statute does not set a standard of care for the utility, and as the PUD points out, no cases have interpreted the statute as creating a duty or setting a standard of care.

PUD’s T&D Guidelines stated that a “danger tree” was

  • forked trees;
  • dead or rotten trees;
  • trees weakened by decay, disease or erosion;
  • trees visibly leaning toward the power line;
  • trees or parts of trees which may contact the line under snow, ice or wind loads;
  • trees originating from fallen decaying logs, old growth stumps or other unstable rooting positions; or
  • troublesome trees such as alder, big leaf maple and hemlock.

The T&D Guidelines did not impose a duty to inspect every tree that may come in contact with the power lines, but rather just trees within the clearance zone and obvious “danger trees.”

The power company prevailed.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, August 3, 2018

THE ONLY THING THAT STINKS IS THE PLAINTIFF’S CASE

P.J. had a live-in girlfriend named Callie. As near as anyone could tell, she did not pay to live there, at least not with remuneration to P.J. that would be reportable to the IRS. But when P.J.’s condo suffered damage from intruding tree roots, Callie recognized an opportunity.

P.J. first convinced the condo association, which owned the offending tree, to cut it down. After that, he sued for the damages the roots had caused his sewer system and basement. But right in the middle of his lawsuit, girlfriend Callie figured that she was really sort of P.J.’s tenant, and her careful legal research – probably Renting Out Your Property For Dummies – she decided that she has been grievously injured by the obnoxious smell in the guest bathroom, which she was certain was from the offending tree roots.

And, this being America, what do we do when we think we have been grievously injured? We sue.

We’ve smelled some pretty fragrant bathrooms before, but tree roots never appeared to be the cause. Still, Callie jumped headlong into her own lawsuit against the condo association and its management company, because – after all – she complained, she had been embarrassed when guests used her bathroom.

The trial and appellate courts made short work of Callie’s complaint. A tenant, they said, cannot sue because of damage to the property being rented. Instead, a tenant has to allege some injury to the tenancy, that is, the tenant’s right to use the property.

Callie’s lawyer (we assume she had one, although not much of one) failed to allege any that Callie had suffered any concrete injury because of the smell. What’s worse, the lawyer forgot to produce any evidence that the tree roots had anything to do with the smell at all (if there was a smell).

P.J., the property owner, competently handled his lawsuit and won some damages from the condo association. His putative tenant and honeybunny did not.

Larsen v. Snow Property Services, Case No. 1 CA-CV 16-0205 (Ct.App. Arizona, Mar. 7, 2017): Callie Larsen and a guy named P.J. are a couple. (The opinion never mentions P.J.’s surname, but we imagine that it was not “Funnybunny“). P.J. owned a condo in a development controlled by Wind Drift Master Community Association and managed by Snow Property Services. Although she is P.J.’s squeeze, Callie decided she was really his tenant. This epiphany occurred about the time she figured out she could score some money damages from a couple of deep-pocketed defendants.

In 2012, P.J. complained to Snow about damage to the basement walls of his condo caused by the roots of a tree located on Wind Drift’s adjoining property. Snow removed the tree in within about two months.

Callie was not satisfied. She claimed removal of the tree did not resolve the damage, and an unpleasant smell remained in the guest bathroom. In March 2013, P.J. sued Wind Drift, and after a jury trial in 2016, he got a judgment  for the damage the tree roots caused his condo.

Meanwhile, Callie was a busy little “tenant.” She sued Snow and Wind Drift herself in late 2014, alleging negligence, breach of contract, and trespass to her interests as a tenant. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing Callie had no proof her tenancy interest (assuming there was one) had been injured or damaged. The superior court agreed, and threw Callie’s case out.

Callie appealed.

Held: Callie had shown no damages that would let her recover.

Callie complained that the trial court incorrectly determined that, as a tenant, she was not entitled to recover damages for physical damage done to the property that constituted her “tenancy.”

But that was not quite the case. Her trial court held that claims for property damage caused by tree roots are not hers to bring. The court held that these claims, if they exist, belong to the property owner, not the tenant. If the tenant has suffered damage to her tenancy, the trial court said, (that is, her right to possess and enjoy the property), then her remedy is against her landlord under the terms of her rental agreement (which, conveniently, was not in writing). The trial court did not find any admissible evidence of damages to Callie’s tenancy caused by the now-removed toxic tree. Thus, the trial court’s ruling was not based on Callie lacking standing, but rather on a lack of admissible that her tenancy was injured by recoverable damages.

Callie contended there is a “universal rule that tenants may recover for damage to rental property.” Even if that is so, the Court of Appeals said, the tenant still must produce some evidence from which a reasonable jury could find in favor of the plaintiff. Callie claimed negligence, breach of contract, and trespass against Snow and Wind. But each of those, the Court said, requires proof of damages.

Such is always true for negligence or breach of contract. But at common law, trespass required no showing of damage. Callie’s trespass claim, however, was special: she did not claim that Snow or Wind had trespassed, but rather the roots of a tree Wind owned and Snow managed had trespassed. Most states do not recognize the theory that a tree can trespass on behalf of its owner. Not so in Arizona. Even so, Arizona law holds that a “landowner upon whom a sensible injury has been inflicted by the protrusion of the roots of a noxious tree or plant has the right to an action at law in trespass,” but “where there is no injury or damages “no action may be had.”

Contrary to Callie’s claim, the Court of Appeals said, the trial court did not base its ruling on Callie lacking standing to sue, but rather on Callie’s utter lack of admissible proof of recoverable damages as a tenant. Callie’s “tenancy” consisted of the “use and occupancy” of P.J.’s property pursuant to whatever terms their purported oral rental agreement may have contained (or as long as he wanted her, whichever came first). Arizona law defines a tenant as “a person entitled under a rental agreement to occupy a dwelling unit to the exclusion of others.” A.R.S. § 33-1310(16). Thus, the Court said, in order to support her claims against Snow and Wind, Callie had to present admissible evidence supporting her claim of injury to herself or her tenancy, not damage to property she did not own.

Callie asserted a “loss of quiet enjoyment of property she rented.” The record showed, however, that at all times she was able to occupy, use, and exclude others from the property in a manner consistent with the terms of her purported oral rental agreement. During her deposition, Callie complained about an embarrassing smell in her guest bathroom, but she admitted she continued to use it. She speculated that the odor resulted from one or more pipes cracked by the tree roots, but she did not submit any admissible evidence linking the tree roots to the smell. She claimed there were times she could not park in the driveway due to the root protrusion, but she did not establish any exclusion from use, damage to her vehicle, or costs incurred for alternate parking.

In a last-minute Hail Mary, Callie submitted a report from a real estate broker saying the rental value of the property was diminished by about $800.00 a month as a result of the damage attributed to the intruding tree roots. The Court observed that even if the report were competent evidence of damage, its defects were legion: (1) the real estate associate broker was not shown to be an expert, (2) the report contained the disclaimer that it was “not an appraisal,” (3) the report assumed the smells in the condo were caused by the tree roots without any evidence that was so, and (4) the report was not supported by an affidavit.

The Court said that as for harm to Callie herself, while she asserted she had been harmed by the smelly bathroom, she could not identify any injury other than embarrassment about the smell when guests used the bathroom. She never claimed specifically that the reek harmed her physically or emotionally. More significantly, the Court said, “she has not presented admissible evidence establishing the source of the odor or that the cause of that source of odor is attributable to Defendants. Stated simply, the evidence offered by [Callie] does not rise above allegation and speculation.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, August 2, 2018

NINE-TENTHS OF THE LAW

The old (and not necessarily flawed) legal aphorism goes something like “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” In the world of Federal Tort Claims Act litigation, the expressions would just as accurately read “discretion is nine-tenths of the law.”

Yesterday, we discussed the Federal Tort Claims Act, and its function as a waiver of sovereign immunity to permit suit against the United States for some kinds of claims.

What we did not tell you yesterday is that there are some exceptions you should know about. If a federal law enforcement agent seizes all of your stuff and then destroys it? Tough luck, fella. If the Postal Service loses your mail? You can guess. A surly Social Security Administration clerk punches you when you complain that you got shorted on your check? Pound sand. Don’t believe it? Read Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 2680(a).

Of all the exceptions, the one hardest to fathom (and easiest for the government to game us with) is the first exception. A district court has no jurisdiction (which means you can’t sue) over claims “based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government.” 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a).

Some of this makes sense. The government decided not to build a dam on a river above your town. That does not mean the government is liable for the next flood. The government-run control tower at an airport closes at 10 p.m. The government is not liable for a collision on the runway at midnight.

But some of it may not. In today’s case, the U.S. Geological Survey constructed a “cableway” – a cable strung over a wild and scenic river in Arizona for the purpose of accessing a “streamgage” station, a series of devices used to measure river flow, temperature, turbidity and water level. When a helicopter struck the naked and unmarked cable, killing everyone on board, the survivors sued the USGS under the FTCA for negligence in failing to mark an obvious danger. After all, the USGS had had aircraft strike its cableways before. You’d think the agency would know better.

The Court of Appeals, however, affirmed that the USGS’s failure to mark the cable fell “squarely in this discretionary function exception.” With no evident sense of irony, the Court warned that the “invocation of the discretionary function doctrine in cases involving public safety should not be read as giving the government a pass every time it raises the exception.” Judging from this case, it is difficult to accept the Court’s admonition at face value.

Morales v. United States, Case No. 17-15215 (U.S. Ct. Appeals 9th Cir., July 13, 2018). The U.S. Geological Survey is a federal agency responsible for collecting scientific information about the “geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.” As part of its duties, USGS collects streamflow data and water quality samples to predict floods, manage drinking water, evaluate water quality standards, aid in the preservation of aquatic habitats, and investigate streamflow history and climate change. This information is collected through “streamgage” sites that include a continuously functioning measuring device that collects the mean daily streamflow in a particular watercourse. When a streamgage site is installed in a location without a bridge, USGS generally builds a cableway — a cable car suspended from a wire rope—to provide USGS personnel with safe access to the site.

In 1934, USGS installed a streamgage site and cableway over the Verde River Canyon in Prescott National Forest, Arizona. USGS has operated the streamgage site since 1932. The cable stretched 286 feet across the canyon at a height of 40 feet above the river. Despite the cable being virtually invisible from 100 feet or more away, or to aircraft flying at the same height, USGS did not mark the cableway or add warning signs because the cable did not meet the criteria for marking under USGS policy.

Since 1980, USGS has modified its policy on marking several times, often in response to accidents involving cableways. In each case, however, it adopted Federal Aviation Administration standards for marking obstructions to airspace. The FAA regs required marking of objects more than 200 feet above the ground (“AGL”), and suggested that marking of cableways should be considered if they are hazardous to low-flying aircraft. USGS District offices were directed “to review all… cableway installations and decide which may be hazardous to low-flying aircraft,” and to develop “[a] plan… to install markers on those cableways designated as potentially hazardous.”

After an aircraft struck an unmarked cableway in 1995, USGS considered “a broad policy to require the marking of all cableways,” but ultimately decided against it after consulting with an FAA Air Specialist, who reviewed photographs and aeronautical charts for a subset of cableways and recommended against marking them because none met the FAA criteria for marking obstructions. The expert recommended against marking any USGS cableways that did not meet the FAA criteria.

USGS later issued Memorandum No. 2000.13, which recognized that “Congress has charged the FAA with the responsibility to promote the safety of aircraft and the efficient use of navigable airspace,” and repeated USGS’s policy that structures over 200 feet AGL “should normally be marked,” but specified nothing for cableways under 200 feet AGL. In 2008, USGS issued a policy manual — Survey Manual, No. SM 445-2-H (the “2008 Survey Manual’’) — that was functionally the same as the 2000 Memorandum. The 2008 Survey Manual repeated that it was USGS policy to comply with the FAA’s obstruction marking regulations.

Even though the default policy was not to mark cableways under 200 feet, USGS also considered site-specific and other factors to determine whether to mark cableways that did not meet FAA criteria. The specific considerations relevant to the Verde River cableway included the absence of any prior accidents; the cost of installation; the physical risk to employees installing markers; the risk of confusion to pilots who expect to see markings at higher heights; the likelihood of vandalism by marksmen and accompanying economic and safety concerns; and the United States Forest Service’s scenic integrity objectives to “minimize or eliminate visual distractions” in the area given the Verde River’s designation as a “Wild and Scenic River.”

In June 2012, a helicopter flown by Raymond Perry crashed in the Prescott National Forest, killing Perry and his three passengers. The chopper struck the unmarked cableway suspended forty feet above the Verde River by USGS as part of its cableway. Although the cable was virtually invisible to aircraft pilots, USGS placed no markers or warning signs out because the unmarked cableway complied with the FAA obstruction regulations.

Following the accident, Perry’s estate sued, claiming that USGS was negligent for failing to mark the cable. The district court held that the decision not to mark the cable was a discretionary function of USGS, and thus exempt from the Federal tort Claim Act. It thus held it lacked subject matter jurisdiction and dismissed the lawsuit.

Perry’s estate appealed.

Held: USGS was exempt from liability because its decision not to mark the cableway was on a discretionary function of the agency.

The FTCA waives the government’s sovereign immunity for tort claims arising out of negligent conduct of government employees and agencies acting within the scope of their duties, allowing a plaintiff to sue the government “under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” If there is no waiver of sovereign immunity through the FTCA, the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction and the case must be dismissed.

One exception to the broad waiver of sovereign immunity under the FTCA is called the discretionary function exception. That exception provides immunity from suit for any claim “…based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government, whether or not the discretion involved be abused.” The purpose of the exception is to prevent “judicial ‘second guessing’ of legislative and administrative decisions grounded in social, economic, and political policy through the medium of an action in tort.”

There is a two-step process to determine applicability of the exception. First, a court must decide whether the act is “discretionary in nature,” which necessarily involves an element of judgment or choice. The “judgment or choice” requirement is not met where a “federal statute, regulation, or policy specifically prescribes a course of action for an employee to follow.” If a statute or policy directs mandatory and specific action, the inquiry comes to an end: there can be no element of discretion when an employee has no rightful option but to adhere to the directive.

If discretion is involved, then a court must consider whether the discretion “is of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield” — that is, governmental actions and decisions grounded in social, economic, and political policy. The focus is on whether the actions are “susceptible to a policy analysis,” not whether the government actually took such public policy judgements into consideration when making the decision.

No federal statute, regulation, or policy specifically prescribed the marking of the Verde River cableway. Instead, the decision whether to mark the cableway was a result of considered judgment and choice. The Verde River cableway fell within USGS’s default policy not to mark cableways that did not meet the FAA’s 200-feet AGL criteria. Nor did the cableway trigger any of the verification requirements set forth in the 2008 Survey Manual and 2000 Memorandum, which only applied to cableways exceeding 200 feet AGL that were not marked.

Thus, there was no mandatory directive within USGS’s policies to mark the cable. That USGS policy let its personnel consider s specific factors which necessarily varied by site “highlights that judgment was involved in the decision.” This is not an instance, the Court said, “in which USGS’s policy identified site-specific considerations that mandated marking. No such guidance was provided in any USGS policy, so USGS employees were left to exercise their judgment when deciding whether to mark a particular site.”

Although its policy directed personnel “to review” all cableways, “decide which may be hazardous,” and develop a plan to install markers at those sites, USGS’s language cannot be construed as a “mandatory and specific” directive to mark the Verde River cableway. Rather, the policy left employees with a discretionary choice about which cableways were hazardous and which should be marked.

What’s more, the Court held, USGS’s decision is susceptible to policy analysis grounded in social, economic, and political concerns. USGS’s decision to defer to the FAA as the agency charged with “the responsibility to promote the safety of aircraft and the efficient use of navigable airspace”’ is grounded in social, economic, and political policy. USGS recognized the FAA’s role and expertise in regulating navigable airspace, and affirmatively decided to defer to the agency’s standards with respect to marking.

Verde River

As well, USGS’s decision was susceptible to a number of additional social, economic, and political considerations. There were competing safety concerns, such as the risk of confusing pilots “who expect to see obstruction markers only at higher levels,” and the risk to USGS personnel tasked with installation or maintenance of the markers. Economic factors were also considered, such as the cost of installation and maintenance of the markers, particularly given the likelihood of vandalism. USGS also knew of USFS’s objective to minimize visual distractions to meet “scenic integrity objectives” given the Verde River’s designation as a “Wild and Scenic River’ and bald eagle nesting area.

“All of these considerations,” the Court ruled, “embody the type of policy concerns that the discretionary function exception is designed to protect, reflecting that USGS’s decision was based on competing policy considerations related to safety to aircraft, safety to USGS personnel, financial burden, protection of scenic integrity, and respect to the objectives of land-management agencies.”

The Court refused Perry’s argument that government ought not be allowed to invoke the discretionary function exception whenever a decision involves considerations of public safety. Such a “sweeping exemption would severely undermine the discretionary function exception and is unsupported by our precedent,” the Court held. “In case after case, we have considered the government’s balancing of public safety with a multitude of other factors.” Here, USGS’s decision not to mark the cableway was “actually susceptible to policy analysis, including deference to another agency’s expertise, competing safety interests, financial burden, and the effect on scenic integrity.”

The Court warned that its “invocation of the discretionary function doctrine in cases involving public safety should not be read as giving the government a pass every time it raises the exception. We emphasize that the government bears the burden of sustaining the discretionary function exception and that the record must bear the weight of that burden.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, August 1, 2018

UNCOMMONLY COMMON

It’s good to be the king

Suing the government is a daunting task. Besides the fact that the government has more lawyers than you do (about 32,000 plus or minus), the government makes the rules about when you can sue and when you’re out of luck. Never bet against the house.

The doctrine that lets Uncle Sugar rig the game is called “sovereign immunity,” and holds, simply enough, that you can’t sue the king. Dating from medieval times, when there actually was a king not to sue, that particular kind of immunity has spilled over to present-day America. You cannot sue the government – federal, state or local – without the government’s permission to do so.

Who’s crazy enough to give you permission to sue them? The government, of course. In federal law, permission to sue for a tort (such as negligence) is enshrined in the Federal Tort Claims Act. The FTCA grants the district courts jurisdiction to hear negligence and some other tort cases against government agencies and officials.

Some but not all. What we are particularly interested in today is the intersection between the FTCA and state recreational use statutes. Recreational use statutes, of course, are laws passed in virtually every state that afford landowners protection from liability when they make their property available without charge to the general public for recreational activity.

Even if you successfully bring an FTCA action, you still have to hold the government to the negligence law of the state in which the act occurred. Today’s case, just handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, is in all likelihood the final act of a tragedy that began with a slow-moving summer storm in 2010 that cause unprecedented flooding at a U.S. Forest Service campground in the Ouachita National Forest of Arkansas. Twenty campers were killed, and in subsequent litigation, it developed that the forest ranger in charge had exerted his influence to ram through construction of an improved campground in a floodplain, contrary to the advice of one expert.

Even that was not enough to hold the government liable, because the Arkansas Recreational Use Statute contained enough of a loophole to get Uncle Sam off the hook. The question was whether the activity – which initially seems like simple camping – was common or uncommon. The Court narrowed the definition of the activity, but still found that it was common enough that the Forest Service’s failings were merely negligent (against which it was immune) rather than ultra-hazardous.

That did not save the campgrounds, however. The aftermath of the tragedy (and the lawsuits it spawned) left the campground closed and in ruins. While the Albert Pike Recreation Area itself remains open, the campgrounds are still abandoned. Ironically, flood warnings – which the experts had recommended but the Forest Service failed to post before the flood – are prominent now.

Moss v. United States, Case No. 17-1928 (8th Circuit U.S. Ct.App., July 20, 2018): Albert Pike Recreation Area is a large outdoor camping and recreation site. Winding through the site is the Little Missouri River, which gives visitors the opportunity to engage in popular recreational activities including fishing, canoeing, and swimming. The site also contains 54 campsites placed over four loops, Loops A, B, C, and D. In 2010, campers paid $10.00 for an overnight campsite in Loops A, B, or C, and $16.00 for a site in Loop D. Loop D’s higher cost was due to its campsites including electrical and water hookups for RVs.

The Loop D campsites were constructed as part of a renovation and expansion project for Albert Pike launched in 2001, which spent over $600,000 to renovate sites in Loop C and to build Loop D campsites. The redevelopment project was headed by District Ranger James Watson.

As part of the environmental assessment, Ranger Watson hired two “watershed specialists,” soil scientist Ken Luckow and hydrologist Alan Clingenpeel.

Luckow prepared an initial report that concluded that “most of the area where the new campsites are proposed… should be considered as being within the 100-year floodplain.” He recommended that any campsite in Loop D should not include electrical or water hookups, and that signs warning of a flooding hazard be posted.

But Ranger Watson wanted to build developed campsites within Loop D, because that was what had been promised to get the funding, and thus was expected by the public due to the marketing campaign that had gone on. The Ranger therefore took hydrologist Clingenpeel to the planned site for Loop D and asked him whether he believed the proposed campsite would fall within the 100-year floodplain. Clingenpeel visually estimated the floodplain using the “double bankfull” method (which he himself described as only a “quick estimate” of the floodplain), and told Ranger Watson it was unlikely there would be flooding issues if all renovations took place above the sighted floodplain.

The environmental assessment partially included Luckow’s floodplain analysis, but ultimately contradicted Luckow with Clingenpeel’s conclusion that the proposed Loop D campsites would not fall within the 100-year floodplain. Despite the conclusion, the environmental assessment still recommended posting signs to warn of flash floods. The Forest Service approved the project, including building developed campsites within Loop D. The decision notice made no reference to the floodplain or the need to place signs.

Loop D opened for campers in 2004, experiencing occasional minor flooding concerns for different campsites. Of ten flooding events in Albert Pike between 1940 and 2010, none inflicted any reported injuries and only one occurred near Loop D.

That changed on June 11, 2010. A strong storm system moved slowly toward Albert Pike Recreation Area, resulting in flash flood conditions on the Little Missouri River. By the time flooding was apparent, many campers were asleep at their campsites. Many of those who were awake decided to wait the storm out in their vehicles. As the water continued to rise, some campers realized that their vehicles might be at risk from the flood and attempted to move to higher ground. Several families sought refuge in nearby trees.

Over the course of the next several hours, catastrophic flooding claimed the lives of 20 campers. Seventeen of the campers who died were camping in Loop D, with the other three just upstream. A U.S. Geological Survey expert described the flood’s intensity as exceeding a “500-year flood event.”

The plaintiffs in this case filed claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act, claiming negligence in the development and maintenance of the Loop D campsites. The government moved to dismiss, claiming the Forest Service was entitled to immunity under the Arkansas Recreational Use Statute, thus depriving the district court of jurisdiction under the terms of the FTCA.

The plaintiffs appealed.

Held: Because the Forest Service was not liable under ARUS, the district court had no jurisdiction to hear the case.

The FTCA prohibits suing the government except in limited circumstances. Unless the suit falls within one of the exceptions, the Federal district court lacks the jurisdiction to even hear the case. Among other provisions, the FTCA provides that the government is entitled to the benefit of the state recreational use statute in the state where the lawsuit arose, if there is such a statute on the books.

The FTCA confers subject matter jurisdiction on federal courts for suits against the government in “circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” Because the FTCA removes immunity from the United States only in such circumstances, the Court said, the issue became whether a private landowner who had designed and built Loop D would be immune from suit under the ARUS.

The purpose of the ARUS is “to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability toward persons entering thereon for such purposes.” Ark. Code. Ann. § 18-11-301 (2016). Generally, the ARUS provides immunity from liability to landowners who make their property available for the recreational use of others, with two exceptions: (1) when the landowner charges the person entering the land for recreational use; and (2) “when the landowner maliciously fails to guard or warn against an ultra-hazardous condition, structure, use, or activity actually known to the landowner to be dangerous.”

The ARUS generally does not provide immunity for injury suffered in any case in which the landowner charges admission to people who go on the land for recreational use. The statute defines a “charge” as an “admission fee for permission to go upon or use the land.” Ark. Code Ann. § 18-11-302(2) (2016). The parties disputed whether the $16.00 fee to secure a campsite in Loop D is an “admission fee” that “charged” the plaintiffs for their recreational use of Loop D, with the government arguing that other states usually interpreted their recreational use statutes to exclude campsite rental fees from qualifying as “admission” fees.

The Court cautioned that “the interpretation of the various recreational use statutes is controlled by the precise language of each statute,” and observed that the Arkansas Supreme Court has suggested that the ARUS should be construed strictly to avoid an overbroad grant of immunity. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals said, “even construing the ARUS strictly, however, the Loop D campsite fee does not qualify as an ‘admission fee’ under the statute. The plaintiffs argued they were injured while camping — the exact activity for which they paid the use fee. But the ARUS, by its plain terms, removes immunity only when a fee 1s charged to enter a particular area.” The $16.00 overnight campsite fee was charged solely for access to particular campsite services. Campers who didn’t pay the fee could still access Loop D. Thus, the Court held, “under the plain language of the statute, the charge exception does not apply to the Loop D fees.”

The ARUS’s other exception denies immunity “for malicious, but not mere negligent, failure to guard or warn against an ultra-hazardous condition, structure, personal property, use, or activity actually known to the owner to be dangerous.” Ark. Code Ann. § 18-11-307(1). An activity is ultra-hazardous if it “necessarily involves a risk of serious harm to the person or [property] of others that cannot be eliminated by the exercise of the utmost care” and “is not a matter of common usage.”

The trick, the Court said, was to properly define the activity. On the one hand, describing the activity as merely “camping” would make it a “matter of common usage” but would not take into account relevant distinguishing characteristics. On the other hand, describing an activity as “camping on June 11, 2010, at a particular time and location in Ouachita National Forest,” would make the activity “uncommon” simply because it “is not precisely the same as its close relatives.” The Court observed that Arkansas law indicated the appropriate level of generality should take into account “some particularizing factors, such as distinct and appreciable risks that might arise from engaging in an activity in a specific area.” Thus, the Court concluded the activity at issue in this case was “camping in a 100-year floodplain.” This description appropriately pegs the definition to the knowledge that plaintiffs suggest the government should have had regarding “the danger posed by a 100-year floodplain without including non-salient attributes of the tragedy.”

Camping within a 100-year floodplain is not an uncommon recreational activity in Arkansas. Camping near water poses some risks, but campers, fishermen, and other outdoorsmen frequently do so, even when it places them within 100-year floodplains. Because the activity is a “matter of common usage,” the Court said, “ARUS’s immunity would extend to a private landowner facing this claim.” And because a private landowner would be immune under the ARUS, there is no jurisdiction under the FTCA for plaintiffs’ claims against the United States.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, July 31, 2018

TRAGEDY AND CLEVER LAWYERING

treefall140516When a late summer storm blew up in Minneapolis, Chauncey Moua and his wife decided to retreat to the safety of their home to await its passing. They pulled up at home to take shelter. That’s when Mr. Moua decided to park in front of the neighbors’ house, because the neighbors’ tree, the branches of which were overhanging the Moua homestead, was swaying dangerously in the high winds. As he parked the car, a branch fell, killing him.

What do you do after the funeral? After a suitable period of mourning – maybe a few hours or so – you could hire a really dedicated lawyer. Like maybe Doug Crawford. According to the California Court of Appeals, Mr. Crawford appeared at a deposition with pepper spray and a stun gun. Before the questioning began, Crawford held the can of pepper spray about 3 feet from the face of the opposing lawyer, Walter Traver, and warned him: “I will pepper-spray you if you get out of hand.”

Way to be an advocate, Doug! We’ve sat through countless droning hours of depositions ourselves, and we can fairly predict that we’d have paid cash money to see Doug yell, “Objection!” and fry his learned opponent’s butt. Any plaintiff wants a lawyer who won’t mess around.

Objection! Counsel is tasing the witness.

Objection! Counsel is tasing the witness.

Mrs. Moua couldn’t line up barrister Crawford, but she found herself a shark nonetheless. Her attorney sued her neighbors, the Hastings, for negligence. That was hardly a surprise, but the count for trespass he added on Mrs. Moua’s behalf made the case unusual. The claim was novel: the complaint alleged that branches from the Hastings’ tree fell on the Moua property, creating a trespass. The damage from the trespass, Mrs. Moua claimed, was the death of Mr. Moua.

Credit her lawyer with a creative argument, but the Court of Appeals said “no cigar.” Mr. Moua had pulled up in front of the neighbors’ house, and was standing in the street next to his car when he was struck. In other words, the tree branch that caused the damage – that is, struck Mr. Moua – was not trespassing on Moua property. As for the claim that the trespassing branches on Moua’s property forced Mr. Moua to move his car elsewhere, and while doing so he was killed, the Court found the injury to Mr. Moua was too remote to the trespass for a causal link to have been shown. Shades of Mrs. Palsgraf!

The original "reasonable foreseeability" negligence action ... a Rube Goldberg tort.

The original “reasonable foreseeability” negligence action … a Rube Goldberg tort if ver there was one.

What, you might wonder, was to be gained from adding a trespass count to the lawsuit? Mrs. Moua had already claimed the neighbors were negligent in not taking care of their tree. The answer lies in fault finding. To win a negligence count, Mrs. Moua had to show the neighbors had actual or constructive notice that the tree was dangerous. Trespass is much simpler. All Mrs. Moua had to show there was that the branches fell onto the Moua property. A trespass cause of action would make collecting big bucks from the Hastings much easier.

The Court left for another day the interesting question of whether a falling branch belonging to another that strikes a landowner on his land might be a trespass.

Moua v. Hastings, Not Reported in N.W.2d, 2008 WL 933422 (Minn.App., April 8, 2008). Blia Moua and her husband, Chauncey Moua, left their home in Minneapolis to pick up their daughter from work. After driving a few blocks, they noticed that the weather suddenly worsened. Moua and her husband became fearful and decided to return home after they saw tree branches falling due to the heavy rain and wind. When they got there, they stopped their vehicle in front of their own home, but Chauncey decided to move the car because he was worried that the storm would blow branches of trees belonging to their neighbors, the Hastings, onto the car. The Hastings lived next door to the Mouas, and some branches of a tree in their front yard hung over the Mouas’ yard. Mr. Moua parked the vehicle in front of the Hastings’ home — where he parked often — and got out of the car when a branch fell from a tree, killing him.

Mrs. Moua admitted that she saw the Hastings’ trees on a daily basis and had never noticed any dead branches. Neither she nor her husband had ever asked the Hastings to trim the trees.

After the Mouas sued for trespass and negligence, the Hastings moved for summary judgment. As for Mrs. Moua’s claim that the branches that had fallen were a trespass on her land by the Hastings, the trial court held that Mrs. Moua had not established how the branches interfered with her use and enjoyment of her property, and the only danger caused by the tree’s branches was due to a severe storm that was noted as one of the worst in several years. Mrs. Moua appealed.

Mrs. Moua's lawyer was pretty sharp - just a little ahead of his or her time.

Mrs. Moua’s lawyer was pretty sharp – just a little ahead of his or her time.

Held: Summary judgment was affirmed. The Court of Appeals held that in Minnesota, a cause of action for wrongful death is purely a legislative remedy. A cause of action for wrongful death exists when death is caused by the wrongful act or omission of any person. Although causation is generally a question of fact for the jury, where reasonable minds can arrive at only one conclusion, causation becomes a question of law, and it may be disposed of by summary judgment. Trespass encompasses any unlawful interference with one’s person, property, or rights, and requires only two essential elements: a rightful possession in the plaintiff and unlawful entry upon such possession by the defendant.

Here, the Court said, the trial judge correctly concluded that even if there had been a trespass, there was no causal link between that trespass and the injury that occurred. The undisputed facts showed that the injury to Mr. Moua occurred on the public street in front of Hastings’ house. Even looking at the evidence in the light most favorable to Mrs. Moua, the Court said, as a matter of law she failed to present a causal link between the alleged trespass by the Hastings’ tree branches and Mr. Moua’s death in the street.

The Court thus concluded that summary judgment in favor of the Hastings on the wrongful death claim was proper.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407