Case of the Day – Monday, June 6, 2022

WE OWN IT ALL

Over the years, these august blogs have pretty much settled the question of a landowner’s right to trim his or her neighbor’s trees to the property line – the Massachusetts Rule – whether the trimming be above the ground (branches) or below the ground (the roots). But what if the trimming kills the tree, or – as in today’s case – makes it fall down?

The answer can be found in the ancient Latin maxim “cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos.” I recognize that every time I trot out any Latin, I fondly recall Mrs. Emily Bernges, my sainted Latin teacher from high school days (and those days were many days ago). I recall her again today, because not only was she a crackerjack instructor and a gifted disciplinarian (in an all-male school with only two female teachers, she could calcitrare asinus when juvenile male asinus needed calcitraring), but she was able to instill in my young hormone-soaked teenage brain a love for writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Julius Caesar that remains with me several years later (try “52” as a good approximation).

So what would Emily tell us about today’s case? She would ring the hotel desk bell she kept next to her jar of pencils, say “class, attention!”, and then explain that cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos translates as “to whomsoever the soil belongs, he owns also to the sky and to the depths.” We would protest that such can hardly be the state of legal affairs, because that would mean that every satellite transiting the sky would be committing countless trespasses as it crossed the continent.

It is true, Emily would tell us (it seemed to me she knew everything, so her being versed in some medieval common law would hardly have surprised me), that the cujus est solum doctrine – a relic of the Middle Ages – has been somewhat abrogated by aviation. The Supreme Court severely curtailed the “to the sky” part of the rule during World War II, ruling in United States v. Causby that the amount of sky a landowner owned was paltry. However, the part of the cujus est solum doctrine addressing ownership of the depths is still pretty good law.

In today’s case, the excavation at the neighbor cancer center (a place that, unfortunately, is near and dear to my heart) pretty clearly caused the neighbor’s oak to fall, because a major part of the tree’s root system – that had grown onto cancer center property – was severed. The Alabama Supreme Court held that in excavating one’s property, a landowner should not negligently cut the roots of a neighbor’s tree. However,  the Court said, as long as the cutting was non-negligent, if the neighbor’s tree fell as a result, well, cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos to you, unlucky neighbor. 

That “negligent” versus “non-negligent” severing part of the ruling is puzzling. I’m not sure of the difference between negligent and non-negligent cutting, or for that matter, whether there even is a difference. If you own ad inferos (and the Court says you do own to the depths), and remove any roots you find while excavating your inferos, that appears to be your right… no matter whether you sever them with a backhoe or hire beavers or even detonate a small nuclear device. It is the fact the roots were severed that caused the tree to fall, not how the roots were severed.

Harding v. Bethesda Regional Cancer Treatment Center, 551 So.2d 299 (Supreme Court, Alabama, 1989): Bethesda Regional Cancer Treatment Center hired general contractor GBB to build a concrete containment facility for a radio therapy linear accelerator, part of Bethesda’s cancer treatment facility. The concrete containment facility was located along the property line separating BRCT land from the rear of the Hardings’ property.

A few weeks after GBB completed the excavation needed for site preparation, a large tree located on the Hardings’ property fell during a wind storm, damaging their home. The Hardings claimed trespass, contending that the excavation work had been conducted across their property line. They also sued in negligence, claiming that the root system of their tree was cut and the tree undermined during the excavation on Bethesda Regional’s property.

The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of BRCT and GBB. The Hardings appealed.

Held: BRCT and the contractor GBB were not liable to the Hardings.

Intrusion upon land without consent of the possessor is an essential element of trespass quare clausum fregit. BRCT and GBB offered affidavits of the excavators that at no time did they encroach on the Hardings’ property, as designated by boundary line markers. The Court held that the affidavits shifted the burden to the Hardings to produce some evidence of encroachment. Dr. Harding’s affidavit averred that the “excavation and digging was done on what appeared to me to be my property… Mr. Lynn [a surveyor] advised me that in fact excavation work had been performed on my property.” But that affidavit was hearsay and speculation, the Court said, not admissible evidence.

The Court held that BRCT and GBB showed that the excavation work was done in a skillful, prudent, and workmanlike manner. Under Alabama law, a landowner has a right to excavate on his own property for a lawful purpose, close to the boundary line, as long as he does not endanger the lateral support of the adjoining property. The Hardings made no claim involving lateral support, but instead only complained that their tree roots, which intruded onto the BRCT property, were cut.

An adjoining landowner has a right to remove limbs that hang over his property. Given that right (enshrined in the Massachusetts Rule), the Court said, “an analogy can certainly be made regarding a property owner’s right to remove roots extending onto his property. This is especially true in light of the landowner’s right to excavate on his own land. To deny such a right would create an oppressive restriction on the use of one’s own land.”

The doctrine of cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos (“to whomsoever the soil belongs, he owns also to the sky and to the depths”) may have been qualified insofar as air flight and oil and gas law is concerned, the Court observed, but “it still extends to air space that can be occupied by limbs of trees, and, we hold today, to the depths that can be occupied by roots of trees.”

The owner of property has no duty to refrain from the non-negligent cutting roots of a tree that intrude upon his property. Here, the Court found, a civil engineer and land surveyor indicated in his affidavit that the survey of the lot showed “the location of a large hardwood tree which evidently blew over in a recent wind storm. The tree was on the property line and had been excavated underneath for construction of the adjoining parking lot… [O]ur opinion is that the wind blew the tree over because its root system had been cut and exposed.” An agricultural extension agent said in his affidavit that the “excavation [that cut the roots] made this tree highly susceptible to wind damage.” While these affidavits provided evidence that the tree roots had been cut and that the tree became more susceptible to wind damage because of the exposed root system, the Court said, they did not set forth any facts to establish negligent excavation.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, June 3, 2022

TRIP, STUMBLE AND FALL

coffeespill140410Mrs. Taubenfeld should have listened to the Mamas and Papas … they predicted that this might happen to her. It seems Mrs. T was walking past a Starbucks when she stepped into one of those tree wells cut into the sidewalk. She fell over an exposed tree root and hit the ground. She immediately hobbled off to her lawyer’s office. A lawsuit against Starbucks and the strip mall owner soon followed.

She argued that the lease between the strip mall owner and Starbucks required the mall owner to maintain the sidewalk. The Court disagreed, saying that the lease didn’t matter, because a contract between parties could not create a duty to the public where one didn’t otherwise exist.

Tree well – is it a threat or simply a menace?

Tree well – is it a threat or simply a menace?

And no such duty existed here. A village ordinance required that property owners and lessees keep their sidewalks clear of obstructions, but that law didn’t create a right for a private person to sue. If Starbucks had failed to keep up the sidewalk, it might have to answer to the city government, but not to Mrs. Taubenfeld.

Statutes commonly make people or entities liable to the government (in the form of fines or penalties) for noncompliance. Usually, where the obligation is to clear natural problems, such as snowfall, high grass or exposed tree roots – conditions which the owner did not create ­– the statutes do not give general public the right to sue for damages arising from noncompliance.

Taubenfeld v. Starbucks Corp., 48 A.D.3d 310, 851 N.Y.S.2d 512 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept., Feb. 21, 2008). Florence Taubenfeld fell over a tree root. The root was growing in a tree well cut into a public sidewalk in front of premises owned by Park Plaza and leased to Starbucks. Faster than you can say sugar-free hazelnut latte made with nonfat milk, Mrs. Taubenfeld sued, claiming negligence. The trial court granted Park Plaza’s motion for summary judgment, but denied Starbucks’ motion. Starbucks appealed.

Held: Starbucks won and the suit was thrown out. While the lease between Park Plaza and Starbucks required Park Place to maintain the sidewalk and landscaping. Assuming that the tree well into which Taubenfeld tripped and fell is part of the sidewalk or landscape, the lease could not create a duty to the public that did not otherwise exist. The Court held that neither Park Plaza nor Starbucks owed a duty to the public to repair the protruding root since neither created the root or caused it to exist by reason of some special use of the sidewalk or tree well, or were obligated to maintain the sidewalk or tree well under some statute or ordinance.

In this case, the lease imposed on Starbucks no more than a duty to maintain those portions of the sidewalk that the coffee shop made special use of, for the purpose of providing outdoor seating for its customers. As to the remainder of the sidewalk beyond Starbucks’ outdoor seating, Park Plaza’s duty was limited by a Larchmont village ordinance that directed property owners to keep the sidewalk in front of their premises in good repair and safe condition for public use. That ordinance, however, did not specifically create tort liability.

While Starbucks made special use of a portion of the sidewalk by putting out two tables with two chairs each, the special use did not extend beyond the tables and chairs to the tree well where Taubenfeld fell, or to the people on the crowded sidewalk. Some of those people were walking and others were standing around the Starbucks tables chatting. Taubenfeld complained that she had had to walk around them, diverting her path into the tree well. Even if this were true, that fact made neither Starbucks nor Park Plaza liable to her.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, June 2, 2022

PLEASE RELEASE ME

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know… That’s what the people looking for a break were saying in the late days of the Trump Administration these days. Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen got released from federal prison early because of COVID-19. Previously, we’ve seen Rod Blagojevich, Michael Milken, Eddie DeBartolo, and, of course, Sheriff JoeSholom Rubashkin, an obscure sailor whose offense of being sloppy with secret material was seen as less serious than Hillary’s,  a dead boxer, and a right-wing writer who was prosecuted by Presidential enemy Preet Bharara for campaign law violations. The late-term clemency beneficiaries included Presidential once-and-future buddies like Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Lil Wayne.

It’s no wonder the current White House resident has decided to keep a light thumb on the clemency button for now.

This might be a good time to talk about releases… not the Presidential kind, but rather the kinds of prospective releases or liability waivers that are a part of our lives, from amusement parks and ski resorts to pools to dry cleaners to parking lots and hat checks. We get little tickets that have fine print on the back stating that by using whatever service we’re using, we agree that we can’t hold the vendor liable if anything goes wrong. Our fedora’s missing from the hatcheck? Too bad. Our pants have a hole burned in them from being pressed? Maybe we can cut them off and make shorts. The roller coaster collapses and crushes us to death? Sorry, pal, guess this just ain’t your day, and tomorrow doesn’t look very good, either.

Certainly, such releases serve an important purpose, being crucial grease on the cogs of commerce. You can find websites that let you “roll your own” liability waiver form for whatever event you have planned with just a few clicks. But the proliferation of such releases has to leave us wondering – first, are all these liability waivers enforceable? And second, can we use prospective waivers in the arboriculture industry — such as “by hiring me to trim your tree, you release me of liability if I make it fall on your Yugo” — to absolve ourselves from liability?

A California court grappled with such a release when a developmentally disabled child drowned at a city-run camp for such children. The girl’s mother had signed a release from liability – parents sign those forms all the time, and whoever reads them? – but the trial court and the court of appeals held the release would not release the City from liability for gross negligence. The Supreme Court of California agreed, holding that an agreement to release future liability for negligence in recreational activities could not, as a matter of law, release the City or the employee from liability for gross negligence.

The case includes a detailed review of the history of such releases, and a rationale for determining which types of releases are enforceable, and which are not. Generally, a prospective release may not relieve a grantee of any obligation to meet even a rudimentary standard of care. If Santa Barbara had written its release to relieve it of liability for simple negligence, the release probably would have been valid. But it wrote it too broadly, to release it from any negligence, even gross negligence or recklessness. That was too much for the Court.

Big pigs get slaughtered ... The takeaway - write your release to be reasonable, or a court may ignore all of it.

Big pigs get slaughtered… The takeaway – write your release to be reasonable, or a court may ignore it.

In other words, little piggies go back to the trough, but big piggies get slaughtered.

City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, 62 Cal.Rptr.3d 527, 41 Cal.4th 747, 161 P.3d 1095 (S.Ct.Cal., 2007). The City of Santa Barbara provided extensive summer recreational facilities and activities for children, including a camp for children with developmental disabilities called Adventure Camp. Katie Janeway, who suffered from cerebral palsy and epilepsy participated in the camp. Swimming activities were held on two of five camp days each week in a City swimming pool.

The application form for Adventure Camp included a release of all claims against the City and its employees from liability, including liability based upon negligence, arising from camp activities.

Katie’s mother signed the release in 2002, as she had in prior years. She also told the City about Katie’s disabilities, specifically that the girl was prone to seizures in the water, and that Katie needed supervision while swimming. The City knew the child had suffered such seizures in the past, and camp administrators took special precautions during the Adventure Camp swimming activities in 2002, assigning a special, trained counselor to keep Katie under close observation during the camp’s swimming sessions.

Pants came back from the cleaners with a hole? read the fine print on your claim ticket. There's probably a waiver there.

Pants came back from the cleaners with a hole? Read the fine print on your claim ticket. There’s probably a waiver in there somewhere.

Katie participated in the first swimming day at the 2002 Adventure Camp without incident. On the second swimming day she drowned. About an hour before drowning, Katie had suffered a mild seizure that lasted a few seconds. Her counselor observed the seizure and sent another counselor to report the incident to a supervisor. The supervisor said that the report never was received. Katie’s counselor watched her for 45 minutes following the mild seizure, and then — receiving no word from her supervisor — let Katie go ahead with swimming. Malong concluded that the seizure had run its course and that it was safe for Katie to swim. As Katie dove into the water for the second time that day, the counselor momentarily turned her attention away from Katie. When she looked back no more than 15 seconds later, Katie had disappeared. After the counselor and others looked for Katie for between two and five minutes, an air horn blew and the pool was evacuated. Lifeguards pulled Katie from the bottom of the pool, and she died the next day.

Katie’s parents filed a wrongful death action alleging the accident was caused by the negligence of the City. Relying upon the release, the City moved unsuccessfully for summary judgment. Failing in this, the City appealed, and the appellate court denied the petition, holding the agreement was effective and enforceable insofar as it concerned liability for future ordinary negligence, but concluding that a release of liability for future gross negligence is generally unenforceable, and the release form did not validly release any liability.

The Supreme Court granted review.

Held: The City’s release was invalid to the extent it purported to apply to future gross negligence. The Court observed that “ordinary negligence,” an unintentional tort, consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm. “Gross negligence,” on the other hand, is a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. A signed release absolving the City and its employees from liability for “any negligent act” in its operation of a recreational program for disabled children violated public policy and was thus unenforceable, to the extent it purported to release liability for future gross negligence. Therefore, the Janeways were not precluded from pursuing wrongful death action.

Sure you can impose your waiver in the fine print ... but it's not just boilerplate. Use care in drafting it, or - better yet - spend a little money to have a lawyer do it for you.

Sure you can impose your waiver in the fine print … but it’s not just boilerplate. Use care in drafting it, or – better yet – spend a little money to have a lawyer do it for you Some things are too important for D-I-Y.

The Court said that public policy generally precludes enforcement of agreements that would remove the obligation to adhere to even a minimal standard of care. Courts may, in appropriate circumstances, void contracts on the basis of public policy, the determination of which resides first with the people as expressed in the California Constitution and second with the state legislature. The power of the courts to declare a contract void for being in contravention of sound public policy is a very delicate and undefined power and should be exercised only in cases free from doubt. Nevertheless, the Court said, courts are authorized to distinguish ordinary negligence from gross negligence, even absent express legislative authorization.

The Court grudgingly seemed to accept that waivers of liability for future ordinary negligence – at least in recreational or sports contexts – would be enforceable. However,  California does not permit a waiver of liability for future aggravated negligence. For that matter, neither do an overwhelming number of other states.

Whether this holding might have applicability before recreational and sports activities, such as in “inherently dangerous” activities such as tree removal, is up in the air. While this shouldn’t dissuade an arborist or tree removal company from including a carefully-drawn and limited waiver in the contract, neither should the professional bank on the waiver being enforced.

  – Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, June 1, 2022

ARTIFICIAL DISTINCTIONS

rottentree140408When a tragedy occurs, it’s all too common to look for someone to pay for it. In today’s case, a young man was left a quadriplegic when a healthy-looking tree standing alongside a public highway fell without warning and struck his car. The trial judge was obviously moved by the sad story and felt it was his duty to open the state’s wallet.

The trial judge denied the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development a free pass. The judge recognized that a prior holding relieved the state from the duty to inspect all sides of a tree. But he reasoned that the rule had been adopted in a case where a construction crew’s negligence had weakened the tree on the side away from the road. The trial court here reasoned that this case was different: it was natural rot, and natural rot did require DOTD to inspect all sides of a tree.

Truly a distinction without a difference! Step back and consider the implications of this holding. Besides the fact that why the tree was weakened is really not relevant to the danger it poses, the trial court’s ruling would mandate incredibly costly and time-consuming inspections. A state — even Louisiana — has a lot of highways to inspect. In Louisiana’s case, it amounts to nearly 17,000 miles of road, and a lot of trees. The costs to the taxpayers of a tree-by-tree inspection would be staggering.

A perfect illustration of a distinction without a difference.

A perfect illustration of a distinction without a difference …

The Court of Appeals made short work of the trial judge’s higher “duty.” It held that the law was clear. Where the tree appears healthy — like the one that fell on the victim — the state’s duty could be discharged in a drive-by inspection… no matter why the tree was rotten.

Walker v. State Dept. of Transp. and Development, 976 So.2d 806 (La.App. 2 Cir., 2008). Nathaniel Walker was a passenger in a vehicle being driven by Dannie Evans on Louisiana Highway 71, when a large oak tree fell on the car. Nathaniel was left a quadriplegic, albeit one with a good lawyer. He sued Dannie, Allstate Insurance and the State of Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

Among other things, Walker alleged the oak tree that fell on the vehicle was on the highway right-of-way in violation of highway safety regulations, that DOTD had prior knowledge that the tree needed to be removed and that DOTD failed to inspect the right of way. DOTD moved for summary judgment, arguing that Nathaniel couldn’t any facts in support of his allegation that DOTD had prior knowledge that the tree needed to be removed. DOTD supported this claim with an affidavit from one of its maintenance superintendents who had conducted an inspection of the area in question two weeks before the mishap. The state agency argued that under the law, it owed no duty to motorists traveling on state highways to check for damage on all sides of trees that abut state roadways. The trial court denied summary judgment to DOTD, because the damage to the tree was a result of natural rot as opposed to third-party operated construction equipment. The trial court stated that despite the holding in a prior case – Caskey v. Merrick Const. Co. – the distinction as to how the tree was injured imposed a greater duty to inspect on DOTD.

DOTD appealed.

Held: DOTD won, and Walker’s case was dismissed. The appellate court said in order to recover damages from DOTD, Walker had to prove that the state had ownership or control of the tree which caused the damage; the tree was defective (that is, it created an unreasonable risk of harm); the state had actual or constructive knowledge of the defect and failed to take remedial procedures within a reasonable amount of time, and the state’s failings led to the injuries Walker suffered.

Now this is a distinction without a difference ...

… as is this.

No one contested that DOTD had control over the rotten oak tree, that the rotten oak tree was defective, and that the rotten oak tree caused Walker’s injuries. Instead, the Court held, the primary issue was whether DOTD had actual or constructive knowledge that the tree was rotten. The condition that caused the oak tree in question to fall was visible only on the backside of the tree, out of sight of DOTD inspectors who passed by on the road. There was no genuine issue as to the location of the rotten area in question, or whether the rotten area in question was observable from the roadway. Additionally, the photographs taken at the accident scene revealed that the oak tree was otherwise healthy, containing a full canopy of green leaves.

The Court said that DOTD’s duty to protect against the risk of a tree falling onto a highway required it to inspect for dead trees and remove them within a reasonable time. The state was not required, however, to inspect every tree that conceivably could fall on the road or to remove trees simply because they had the potential to fall onto the road.

In Caskey, the court held that DOTD inspectors had no duty to walk around all sides of the tree and check for damage, particularly when the tree is otherwise green and healthy. The trial court in this case imposed a greater duty on the state than the law required. The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court’s incorrect determination – that a different duty exists when the defect results from natural causes as opposed to artificial causes – was a contradiction of the law, a distinction without a legal difference.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Tuesday, May 31, 2022

EXPERIENCE MATTERS

Ask a Cleveland Browns fan (if there are any left, that is):  Experience really does matter. Grabbing the hottest college quarterback (Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Johnny Manziel, Deshawn Kiser,) with zero NFL experience has not been Jimmy Haslam’s ticket to the Super Bowl.  And then, we got Baker Mayfield. He lasted longer than most, but he’s practically history now. Another college QB standout, sent to Cleveland to die… Next up, quarterback Deshaun Watson. He’s an experienced fighter… unfortunately, many say, the fighting’s been with women, not opposing teams

To borrow Samuel Johnson’s description of a second marriage, it’s the triumph of hope over experience.

Experience does makes a difference. That’s a lesson we can take away from today’s case.

There’s another lesson, too, illustrated by the old criminal law adage that no defendant should ever trust his freedom to 12 people who are too stupid to know how to get out of jury duty. Part of that maxim is based in reality: despite the Constitutional promise of a “jury of your peers,” most trial attorneys know that the jury generally ends up overpopulated with government workers (who get time off with pay for jury duty), such as county workers and schoolteachers, or retirees. Professionals, business owners and managerial types – to name a few – usually finagle their way out of the jury dock.

You're much more likely to get 12 confused jurors than you are to get angry ones ...

You’re much more likely to get 12 confused jurors than you are to get angry ones …

Historically, the facts found by the jury are virtually bulletproof. This is partly because tradition and the Constitution have sanctified the community judging concept represented by juries, and partly because the legal system has to have some method of deciding facts with some finality.

Nevertheless, social scientists tell us that there is wisdom in the crowd. So perhaps the jury is right more than it’s wrong. Perhaps it isn’t. Because the law accords such respect to the secrecy of jury deliberations, we may never know.

Today’s case illustrates how carefully appellate courts parse jury findings. It’s quite common for the trial-court loser to complain on appeal that the jury findings were wrong. As the Maine Supreme Court makes clear to us, it’s quite uncommon for the appellate court to agree.

Back in spring 2011, Keith Anthony asked his neighbor, Paul Gagnon, to help him cut down a rotten tree. Both Keith and Paul were accomplished tree professionals. Paul used a chainsaw on the 30-inch trunk while Keith pushed on it with a Bobcat. Suddenly, the tree “exploded.” A falling limb knocked Paul unconscious and seriously injured him. (Despite the fact that Paul subsequently died during the litigation, he did not succumb to injuries from the tree).

Paul sued Keith for negligence, arguing that Keith should have warned him that the tree could explode, and that he shouldn’t have been pushing on the tree with the skid-steer. In his answer to Paul’s complaint, Anthony argued that Paul was negligent, too, raising what’s known as the affirmative defense of comparative negligence. The trial court jury found that both Keith and Paul were negligent and that Paul was at least as negligent as Keith in causing his own injuries.

explo151116The appellate courts do everything possible to tip the scales in favor of the jury. Its standard of review – the deference the courts of appeal will give the jury’s decision – is to uphold a jury’s verdict if, when viewed in the light most favorable to the winning party, there is any credible evidence in the record to support the verdict. This means that if five witnesses said Keith drove the Bobcat over Paul’s foot, but one witness said that Paul deliberately stuck his foot under the wheels, the jury’s decision to go with the one witness and reject the observations of the other five will be upheld. Appellate litigation can be like watching those hapless Browns get outscored 30-0 by Pittsburgh for the first 59:30 minutes of the game, only to have Cleveland score a single field goal in the final thirty seconds and win.

Here, the Court decided that no one expected the tree to explode. Shortly after the accident, Paul admitted that he didn’t think Keith was doing anything with the skid-steer that contributed to the tree breaking or falling too soon. Keith corroborated the accidental nature of the event, testifying that the tree “just dropped suddenly without warning or anything.”

The Court went out of its way to note that both Paul and Keith “had substantial experience cutting trees and working in the woods, and both were aware of the rotted condition of the tree they were working on.” A Maine arborist testified that using the Bobcat to try to bulldoze the tree over while someone else sawed at it was, charitably put, a stupid idea. Under the circumstances, the Court said, both Paul and Keith should have known better than to try to use a skid-steer to push the tree over.

As for the jury, the Court reasoned that from the evidence, a jury could have concluded that Keith was negligent in operating the Bobcat; (2) either Keith or Paul or both were negligent because they should have known that the way they were cutting down the tree was dangerous; or (3) no one was negligent, and the tree “explosion” was just one of those things. Because the jury could have gone any of several ways on the verdict, its conclusion that both of the guys were knuckleheads was supported by the record.

In other words, there was enough evidence in the record for everyone. When that’s the case, the jury’s decision as to which version to credit stands.

And if you’re experienced enough to know better, a jury is going to hold you to your experience.

A Bobcat of the type that Keith misused ...

A Bobcat of the type that Keith misused …

Estate of Gagnon v. Anthony, 126 A.3d 1142 (Supreme Court of Maine, 2015). Keith Anthony asked his neighbor, Paul Gagnon, to help cut down a rotted tree at Anthony’s place. Both men were experienced woodcutters. The tree to be felled was about thirty inches wide with a large limb growing out of it. Gagnon used a chainsaw to make a wedge cut in the tree below the limb while Anthony used the bucket of his Bobcat skid-steer loader to push the limb away from the house and a nearby sapling. As they performed their respective tasks, the tree “exploded” and the limb fell on Gagnon, injuring him. Gagnon sued Anthony, alleging that Anthony failed to warn him about the possibility that the limb could snap because of the rotted condition of the tree, and also alleging that Anthony was negligent in his operation of the Bobcat. Anthony raised an affirmative defense of comparative negligence under 14 M.R.S. § 156 (2014).

A trial jury found that both Anthony and Gagnon were negligent and that Gagnon was at least as negligent as Anthony in causing his own injuries. The Estate’s motion for a new trial was denied, and this appeal followed.

Held: The jury’s verdict was upheld. The Court said it would uphold a jury verdict if, when viewed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, there is any credible evidence in the record to support the verdict. Gagnon, as the movant, was required to show that the jury verdict was so manifestly or clearly wrong that it is apparent that the conclusion of the jury was the result of prejudice, bias, passion, or a mistake of law or fact.

jury151116The Maine Supreme Court said it was clear from the record that neither man expected the tree to “explode” as it had. In a recorded statement that was admitted in evidence, Gagnon explained that the tree “broke way too soon, it should have never broke at that point.” In his statement, Gagnon placed no blame on Anthony, stating that he did not believe that Anthony was doing anything with the skid-steer that contributed to the tree breaking or falling too soon. Anthony corroborated the accidental nature of the event, testifying that the tree “just dropped suddenly without warning or anything.” Furthermore, the evidence showed that both Gagnon and Anthony had substantial experience cutting trees and working in the woods, and both were aware of the rotted condition of the tree they were working on. The Court dryly observed that “it would not be unreasonable to infer from this circumstance that both men knew, or should have known, the risks associated with cutting the rotted tree, and both should have known that the plan to use the Bobcat to fell that tree was ill-advised.”

The Court said that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to decide any of three ways. The jury could have found that (1) Anthony was negligent in his operation of the Bobcat; (2) either Anthony or Gagnon or both were negligent because the dangerousness of the method they undertook to fell the rotted tree should have been obvious to each; or (3) neither of them was negligent, and the limb falling onto Gagnon was simply an unexpected accident. Where the causal fault of both parties is in dispute, the Court said, “it is the sole prerogative of the jury to determine the comparative degrees of fault of each of the parties to a negligence action.”

Although the record did contain evidence that Anthony accepted some responsibility for Gagnon’s injuries, and although a licensed Maine arborist testified that pushing a tree with a skid-steer is “not the proper way to do it,” the Court ruled that there was sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the jury’s finding that Gagnon was at least as negligent as Anthony.

Thus, the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion in denying Gagnon’s motion for a new trial.

  – Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Friday, May 27, 2022

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 a 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 to 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 quite ill. Thus, she had not lived on her property for three years before the accident. No matter. The families of the deceased young men nevertheless 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 are 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 the 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

TNLBGray