Case of the Day – Monday, August 13, 2018

POUNDING ON THE TABLE

The old trial strategy aphorism recommends that “if your case is weak on the law, pound on the facts; if it’s weak on the facts, pound on the law; and if it’s weak on the law AND facts, pound on the table.”

transguide140519It doesn’t always work all that well, as our hapless landowners in today’s case, the Wimmers, found out.

“Wimmer” rhymes with “winners,” which is ironic given the outcome in this case. It seems the Wimmers owned land for which they had given the electric utility an easement for its power lines. That’s pretty common – anywhere power or communications lines cross over land, or pipes run under the ground, there’s probably an easement involved. The easement in the Wimmers’ case let Ohio Edison trim and remove trees as needed to keep vegetation clear of the lines.

The Wimmers didn’t want to see much of their foliage cut away, and because trimming and removing trees costs money, the utility didn’t want to do more than was absolutely necessary. Thus, there was a happy confluence of interest that continued for years.

transdanger140519Then came August 14, 2003. Some high-voltage transmission lines owned by the same Ohio Edison – hot from weather and the high electrical demand of the day – sagged into untrimmed trees just south of Cleveland. Three lines shorted out simultaneously. Normally, such a condition would have tripped an alarm at a monitoring center, letting technicians redistribute the load. But a bug in the software permitted what engineers call a “race condition,” and the alarms didn’t sound. The result was a cascading power failure that became the great North American Blackout of 2003, affecting 55 million people on the eastern seaboard and midwestern United States, as well as the province of Ontario.

After that day, everything changed. The public fumed, the media chastised, politicians fulminated. Changes had to be made. Ohio Edison was understandably humiliated by being the utility whose poor vegetation management started it all. Suddenly, occasional and desultory tree trimming became much more scorched earth. For the Wimmers, that meant that the power company’s crews showed up at their place one day to clear-cut the entire easement.

The family took exception to the plan, and sued to stop it. While their case was wending its way through the courts – not very satisfactorily to them, because Ohio Edison was winning every step of the way – the Ohio Supreme Court handed down its decision in Corrigan v. Illuminating Co. (which we, being the thorough types that we are) have discussed previously.  Corrigan held that vegetation management issues fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Common pleas courts had no authority to decide whether tree trimming and removal within easements was prudent or unduly robust.

Mulligan140519The Wimmers recognized a break when they saw one, and promptly took a mulligan. Sadly, they fared no better before PUCO than they had in the state court system. That might be because Ohio Edison rolled out the IEEE standards for vegetation management to an expert witness who had inspected the easement, could identify the individual trees involved, and had facts and figure at her fingertips on the risk each tree posed to the power lines.

There wasn’t any question that the easement permitted Ohio Ed to cut down trees. The only issue was whether it was reasonably necessary. The Wimmers didn’t have any facts to counter the power company’s showing. They didn’t have any compelling legal arguments. All their lawyer could do was pound on the table, and argue that it was speculative that the trees would grow to be a hazard to the power lines.

Well, sure… the expert was only speculating that the trees would grow, and that they would reach the average height for that kind of tree, and for that matter, that there would ever be a high wind or ice storm that would cause them to ensnare the electric lines. Likewise, it’s speculation that the sun will rise in the morning, based on nothing more than a sheer guess loosely based on the fact that it’s done so for the past 1.6 trillion days since the earth was formed. You see where this is going?

Neither PUCO nor the Ohio Supreme Court – which reviewed the agency’s denial of the family’s complaint – was impressed with the Wimmers’ defense. “Who are you going to believe – me, or your own eyes?” their lawyer seemed to argue. The Commission and the Court both answered that question. Actual evidence carried the day.

Pound on the table, indeed.

Wimmer v. PUCO, 131 Ohio St.3d 283, 964 N.E.2d 411 (Sup.Ct. Ohio, 2012). Ohio Edison owned a transmission-line easement running over the Wimmers’ property. For years, Ohio Edison – in accordance with the company’s general policy – trimmed and once in a great while removed trees growing in the easement. But its policy changed after the 2003 Northeastern United States blackout. When the company tried remove all of the trees in the easement, the Wimmers sued to stop it. They went to court, where Ohio Edison won. But before the decision was final, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in Corrigan v. Illuminating Co. that PUCO, not a court, was required to decide whether removal was reasonable.

The area of North America affected by the 2003 Blackout is marked in red.

The area of North America affected by the 2003 Blackout is marked in red.

The Wimmers then took their complaint to PUCO. After an evidentiary hearing, the commission ruled that Ohio Edison could remove the trees.

The Wimmers appealed.

Held: Ohio Edison was permitted to remove the trees. The Supreme Court held that there was “no question that the company has a valid easement,” that “the tree is within the easement,” and that the easement “grants the company the right to remove any tree within the easement that could pose a threat to the transmission lines.”

The Wimmers nevertheless argued that PUCO’s decision that the circumstances permitted Ohio Edison to remove the trees was not reasonable. They argued that Ohio Edison failed to present evidence that their trees “may interfere with or endanger the utility’s transmission lines.” The Wimmers maintained that the utility’s evidence was “long on Ohio Edison’s fear and speculation and short on hard facts.”

The Court disagreed. It found that evidence presented to the commission showed that “the vegetation in question has the genetic disposition to grow to heights tall enough to potentially interfere with” the power lines, and that Ohio Edison “reasonably determined that this vegetation may interfere or threaten to interfere with the transmission line and should be removed.” The utility had presented an expert witness who had described the trees growing in the right-of-way – which she had personally examined – and explained that their average mature heights were well above the height of the power lines. She had testified that “even with continuous trimming and pruning, at least one tree had already grown to within four feet of the line, in violation of the National Electrical Safety Code, which is published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and sets the industry-accepted safety standards.“

groucho140519The Wimmers didn’t present any contrary evidence or challenge the Ohio Edison witness’s credentials, but rather just complained that her testimony was speculative. In order to overturn PUCO’s determination, the Wimmers had to show that the decision was “so clearly unsupported by the record as to show misapprehension, mistake, or willful disregard of duty.” They did not come close to doing that.

The Ohio Supreme Court did, however, “note with approval the commission’s admonition that Ohio Edison ‘attempt to minimize the impact to property owners, to the extent possible and without sacrificing safety and reliability, when performing [utility-vegetation-management] activities’.” The Court dryly observed that “Ohio Edison must comply with the commission’s order.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, August 10, 2018

OOPSIE!

OOPS sign with clipping pathAnyone can make a mistake. Or two.

Consider today’s case on mutual mistake. Mutual mistake is a doctrine that started with a barren cow with a fancy name, Rose 2nd of Aberlour (popularly mislabeled as “Aberlone”), in the case of Sherwood v. Walker, the classic case on mutual mistake in contract law. Well, maybe it didn’t start there, but a generation or two of law students thinks it did. Wherever it started,  the doctrine remains alive and well.

In today’s decision, Mr. Thomas entered into an easement with Ohio Power to let the company string lines across his place to service his neighbor’s new house. But it turned out the house was in another power company’s service area, something no one figured out until after Ohio Power had sliced up Mr. Thomas’s trees. Thomas sued Ohio Power to rescind the easement and for damages, claiming mutual mistake. The trial court disagreed, but the Court of Appeals threw out the easement.

The Court’s most important point was this: maybe Thomas and his neighbor Baker didn’t know where the electric service boundary lay. But after all, they weren’t in the power binness. Why should they know? Ohio Power, on the other hand, was just plain sloppy in not recognizing the problem. In Court-speak, “the equities of this situation show that Ohio Power, as the company in the business of providing electric power, was in a much better position than the Thomases to discover the mistake.”

mistakes141223In order to provide grounds to rescind (undo) a contract, the mistake must be mutual. The Battle of New Orleans was a mutual mistake – Andy Jackson thought we were at war with the British, and British Admiral Thomas Cochrane thought they were still at war with the U.S. Meanwhile, on the mythical planet of Tatooine, it appears that the mistake was not mutual – Obi-wan Kenobi was fully aware that the droids he was with were the ones the storm troopers sought, but he led the storm troopers to believe otherwise. Not a mutual mistake at all.

Thomas v. Ohio Power Co., Slip Copy, 2007 WL 2892029, 2007 -Ohio- 5350 (Ct.App. Ohio, Sept. 27, 2007). The Thomases owned 159 acres of property in Augusta Township. Right next door was land owned by Brent Baker. The Thomas property is within the area served by Ohio Power Company, but the Baker property is served by Carroll Rural Electric Power. Neither of the power companies may provide power to the area assigned to the other without the consent of both companies and the affected customer.

Baker asked Thomas for permission for Ohio Power to take an easement across the Thomas property to bring power to a house Baker planned to build. Thomas agreed. As a result, an easement was executed, and Ohio Power — in reliance on the easement — cut and cleared many trees on the Thomas property and along the neighboring road. But then Baker found out the house wasn’t in the Ohio Power service area, and the other power company wouldn’t permit Ohio Power to provide service to him, frustrating the purpose for the easement. The Thomases sued Ohio Power, seeking rescission of the easement contract and damages. The trial court concluded that the easement was valid and, therefore, not subject to rescission.

The Thomases appealed.

Rose, not barren at all, was worth about 12 times what farmer Sherwood sold her for.

Rose, not barren at all, was worth about 12 times what farmer Sherwood sold her for.

Held: The parties had made a mutual mistake, and the contract should be rescinded. Mutual mistake is grounds for rescission of a contract if there is a mistake made by both parties as to a material part of the contract, and where the party complaining is not negligent in failing to discover the mistake. A mistake is material to a contract when it is “a mistake … as to a basic assumption on which the contract was made [that] has a material effect on the agreed exchange of performances.” Thus, the intention of the parties must have been frustrated by the mutual mistake.”

In order to claim mutual mistake as a basis for rescinding a contract, a complaint must allege (1) the existence of a contract; (2) a material mutual mistake by the parties when entering into the contract; and (3) no negligence in discovering the mistake on the complainant’s behalf. Here, the Court said, the purpose of the easement was to provide electric power to the Thomases’ neighbor. Both the Thomases and Ohio Power believed Ohio Power could provide electric power to that neighbor, but they were both mistaken about that fact. Ohio Power was in a better position to know that this belief was mistaken than the Thomases, and thus, the Court held, the contract should have been rescinded at the Thomases’ request.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

Case of the Day – Thursday, August 9, 2018


UNSNARLING DUTIES

negligence-overviewWhen negligence rears its ugly head, compensation usually depends on the extent of the duty owed the victim by the party whose pocket the injured plaintiff seeks to pick. Take Tim Jones, an experienced cable television installer. One cold day in the bleak midwinter, he climbed an Indiana Bell pole to work on a cable installation. On the way down, he grabbed a phone line instead of a ladder rung. Not being intended as a support structure, the line gave way, and down Mr. Jones went.

Having no evidence that Indiana Bell knew the line was defective and likely to fall away from the pole, Mr. Jones did the only thing he could do – he sued anyway. The issue was a little daunting, because Indiana Bell hadn’t ever hired Mr. Jones. Instead, it just rented pole space to the cable company, which in turn hired the company that employed Jones. So what duty did the telephone company owe Jones in this totem-pole relationship?

Not that much of one, as it turned out. Mr. Jones lost his case, but the Court of Appeals took the opportunity to clarify the duty an easement holder has to invitees on the easement. The lesson is one that a utility holding an easement for, say, power lines, might owe to the employee of a tree-trimming service brought in to keep the easement clear of vegetation.

Jones v. Indiana Bell Telephone Co., 854 N.E.2d 1125 (Ind.App., 2007). Timothy Jones was doing a cable equipment upgrade for Sentry Cable, a cable TV provider. Jones – who had been doing this type of work for about twenty years and was aware of the associated dangers – was working as a subcontractor on this project. He was wearing the appropriate safety equipment.

The plucky old Field Marshal might have been Jones' lawyer here ... but the attack failed nonetheless.

The plucky old Field Marshal might have been Jones’ lawyer in this case … but the legal attack on the easement holder failed nonetheless.

Jones climbed a telephone pole owned by Indiana Bell, in order to access the cable TV line, which was located about a foot above the telephone line. On his way down, he grabbed the telephone line like it was a ladder rung. It wasn’t. It broke free, and Jones fell 20 feet to the ground, breaking his ankle. Jones sued the phone company for negligence.

At trial, Jones admitted he hadn’t observed any problems with either the telephone line or the clamp assembly. He also admitted he had no evidence that Indiana Bell knew that there was anything wrong with the pole, telephone line, or clamp assembly. Indiana Bell moved for judgment “based upon the … absence of any evidence of a breach of duty as the duty is established in Indiana law.” The trial court found Indiana Bell had no duty to Jones, and granted judgment to the phone company.

Jones appealed.

Held: Indiana Bell owed Jones nothing.

The Court observed that to prevail on a theory of negligence, Jones had to show Indiana Bell owed him a duty, it breached the duty, and his injuries were caused by the breach. Whether a defendant owes a duty of care to a plaintiff is a question of law for the court to decide. Whether an act or omission is a breach of one’s duty is generally a question of fact for the jury, but it can be a question of law where the facts are undisputed and only a single inference can be drawn from those facts.

The parties and the Court focused on the Indiana Supreme Court’s opinion in Sowers v. Tri-County Telephone Co., which involved a telephone utility, the employee of an independent contractor, and a discussion of both duty and breach. In Sowers, the telephone company hired Covered Bridge Tree Service to trim trees located near its telephone lines and clear a right of way in order to ease the work of crews mounting cable television lines on the same poles. While trimming trees, a Covered Bridge employee fell into an abandoned manhole.

manhangfromtelephonepole140603The phone company did not own the land on which the manhole was located, but it had a prescriptive easement on the land. Sowers sued Tri-County for negligence, and the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Tri-County. The Sowers court held that a landowner or occupier is under a duty to exercise reasonable care for the protection of business invitees and that the employees of independent contractors are business invitees. The court held that Tri-County did not have a duty to inspect and warn and that the boundaries of Tri-County’s duty of reasonable care to its business invitees “must be defined from the utility’s own use of the easement.”

But here, the Court said, the facts of Sowers were distinguishable (which means that they make the case different, not that there was anything especially celebratory about them). There, the telephone utility itself hired the tree service company, whose employee was then injured while on the telephone utility’s easement. Here, Indiana Bell just rented space on its telephone poles to the cable company, whose subcontractor was then injured on Indiana Bell’s telephone pole. Still, the Court said, the policy reasons articulated in Sowers apply to this case, making the duties owed the same. Sowers first acknowledged that a telephone utility is a special breed in that it is not a traditional landowner or occupier. In addition, it acknowledged that a telephone utility does not often access its property except for the occasional necessity to effect repairs. Because of these facts, Sowers concluded that a great burden would be placed on a telephone utility if it were required to conduct regular inspections of its property for the sole purpose of discovering possible hazards.

Applying Sowers here, the Court concluded, Indiana Bell owed a duty of reasonable care to its invitees – including Jones – but the duty did not include the duty to inspect and warn. However, to the extent that Indiana Bell learned of dangerous conditions on its poles, it had a duty to warn its invitees. The evidence did not show Indiana Bell had any actual knowledge of the dangerous condition, meaning that the trial court properly entered judgment on the evidence in favor of Indiana Bell.

– Tom Root

Case of the Day – Wednesday, August 8, 2018

I DON’T REALLY LIKE YOU

hate151228How many of us, while standing in line at the DMV or quaking with fear in front of an IRS auditor, worry about what might happen to us if we somehow offend one of these officious little paper-pushers?

Do you need a building permit? Kiss my ring, peasant! Don’t like your property valuation? Let’s see you do something about it! Want the city to do something about a dangerous tree overhanging the street? What’s it worth to you?

Is there anyone who hasn’t wanted to unload on some governmental employee whose only purpose in life seems to be stealing the oxygen needed by people who actually create value? We read about it all the time – IRS workers sitting on applications filed by people they don’t like. Building inspectors who demand some grease for their palm in order to get anything done. Small-town cops riding someone they don’t like. But what can you do about it?

John Mangino thought he knew. He bought some rental units in Patchogue, New York, and rounded up tenants. He bought his local permit to be a landlord, too. But when it was time to renew two years later, John decided he shouldn’t have to buy a piece of paper from the local government in order to manage his own property.

The City issued misdemeanor summonses to Mangino to force him to give them his money. He responded with a blunderbuss lawsuit challenging everything he could think of related to the rental permit program. The Village raised the stakes, telling him in so many words that it would make his life as a landlord a regulatory hell if he didn’t cave on the permit.

Need the assistance of a government functionary? Kiss the ring ...

Need the assistance of a government functionary? Kiss the ring …

Finally, the Village made good on the threat. When one of Mangino’s tenants complained to Mangino wouldn’t let them in without a warrant. The inspectors called the fire department, which stormed the place – sirens blaring – to look for the electrical short. They didn’t find any sparks, but the smoke-eaters found a passel of housing violations that – along with a cascade of criminal charges for not buying the rental permit – landed on Mangino’s head.

Mangino sued the Village under a Federal law – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – that lets a person sue state and local officials for violating one’s constitutional rights under color of state law. That is, when a local official misuses the law to give someone the shaft. He claimed that Village inspectors tried to shut him up in violation of the First Amendment, and engaged in abuse of process, by misusing the housing code to retaliate against him because they just didn’t like him.

The District Court threw out the case, holding that because the summonses for not buying a rental permit were based on probable cause – that is, the charges were righteous because he really did break the law – the fact that they may have been intended to shut him up didn’t matter.

As far as the abuse of process claim, the law was not clear whether probable cause would likewise defeat such a claim. In other words, it could be that if there was reason to believe he had broken the law, there could not by abuse of process. Or maybe not. But because the law was unsettled, the officials were entitled to immunity from prosecution. Only if the law is clearly established and an official breaks it anyway will the government employees be liable to us commonfolk.

Sadly, the rule is smile at all those miserable little twits, grit your teeth, and show fealty. The alternative is too expensive and uncertain to contemplate.

Mangino v. Village of Patchogue, 808 F.3d 951 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, 2015). About 14 years ago, John Mangino and his wife bought an apartment building in Patchogue, New York. When they got the place, they applied for a two-year rental permit and began renting apartments to tenants. When his permit expired in, the Manginos did not bother to renew it.

There was some suggestion in the case that Mangino might have had some substandard rental property.

There was some suggestion in the case that Mangino might have had some substandard rental property.

In January 2005, James Nudo, the Patchogue Housing Inspector, issued criminal summonses to the Manginos for continuing to rent out apartments without a rental permit. Mangino challenged in court these summonses and their manner of service, as well as the validity of the Village’s rental-permit law.

Mangino said that, in response to his lawsuit, the Village prosecutor threatened him that if he did not settle his litigation against the Village or accept a plea bargain on the criminal charges, he would be “hit with a barrage of summonses.”

A few months later, one of Mangino’s tenants asked the Village Housing Department to check the power in her apartment. Nudo answered Gucciardo’s call, and later reported Gucciardo had told him she feared that the conditions in her apartment, which included electrical problems, would result in a fire. Gucciardo called again a few days later to complain that the outlets in her apartment were sparking. A Village inspector went over to the apartments immediately, but Mangino refused to let him in without a warrant. The inspector told Mangino that he’d call the fire department if he wasn’t allowed in. Mangino still refused, so the inspector called in an “all encompassing general alarm.”

When the Village firemen arrived, they inspected the building, including Gucciardo’s apartment and the basement. They did not find any sparking or arcing outlets in Gucciardo’s apartment, but they did notice two fire protection code violations. The firefighters called in the inspector, who was waiting outside. He cited Gucciardo for the conditions, and required him to get them fixed within 90 days.

A few days later, inspectors returned to inspect Gucciardo’s apartment with her consent. On the same day, they issued 18 separate summonses to Mangino for a variety of alleged violations of the Village Code. A few weeks later, Mangino was served with additional more summonses dated August 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16, for failure to renew his rental permit on those dates. Although Mangino admits that he did not have a rental permit in August 2005 and that he continued to rent apartments in his building during this time, all of the summonses issued to him for violation of the Village’s rental-permit law were ultimately dismissed.

Mangino sued Village officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights. Mangino’s sole First Amendment claim was for retaliation and his Fourth Amendment claims included abuse of process and warrantless entry. The District Court dismissed Mangino’s retaliation claim because he hadn’t shown that the Village’s allegedly retaliatory conduct chilled the exercise of his First Amendment rights. The District Court dismissed Mangino’s Fourth Amendment abuse-of-process claim on the ground that Village officials enjoyed qualified immunity against such claims. Mangino’s warrantless entry claim went to trial, where the jury found against him.

Mangino appealed.

Held: Mangino loses.

The Court of Appeals held that the District Court was wrong to dismiss the First Amendment retaliation claim because Mangino hadn’t proved that his speech was “chilled,” that is, that the retaliation caused him to curtail his speech. Rather, the Court of Appeals said Mangino had standing to sue if he could show either that his speech has been adversely affected by the government retaliation or that he has suffered some other concrete harm.

However, the Court said, “the existence of probable cause will defeat … a First Amendment claim that is premised on theviol151228 allegation that defendants prosecuted a plaintiff out of a retaliatory motive, in an attempt to silence him. Here, there was probable cause for each of the criminal summonses issued to Mangino, and Mangino admitted as much. Because there was probable cause, the District Court was right to dismiss Mangino’s First Amendment retaliation claim insofar as it is premised on the summonses.

But Mangino’s First Amendment retaliation claim was also premised on the investigator’s issuance of the non-criminal fire protection code violation tickets . Because those were civil matters, probable cause cannot defeat Mangino’s First Amendment claim. But the fact that the tickets were justified – and that the regulatory action, even if unjustified, was not significantly more serious than other action the Village had discretion to take.

The Court of Appeals held that Inspector Nudo was entitled to qualified immunity on the abuse of process claim. A governmental official is entitled to qualified immunity when there is no clearly established right that he or she violated by the conduct at issue. The Court of Appeals held that here, it was not clearly established that probable cause was not a complete defense to a claim of abuse of process. Since the Village’s citation of Mangino had occurred, case law had suggested that abuse of process is “misusing or misapplying process justified in itself for an end other than that which it was designed to accomplish.” In other words, an improper motive for doing something that is otherwise proper may be enough to establish abuse of process.

The Court of Appeals did not decide which standard was right. Instead, it held that the precise definition was not established at the time the Village cited Mangino, and where the state of the law is not clearly established, Mr. Nudo and the other Patchogue officials were entitled to immunity. The Court said, “If the district judges in the Southern District of New York, who are charged with ascertaining and applying the law, could not determine the state of the law with reasonable certainty, it seems unwarranted to hold … officials to a standard that was not even clear to the judges …”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray

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.

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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

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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

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