According to a Knoxville News Sentinel report, the city of Knoxville is not liable for a falling branch from a tree planted on the real property of a private landowner that fell onto a Knoxville street and killed a motorist. The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that, pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”), Knoxville is immune from the lawsuit.
Family members brought lawsuits on behalf of the motorist against both the property owner of the tree and against the city. The suit against the property owner was allowed to go forward on a premises liability basis. Under premises liability, a property owner has a duty maintain trees on their property to make sure they are reasonably safe. If you or a loved one has been injured by a falling tree branch or other unsafe condition, you are encouraged to immediately contact a local attorney with experience handling premises liability cases.
However, when the death or injury from a falling tree branch happens on public property, as in the Knoxville death, bringing a premises liability case may be more complicated since governments enjoy protection by what is called “sovereign immunity.” Under sovereign immunity, certain kinds of lawsuits cannot be brought against a governmental entity unless the sovereign immunity has been waived. This may be a surprise to some people; nevertheless, there are strong justifications for sovereign immunity that help protect innocent citizens. For example, when a city is sued, the city may have to raise taxes on its residents, who were not directly involved, to pay for the lawsuit. This doesn’t happen with corporations because corporations enjoy limited liability. If the street had been owned by a corporation, the victim can only claim corporate assets and cannot force the corporate shareholders to pay more. Lawsuits against municipalities can create an onerous burden on the city and the taxpayers having to continually fend off these kind of lawsuits.
In the current case, the Knoxville trial court initially dismissed the claim because of sovereign immunity, and the motorist appealed. The motorist claimed that Knoxville did not have immunity under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”), codified at Tennessee Code Annotated §29-20-101. The GTLA waives sovereign immunity and allows a case to go forward if three elements are present:
- The City owns or controls the location or instrumentality alleged to have caused the injury;
- The location of the instrumentality is defective, unsafe, or dangerous; and
- The City has constructive or actual notice of the condition.
The motorist’s complaint did allege that the street was unsafe because the branch had a large crack and was “leaning heavily towards” the street. Also, according to the complaint, the city had notice because a city employee had inspected the tree and did not remove the branch, and the city had received several complaints from neighbors about the branch. Finally, the motorist alleged that the city had a duty to remove the branch since it adopted the Urban Forest Management Plan (“Plan”) that required Knoxville to remove trees that were a danger to public roads. Nevertheless, the judge disagreed and found the city had immunity from a falling branch since it did not own or control the property where the tree was planted.
The issue was whether a tree on private property is in control of a city. The court recognized that liability may extend to obstructions above a street, like overhanging billboards or bridges. Citing Graham v. Bradley County, No. E2012-02369-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 5234240 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 17, 2013), the Supreme Court of Tennessee held that a tree hanging unsafely over a roadway did not create an obstruction overhanging the roadway. The court found, under Graham, that imposing a duty on a city to check every tree planted on private property for damage would create an insurmountable burden on the city and the tax payers.
The court did not rule on whether the Plan created a duty for the city to remove the branch. When a party brings a motion to rule on sovereign immunity, the appeals court does not have to rule on issues of law. It only looks at the facts of the case and applies it to existing law. Here, the issue of whether the Plan created a duty is an issue of law, and the Appeals court did not make a ruling.
Whether it is on private property or government property, death or injury from a falling branch or other dangerous conditions can carry a physical, emotional, and financial toll. If you or a loved one has been been injured or killed due to the dangerous premises of another, an experienced premises liability attorney will be able to gather evidence related to the accident and can review all the elements of the case. These cases can be complex, and you are encouraged to immediately contact a local attorney with experience handling premises liability cases.
If you have been injured by the unsafe property of another, contact Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C. at (865) 524-5657.
‘Private’ Tree Falling in Road Fails to Create Successful GTLA Claim Against City, Nov. 1, 2013, Tennessee Bar Association
Raley v. City of Knoxville, Oct. 31, 2013, Tennessee Court of Appeals
Graham v. Bradley County, Sept. 17, 2013, Tennessee Court of Appeals
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Tennessee Premise Liability Lawsuit Goes to High Court, Jun. 19, 2013, Knoxville Injury Lawyer Blog
Holiday Shopping & Knoxville Premises Liability Claims, Nov. 23, 2013, Knoxville Injury Lawyer Blog