Scope of Liability for City Trees Narrowed

October 2, 2017 | Bulletin No. 127413.1

In Mercury Casualty Co. v. City of Pasadena (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 917 ("Mercury Casualty"), a California court of appeal held that a city may only be held liable for injuries caused by an uprooted tree on city-owned property if the tree is part of a planned project or design serving a public purpose or use. 

Facts

In 2011, a powerful storm in the City of Pasadena, California ("City"), uprooted more than 2,000 trees across the city. One of those trees fell on the home of Sarah and Christopher Dusseault, causing severe property damage. Although the City owned the tree, there was no record of who planted the tree.

A suit was brought by Mercury Casualty Company, the Dusseaults' insurer, alleging that the City was liable for the damages caused by the uprooted tree. Mercury argued that the tree was a public improvement maintained for a public purpose, and thus was entitled to recover damages under a theory of inverse condemnation.

The trial court agreed with Mercury's argument and entered judgment in the sum of $800,000. The City appealed both the judgment and the damage award.

Court's Decision

Inverse condemnation originates from Article I, section 19 of the California Constitution. It authorizes private suit against public entities where governmental action causes damages particular to a private person. This includes physical injuries to real property caused by a public improvement designed and constructed by a public entity.

In Mercury Casualty, the court was unwilling to categorically name trees as works of public improvement for the purposes of inverse condemnation suits. Instead, a tree could only be a work of public improvement if the tree was "deliberately planted by or at the direction of the government entity as part of a planned project or design serving a public purpose or use." The court emphasized the fact that successful inverse condemnation suits in precedential cases involved improvements that were "deliberately designed and constructed." Since there was no record of who planted the tree or for what purpose, the court declined to label it as a work of public improvement.

The court also declined to extend liability due to the City's tree protection ordinance. That ordinance established a general policy of maintaining and removing trees located in areas under the control of the City, but was not sufficient to constitute a design for a public project or improvement. The ordinance was also insufficient to prove that the City assumed responsibility for maintaining the tree. In order to succeed on an inverse condemnation claim based on the government's assumption of maintenance responsibility, the plaintiff needed to prove that the government's program was deficient in light of a known risk. That standard was not met here.

Governments are not fully immunized from liability caused by falling trees, such as in claims based on dangerous conditions of public property that cause damage to adjacent private property. But in order for an inverse condemnation suit to succeed based on damages caused by a tree, the plaintiff must show the tree was planted by the government as part of a deliberate plan to achieve a public purpose.

What This Means For Cities

As a result of this ruling, cities are exposed to less liability for damages caused by city trees. Of course, this reduction in liability will have a greater impact in more established jurisdictions than newer jurisdictions, as tree installation in newer communities typically occurs in conjunction with planned development. Moving forward, trees installed in conjunction with planned developments should to be prioritized for inspection and maintenance to minimize liability.

Questions?

If you have any questions concerning this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult:

Maggie Stern
mstern@kmtg.com | 916.321.4500