Inverse Condemnation Liability Found When City-Owned Tree Falls on Private Property
by Derek P. Cole on August 20, 2014
If a tree falls in the middle of a forest when no one is around, one can debate whether it makes a sound. But if a city-owned tree falls on private property and causes damage, the city’s liability cannot be debated. So ruled a court on August 14, 2014.
In City of Pasadena v. Superior Court (Mercury Casualty Company), the Second District Court of Appeal considered an insurance company’s claim for property damages its insured suffered from a severe windstorm. The company alleged that hurricane-like winds had caused a city-owned tree to fall on its insured’s house, causing damage for which the company paid out on an insurance claim. The tree was one of 60,000 trees the city owned as part of a comprehensive street-beautification program designed to improve its residents’ and visitors’ quality of life.
The insurance company—which assumed its insured party’s right to sue by paying the insured’s claim—sued the city for inverse condemnation. It alleged the damage the tree caused was a taking without just compensation.
To prove liability, the insurance company was required to show action by the city that was taken for a public purpose. The city claimed no action could be shown because the fallen tree was not part of a public program.
The court disagreed for two key reasons:
- The tree at issue, like the thousands the city owned, were catalogued and maintained under an arborist’s supervision.
- The tree was also part of a program intended to beautify the city and enhance the quality of life.
Based on this evidence, the court held that the tree, although a natural object, could be as much a public improvement as anything manmade. The court thus found that the city could be liable for inverse condemnation due to the damage the fallen tree caused.
Implications for Local Agencies
The court’s ruling is problematic for public agencies. The windstorm that caused the tree to fall was an unusually strong one. It damaged 5,500 and uprooted 2,000 other trees the city owned. Given the storm’s extensive impacts, it is doubtful the city could have foreseen and prevented the damage to the private property at issue. This is not a case where more diligence and care could have been taken.
As this case will undoubtedly be relied on as a basis for future lawsuits, the effect of the case will be to increase the costs local government must bear in providing aesthetic programs like the one at issue. Because inverse condemnation is based on “strict” liability, the precautions and standard of care an agency exercises are generally not defenses. Therefore, agencies that wish to beautify their environs with natural improvements will need to factor in the cost of such potential liability in choosing to provide such programs.