Damage Caused by City-Owned Tree May Allow for Recovery Under Inverse Condemnation

Landowner Liability and Real Estate Law by Simon Offord, Esq.

The recent case of City of Pasadena v. Superior Court dealt with a situation whereby a city-owned tree fell on a private residence during a windstorm, causing damage.  The insurer for the homeowner paid benefits to the homeowner, and then sued the City for inverse condemnation and nuisance based on the damages caused by the tree.

The City filed a motion for summary adjudication, arguing that the tree was not a work of public improvement and that the insurer failed to submit evidence establishing negligence by the City.  The trial court denied the motion, and the City sought a writ of mandate.

THE DECISION

The appellate court denied the City’s petition for a writ of mandate.  The Court concluded that there were triable issues of material fact as to whether the tree was a part of work of public improvement.  The was evidence that showed that the tree was a street tree that was part of a city program to enhance its residents’ and visitors’ quality of life.  Moreover, the Court held that the city failed to meet its burden on summary adjudication to establish that it had fulfilled its duty of care.  As a result, the burden never shifted to the insurer to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the City had been negligent in its maintenance of the tree.

WHY THIS DECISION IS IMPORTANT

Article I, Section 19 of the California Constitution provides that private property “may be taken or damaged for a public use and only when just compensation . . . has first been paid to the . . . owner”.  Therefore, this case clarifies that it is possible for a homeowner (or its assign, as here, the insurer) to seek to recover damages under an inverse condemnation theory when a home is substantially damaged.  Typically, we think of inverse condemnation cases being limited to some sort of explicit taking, such as taking land for the construction of public transportation or roads.

COMMENT

The most interesting take-away from this case may be the fact that the prevailing party in an inverse condemnation action may be awarded their attorney fees (C.C.P. § 1036).  Therefore, by filing suit under an inverse condemnation theory, the plaintiffs here have given themselves an additional sword to wield in negotiating a settlement.  One would assume that the legislature did not envision that a homeowner would prevail on an inverse condemnation case when damage occurred because of a broken tree, however this decision suggests such a result is possible.

City of Pasadena v. Superior Court, 228 Cal. App. 4th 1228

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