published Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Tree crushes cars; South Pittsburg says it's not liable

Taylor Smallwood, whose car was crushed when high winds toppled a large tree in front of Christ Episcopal Church in South Pittsburg, Tenn., inspects the damage. Officials say the city is not liable for the damage, but Smallwood's mother has asked the City Commission to reconsider its decision. 
Photo by Ryan Lewis
Taylor Smallwood, whose car was crushed when high winds toppled a large tree in front of Christ Episcopal Church in South Pittsburg, Tenn., inspects the damage. Officials say the city is not liable for the damage, but Smallwood's mother has asked the City Commission to reconsider its decision. Photo by Ryan Lewis

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — When high winds toppled a large tree last month in front of Christ Episcopal Church along Third Street in South Pittsburg, it crushed three cars on its way to the ground.

Terrie Smallwood said two of the cars' owners had comprehensive insurance to cover the damage, but her daughter, Taylor, did not.

At this week's South Pittsburg City Commission meeting, Smallwood asked city leaders to reconsider the town's liability in the matter.

"It totaled her car," Smallwood said. "[My daughter] doesn't have comprehensive [car insurance]. She works a minimum-wage job. That was her only means of transportation."

Mayor Jane Dawkins said the city's responsibility was to "turn it over to the insurance company."

South Pittsburg carries liability insurance through the Tennessee Municipal League's Risk Management Pool, City Administrator Sammy Burrows said, and the town submitted the incident on April 17.

"Their opinion was that it did not represent any liability on our part," he said.

Smallwood said church officials told her the tree was on city property, so they are not liable for the damage, and city officials told her "nothing was wrong with the tree."

"They just said, 'Well, you should have had better insurance,'" she said. "When you work a minimum-wage job, you get the insurance you can afford."

Some questioned whether the city is responsible for inspecting the trees on its property, especially the older ones, but City Attorney Tracy Wooden said as far as he knows it isn't.

"I am aware of no law that requires the city to make regular inspections of trees," he said. "We have liability insurance, and we have to rely on that. They have lawyers, adjusters and experts that look at those things."

Smallwood said the tree's root system was "above ground," and there was hardly a hole left behind when it fell.

"It was a great old tree," she said. "I understand why nobody wants to cut those [down], but there are trees on either side. The wind didn't blow those down. Obviously, this tree had problems."

"Just because a tree falls, that doesn't put liability on anyone," Wooden said.

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryanlewis34@gmail.com.

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