Damage claim: The wrong venue
Savannah Morning news Editorial, November 19, 2011
WHAT HAPPENED to Shanta Greene was horrific. A year ago last summer, a massive tree branch fell on her while she was inside a pickup truck traveling along Bee Road. Her right leg was crushed.
Then it was amputated.
On Thursday, Ms. Greene, 29, and her lawyer, Howard Spiva, appeared before City Council.
Ostensibly, they were there to talk about whether the city was failing to properly trim and maintain trees and whether that was putting the city at risk for increased injury claims. At least that’s how city officials recalled it.
But according to Mr. Spiva, the city knew all along that he wanted to talk to elected officials about an injury claim for Ms. Greene.
So which was it? Was City Council “bamboozled” by a trial lawyer hoping for public exposure and sympathy for a client, as Mayor Otis Johnson claimed? Or was Mr. Spiva trying to point out dangerous flaws in the city’s tree-trimming program?
It’s hard to believe the city would have let Mr. Spiva and Ms. Greene on the agenda, knowing that he might turn the council’s chambers into a courtroom. “Either meet to mediate,” he said, “or we file suit and the war begins.” Not exactly words of encouragement for a more robust Park and Tree Department.
In a “forest city,” trimming dead limbs before they fall is necessary for public safety. That said, it appears there’s ample disagreement about whether the city is liable for damages.
The city’s risk management staff has denied Ms. Green’s damage claim on the basis that there was no sign of rot and no indication that a massive tree limb was about to fall. Hence, no liability.
But Mr. Spiva maintains that city cutbacks to the Park and Tree Department have been so severe that the city isn’t properly monitoring trees for problems. He also produced city records, which he said show that the city had been called out previously to deal with rotting issues affecting the tree that dropped a limb on Ms. Greene.
Clearly, the two sides are at an impasse. The city claims it’s not at fault. Mr. Spiva says his client has incurred more than $760,000 in medical expenses and seeks at least $2 million more for future medical costs and loss of income. Since she’s only 29, that’s not a big pile of money.
You can’t exactly blame Mr. Spiva for going to City Council to potentially cut a deal. There’s a precedent.
After all, the council quietly agreed to settle a claim lodged by one of its own members, Alderwoman Mary Osborne, for more than $50,000 for flood damage to her house going back three years. That’s well over the city’s normal six-month limit to file a claim for damages.
Ms. Greene deserves the public’s sympathy and prayers. Her accident and losses are awful.
But City Council isn’t the place for a debate between two warring parties. The proper venue is the courthouse. Whether the limb that fell on Ms. Greene was an act of God or the result of negligence is up to the court to decide — based on facts, not politics.
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