Although you might think negligence is a matter of “common sense,” the law is often not so simple. There are many situations in which a defendant who you might assume is negligent can still avoid liability due to a particular state law. Such exceptions unfortunately may leave victims with little or no recourse to seek damages.
Patton v. Cumberland Corporation
A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals illustrates how one of these special legal exceptions work in practice. This case involves a single-vehicle truck accident. The plaintiff was riding in a truck with another man when it hit a fallen power cable. Although the driver tried to avoid the cable, the wire “caught the rear of the truck, lifting it 18 inches or more off the ground,” according to court records.
The driver later testified that one of the poles that had been holding the cable “burned off and fell over.” The plaintiff himself noted that the areas was filled with smoke at the time of the accident. The source of that smoke was a nearby quail hunting reserve owned by the defendant.
As part of its regular maintenance and improvement of the reserve, the defendant instructed its employees to conduct “controlled burns” of the property. On the day before the plaintiff’s accident, three employees “executed a controlled burn of approximately 100 acres.” According to the employees, the burn lasted about 90 minutes and they “made sure the firebreaks were clear, checked for hot spots, and poured water on any areas that were still burning.” But later that evening, one of the employees said he “came across a burning area that was outside of the firebreak and near a power pole.”
The plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging its negligence in managing the controlled burn caused the power pole to burn and the cable to fall onto the road. The defendant, in turn, moved for summary judgment, arguing it was immune from liability under Georgia law–specifically, the Prescribed Burn Act.
This Act sets forth the requirements for conducting a legal, controlled burn. So long as a property owner complies with these requirements, it cannot be held liable for “damages or injury caused by fire or resulting smoke unless it is proven that there was gross negligence in starting, controlling, or completing the burn.” The trial court agreed with the defendant that the Act applied to this case and therefore dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit.
The plaintiff appealed, but the Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge’s decision. The appeals court explained that the plaintiff failed to present any evidence that the defendant’s “failed to ensure the fire was adequately confined before leaving the area.” In other words, the defendant complied with the terms of the Act. Nor was their proof of any “gross negligence.” Even if the controlled burn led to the burning of the pole with the power cable, that alone does not prove gross negligence, the Court of Appeals concluded. Indeed, the Act only required the defendant’s employees to exercise “at least slight diligence in handling the controlled burn” to pass the gross negligence threshold, which they clearly did.