Appeals Court: MDOT not responsible for tree branch that crashed into parade float

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gavel generic(WAVE 3 News)
Updated: Apr. 11, 2021 at 9:09 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Two women injured in a 2015 St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ocean Springs can’t sue the state for the low-hanging tree branch that crashed into their float and injured them, so says the state’s appellate court.

Last week, the Mississippi Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision that the two could not sue the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) for failing to trim the branch, a more than 16-foot-long limb that hung over the parade route on U.S. 90.

Following the incident, two couples filed suit against the transportation department, saying the agency was responsible for trimming the branch and had failed to do so.

They said that because of the agency’s negligence, the float hit the branch, causing it to break off and injure Linda Calhoun and Janan Holland, two riders. It was not known the extent of the individuals’ injuries.

In a split decision, the court ruled that the plaintiffs “did not produce any evidence which would bring their claim for causation beyond speculation, let alone (show) how there was a specific breach of the ministerial duty” on the behalf of MDOT.

Three judges, though, disagreed, saying that the branch should have been trimmed per the agency’s policy.

“MDOT’s policy is to maintain at least 14 feet of vertical clearance on highways to ensure that vehicles pass under any vertical obstacles without collision,” Judge Anthony Lawrence wrote in the dissent.

“The 11.6-foot float, which was measured by MDOT’s expert, was obviously lower than 14 feet and struck a tree branch over Highway 90, which was inspected for safety a few weeks before the incident.”

At the heart of the matter was whether the parade route had been properly maintained and inspected.

MDOT Tracy Woods, an area superintendent for Jackson, George, and Stone counties, said he had inspected the site approximately 10 days before the parade.

He testified that no branches were hanging down at the time and that had he noticed a problematic limb he would have reported it.

Branches hanging over state-maintained roads are typically removed if they hang below 14 feet, because street-legal vehicles, like floats and tractor-trailers, could hit them.

“For his part, he had never reported any low-lying limbs nor anything in the roadway that might bump a vehicle up into a limb above the 14-foot cut-off,” the court wrote in its ruling.

Dissenters, though, question whether Woods would have noticed the branch during his inspection.

Woods did what is called a “windshield” evaluation of highway conditions while driving along the roadway at 40 to 50 miles per hour.

He notated what deficiencies he noticed and wrote them down on an inspection sheet.

“Woods inspected for potholes, pavement rutting, pavement cracking, et cetera, as all are marked as having occurred. But the one inspection that could have prevented the plaintiffs from colliding with a low-lying limb is not only absent from the report; there is no place on the report to indicate whether such an inspection was even done.”

A standardized reporting form does include a category to report vegetation problems, something the appellate court noted that Woods had done in previous inspections.

Woods himself claimed that the branch was not hanging lower than 14 feet during his inspection and that it had likely fallen lower afterward.

He testified that either something happened to the limb following the date of inspection or that an oversized vehicle hit it, causing it to hang lower.

Affirming the lower court’s decision were Judges Donna Barnes, Virginia Carlton, Jack Wilson, Jim Greenlee, and Joel Smith.

Judge Deborah McDonald concurred in part but did not write a separate opinion.

Judges Lawrence and Latrice Westbrooks dissented, with McDonald joining in part.

Judge John Emfinger did not participate.

The case was initially filed in Jackson County Circuit Court.

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