According to a Knoxville News Sentinel report, the city of Knoxville is not liable for a falling branch from a tree planted on the real property of a private landowner that fell onto a Knoxville street and killed a motorist. The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that, pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act ("GTLA"), Knoxville is immune from the lawsuit.
Family members brought lawsuits on behalf of the motorist against both the property owner of the tree and against the city. The suit against the property owner was allowed to go forward on a premises liability basis. Under premises liability, a property owner has a duty maintain trees on their property to make sure they are reasonably safe. If you or a loved one has been injured by a falling tree branch or other unsafe condition, you are encouraged to immediately contact a local attorney with experience handling premises liability cases.
However, when the death or injury from a falling tree branch happens on public property, as in the Knoxville death, bringing a premises liability case may be more complicated since governments enjoy protection by what is called "sovereign immunity." Under sovereign immunity, certain kinds of lawsuits cannot be brought against a governmental entity unless the sovereign immunity has been waived. This may be a surprise to some people; nevertheless, there are strong justifications for sovereign immunity that help protect innocent citizens. For example, when a city is sued, the city may have to raise taxes on its residents, who were not directly involved, to pay for the lawsuit. This doesn't happen with corporations because corporations enjoy limited liability. If the street had been owned by a corporation, the victim can only claim corporate assets and cannot force the corporate shareholders to pay more. Lawsuits against municipalities can create an onerous burden on the city and the taxpayers having to continually fend off these kind of lawsuits.