Court of Special Appeals upholds defense verdict for McCarthy Wilson and Church of Christ, holding that Hurricane Ivan was an “unpredictable force of nature” in Jackson v. Church of Christ. 12/12/2012

Court of Special Appeals upholds defense verdict for McCarthy Wilson and Church of Christ, holding that Hurricane Ivan was an “unpredictable force of nature” in Jackson v. Church of Christ

McCarthy Wilson was privileged to represent the Church of Christ in an action that began in the Circuit Court for Cecil County and, ultimately, appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. The facts and results of the matter are stated below.

Betty Kline, Harry Kline, her husband, and Grace Jackson, her mother, rented a parsonage from the Church of Christ in Colora, Maryland. Next to the house, there was a big oak tree. There was no written rental agreement between the Klines and the Church; also, there was no verbal agreement requiring the Church to take care of the tree.

On September 18, 2004, Hurricane Ivan swept through the town of Colora, Maryland, producing high winds and rain, which caused extensive damage including several uprooted trees. The tree located on the parsonage property was one of the trees uprooted during the storm. Unfortunately, it fell on the parsonage killing Betty Kline and Grace Jackson.

This action was filed in the Circuit Court for Cecil County against the Church of Christ and amended to include Nitz Tree Service, Inc. The Circuit Court for Cecil County granted Motions for Summary Judgment filed by both Defendants stating that the storm constituted an Act of God and further, the Church of Christ did not owe a duty to the Klines regarding the tree. On appeal, the Plaintiffs alleged that the Church of Christ had a duty to ensure the safety of the tree. The Plaintiffs stated that the Church of Christ was on notice of the issues with the tree and undertook the duty to fix it.

However, the only actions taken by the Church concerning the tree include having a tree service thin and remove dead wood from the tree in 1998. In the Summer of 2004, the Church was informed of a fallen branch. A member of the Church called a tree service to trim the dead branches. There was no evidence that the Klines wanted the tree removed completely.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the ruling by the Circuit Court for Cecil County. The Court held that the remnant of Hurricane Ivan which struck the area in September 2004 was an Act of God given the high winds, strong rain and path of uprooted trees. In its opinion, the Court inserted law from the Restatement of Torts (Second) Section 451 regarding intervening extraordinary forces of nature and held that the storm caused by Hurricane Ivan was an “unpredictable force of nature.”

Also, the Court of Special Appeals analyzed the case law regarding landlord/tenant law and the duties of the landlord. The evidence clearly indicated that the Klines had exclusive control over the parsonage and oak tree. Thus, the only landlord duty that could arise is if the landlord promises or begins to rectify a dangerous situation and fails to do so properly. The Court of Special Appeals noted that the Church did not undertake or begin repairs on the tree. There was no evidence showing that the Church was going to remove the tree or ensure the safety of the tree. The fact that the Church called a tree service in 1998 and 2004 to remove dead limbs did not give rise to ensuring the safety of the tree. Accordingly, the Court of Special Appeals found that there was no duty on the part of the Church to maintain the tree.

Recently, the Plaintiffs filed a Writ of Certiorari to the Court of Appeals to review the decision of the Court of Special Appeals.

Overall, McCarthy Wilson was pleased to defend the Church of Christ and proud to obtain such outstanding results at the appellate level in this most interesting matter involving the duty of landlords and Acts of God.