Resident plans to sue Newnan for damage to roof
by Celia Shortt
Newnan resident Anthony Johnson plans to sue the city for damage to his roof during February’s ice storm.
At the Newnan City Council meeting Tuesday, Johnson, who lives at 85 Cole St., said a limb from a tree in the city’s right-of-way fell on his house on Feb. 12, damaging his roof. The estimate he gave at the meeting for the repairs was $968.86.
Johnson said he filed a claim with the city for the repairs on Feb. 24 and received a letter from Newnan City Manager Cleatus Phillips denying his request on March 18.
Phillips’ letter to Johnson included the following reason for denying the claim:
“The limb that fell on Feb. 12, 2014, occurred during a significant ice storm in which several limbs and trees fell around the city. Based upon these findings, the city must deny your request for repairs.”
“That is a poor excuse,” said Johnson of the reason. “If I damage the city’s property, I’m responsible for that property… how can the city say that your property damage is mine and (we’re) not responsible?”
Phillips acknowledged receiving Johnson’s request and said he did dispatch the necessary personnel to remove the limb.
“We’re not debating that it didn’t hit his house, it did hit his house,” he said.
Phillips said he was investigating whether the city was negligent by not previously removing the tree. He had Mike Furbush, landscape architect for the city and head of the beautification department, look at the tree as well as a third party arborist. Both found the tree to be in excellent shape.
“It is a very large tree,” said Phillips. “But based on the fact I didn’t see any negligence — an act of God created the limb — the city petitioned that we were not liable for any damage."
Through his investigation, Phillips also found out that, two to three years ago, a similar request was made about the same tree. He said at that time, they found a few small limbs down and had a tree service remove them.
Johnson agreed and said he had made earlier requests to have downed limbs removed.
“All I’m asking is … for the city to have your insurance carrier send me a check for $968.86 to repair the roof and remove the tree because it is a hazard to four houses and those walking and driving up and down that street,” he said.
Newnan Mayor Keith Brady asked Newnan City Attorney C. Bradford Sears if the city’s liability is greater now that they had been put on notice about the liability to the property.
“If the tree was, in fact, the problem, the city would be liable for more damage,” responded Sears. “Problem is, the location of the tree and the ice storm, the city’s sovereign immunity kicks in, and they are not liable.”
Johnson’s request, Phillips response in his letter, and the subsequent discussion spurred responses from a few council members.
“It sounds to me like we are hiding behind a legality instead of looking at the fact that this man has come in and complained about a tree that now has done damage to his house,” said Council Member Cynthia Jenkins. “And now we’re saying, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to fix your house and we’re not going to remove the tree. And frankly, if it does any more damage to your house, too bad.’ To me, that is not right.”
Sears’ responded that this situation has happened many times before and has never come to the council.
“That doesn’t make it right,” said Jenkins.
“I’m concerned about the precedent of paying for the repair and then having to take the tree down," said Council Member George Alexander.
Council Member Bob Coggin agreed with Jenkins and was concerned with the city acknowledging the risk of the tree during the meeting.
“If we acknowledge the tree represents a risk, we need to do something about it,” said Coggin. “The comment I heard, ‘We’re not going to because we were in an ice storm. There are a lot of other tree limbs that fell and people’s houses got damaged.’ I don’t see that as a reason not to look at this favorably."
Jenkins made a motion for the city to pay for the repairs on Johnson’s roof and have the tree removed. Coggin seconded her motion.
During the discussion, Council Member Dustin Koritko agreed with Alexander’s concern about the precedent they would be setting and the legality of it.
“There is a difference between what is legal and what is right,” he said.
The vote ended in a 4-4 tie, with Brady, Jenkins, Coggin, and Ray DuBose voting for and the rest voting against.
“Under Robert’s Rules of Order, a 4-4 vote is a negative vote,” said Brady. “So, the vote dies. It does not pass.”
Following the vote, Johnson said the city would be hearing from his attorney.