TRIM YOUR TREES: CITIES ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MAINTENANCE AND ARE NOT PROTECTED BY SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY
In a recent decision, the Third District Court of Appeal reviewed a case brought by an injured skateboarder against the City of North Bay Village for failing to maintain its trees.
Jorge Piedra, Jr., a 12 year old minor, and his friend were riding motorized skateboards around the streets of North Bay Village. Both boys approached an intersection crouching over their skateboards. At the same time, a truck driver arrived at the intersection on the adjacent street. Impeding the view between the two was a city-built “bulb-out.” A bulb-out is a curb extension or planted area that extends parallel to the sidewalk onto the street. This particular bulb-out contained foliage and high hedges. The boys claim to have stopped at the intersection and to have seen the truck through the gap in the foliage. The truck driver, however, could not see the boys approach the intersection because the foliage was too high to see them crouched over their skateboards. The truck driver collided with the boys as all three entered the intersection at the same time. Jorge Piedra suffered a broken leg and his parents sued the City for negligently allowing the foliage in the bulb-out to reach a height that impeded the driver’s line of sight.
The City moved for summary judgment arguing that it had sovereign immunity and that the act of planting the bulb-out was a “planning decision rather than an operation decision.” While the Court noted that North Bay Village was correct in asserting that it has sovereign immunity from negligence suits in situations where a decision is based on its city planning functions, the Court found that the maintenance of the bulb-out was not a planning decision, but rather an operational function. The Court reiterated that cities and municipalities do not have sovereign immunity from and can be found negligent for “operational level functions,” including maintenance of trees. The Court cited to a multitude of cases where an intersection was found “dangerous by reason of obstructions to visibility” and where the city has failed to maintain the intersection.
Upon making planning decisions, including those made by enhancement and beautification committees, cities must remember that the approval of a project may be considered a planning decision, but the implementation and maintenance phase of a project could be considered operational functions that are not immune from suit.
 Piedra v. City of North Bay Village, 41 Fla. L. Weekly D1087 (Fla. 3d DCA May 4, 2016).