In Fladwood v. City of St. Paul, the appellate court holds that the act of removing a tree is a ministerial duty, not a discretionary duty and, as such, vicarious official immunity did not apply.
In January 2013, a forestry crew working for the City of St. Paul was removing a tree in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The crew first removed the top portion of the tree, then were working on removing the remaining trunk. The crew leader decided to use the logs that had been removed from the top of the tree as a “crash pad” for the remaining trunk to land on to prevent damage to sidewalks and streets. The crew built the crash pad in the middle of the street where they expected the tree to fall. Several bystanders were in the area watching the tree removal. The safety standards adopted by the city required bystanders to be outside a radius of twice the height of the tree. The tree was 27 feet tall and, therefore, the radius of the safe-work zone was 54 feet from the base of the tree. Mr. Fladwood was a patron at the Spot Bar, which was near where the tree was being removed. Mr. Fladwood had come out of the bar just before the tree came down. He was standing behind the crew leader and outside of the 54-foot radius. The crew leader knew he was standing there and did not ask him to move. When the tree came down and landed on the crash pad, one of the logs shot out and struck both the crew leader and Mr. Fladwood, seriously injuring Mr. Fladwood. Mr. Fladwood was taken to the hospital where he had an emergency surgery to repair an artery in his leg. He spent over three months in the hospital and underwent five surgeries.
Mr. Fladwood sued the City of St. Paul for negligence in October 2014. The City moved for summary judgment based on vicarious official immunity. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment. The district court found the vicarious immunity applied because the crew leader’s decision to construct the crash pad and to not move Mr. Fladwood back further involved judgment and discretion. Mr. Fladwood appealed the district court’s ruling.
The appellate court starts by describing official immunity. The doctrine protects public officials from personal liability for discretionary conduct unless it involves willful or malicious wrong. The purpose is to “enable public employees to perform their duties without fear of personal liability that might inhibit the exercise of their independent judgment.” Vassallo ex rel. Brown v. Majeski 842 N.W.2d 456, 462 (Minn. 2014). Examining whether official immunity applies requires the district court to identify the conduct at issue and then to determine whether the conduct is discretionary or ministerial. Id.
The court first identifies the conduct at issue. The parties disagreed on what the conduct at issue was. Mr. Fladwood argued that the conduct was the entire process of cutting down the tree, while the City argued that the conduct was, more specifically, the decision to use the crash pad and not to move Mr. Fladwood back further. The court determined that the conduct in this case was the “simple and definite” task of removing the tree.
The court next considered whether the conduct was discretionary or ministerial. Discretionary conduct involves “individual professional judgment that necessarily reflects the professional goal and factors of a situation.” Id. Ministerial conduct is “absolute, certain, and imperative, involving merely the execution of a specific duty arising from fixed and designated facts. Id. The court notes that Minnesota courts are more likely to find official immunity in cases involving time pressure and quick decisions and less likely to find immunity in cases where public officials have ample time for consideration.
The court concludes that the conduct in this case was ministerial. The crew met prior to removing the tree and made a plan for the tree’s removal. The crew had plenty of time to consider whether to use a crash pad, where to locate the crash pad, and where to position bystanders before taking down the tree. As such, the court finds that the City is not protected by official immunity and reverses the district court’s granting of summary judgment.
DISCLAIMER: The case summary provided on this page is not intended to be relied upon and is solely the opinions of the author.