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No liability for State when fire causing damage was started by lightning.

Where plaintiff’s property was destroyed by a fire caused by a lightning strike, emergency responders could not cross a bridge to access the property and extinguish the fire due to flooding, and plaintiff had recently asked the State to modify the bridge due to concerns about flooding, dismissal of this negligence case was affirmed, as the lightning strike was the sole proximate cause of plaintiff’s damages.

In A.B. Normal, LLC v. State of Tennessee, No. M2020-01390-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 3, 2021), plaintiff owned a piece of property containing a home and hay fields. The property was located off a state highway and was only accessible via an easement bridge. In September 2018, plaintiff contacted the State about concerns regarding the easement bridge flooding during heavy rain, thereby making the property inaccessible. Several state employees were involved in inspecting the bridge in question, and they held a phone conference with plaintiff in late 2018, informing plaintiff that “there were no exigent circumstances or concerns for TDOT to address at that time.” During this call, plaintiff stated that it was concerned that emergency responders would not be able to access the property in an emergency.

Just two months later, in February 2019, lightning struck the property, causing a fire in the home. The bridge was flooded due to heavy rainfall. One firetruck was able to cross the bridge but then became immobilized, and later responders were not able to cross. When the fire department first arrived, only the bathroom was destroyed, but after making minimal progress in fighting the fire, the firefighters were instructed to retreat. The fire then destroyed the home and eight acres of farmland.

Plaintiff brought this negligence claim against the State, arguing that “the State was responsible for maintaining the bridge but failed to do so, resulting in the bridge flooding and the property being inaccessible by emergency services the night of the fire.” The Claims Commission dismissed the case, holding that lightning was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

When pursuing a negligence claim, plaintiffs must prove “five essential elements,” including “proximate, or legal, cause.” (internal citation omitted). Proximate cause “puts a limit on the causal chain, such that, even though the plaintiff’s injury would not have happened but for the defendants’ breach, defendants will not be held liable for injuries that were not substantially caused by their conduct or were not reasonably foreseeable results of their conduct.” (internal citation omitted).

In this case, plaintiff argued that even though the fire was admittedly started by the lightning strike, “emergency services could have easily extinguished the fire before it entirely consumed the home and several acres of farmland if the State had repaired the bridge to mitigate or prevent flooding during a heavy rain.” To analyze this issue, the Court looked to other Tennessee cases involving lightning strikes, which are considered acts of God, and ultimately concluded that Tennessee caselaw establishes that “if an act of God is the direct cause of a plaintiff’s injury while the defendant’s act or failure to act merely furnished the condition by which the plaintiff’s injury was possible, the act of God was the sole proximate cause of the injury.”

After noting that this rule aligned with caselaw from other jurisdictions, the Court applied the rule to the facts of this case and ultimately agreed with the Claims Commission that the State’s failure to fix the bridge was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury. The Court explained:

Nothing emanated from the bridge to destroy [plaintiff’s] property. Indeed, the loss directly resulted from a fire ignited by lightning striking the property rather than from anything the State did or did not do. … Any negligence of the State in designing or maintaining the bridge merely furnished the condition by which the fire could destroy the property. The connection between the cause of the fire and the actions or inactions of the State is too remote. Thus, under these circumstances, the condition of the bridge was not a substantial factor in bringing about the injury—the lightning-induced fire was. The lightning-induced fire is, therefore, the sole proximate cause of [plaintiff’s] injury.

Dismissal was thus affirmed.

This case seems different from the other lightning strike cases it cites because plaintiff had very recently complained to the State about the possibility that the bridge would prevent emergency responders from accessing the property. This unique factual scenario, however, did not change the outcome, and this case illustrates how difficult it is to prove negligence against an entity when an act of God was the original cause of an injury-causing event.

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