City council discusses liability posed by one of Savannah’s biggest asset

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – In the first workshop of Savannah’s new city council, the city’s historic tree canopy took front and center as part of a discussion about liability.

“The city has a responsibility to protect people and to protect our taxpayers so we’re just looking at ways to be able to limit our exposure,” says Mayor Van Johnson.

The discussion was about something called “Sovereign Immunity” which limits the amount of money a city can be ordered to pay out in a lawsuit settlement.

The city’s trees came up because in recent years, the city has been ordered to pay nearly $20 million in two lawsuits, one of them brought in 2013 after an accident in 2010 in which a tree fell on a woman’s car seriously injuring her and severing a leg.

Mayor Johnson says he has to be mindful of what Savannah’s trees can mean in terms of beauty and historic value but also in terms of liability.

“It is definitely an issue,” said Johnson. “We have 85,000 trees here in Savannah and if we don’t have some way to limit our exposure on the legal side then we’re going to have to start taking down some of these trees because ultimately that’s 85 thousand liabilities that are out there.”

Johnson favors a cap of $500,000 which the government of Chatham County already has. As a matter of fact, in the most recent lawsuit city staff said that both Chatham County and the city of Savannah were sued. But because of the county’s cap, it paid half a million while the city of Savannah was ordered to pay $10 million because it has secured no cap from the state of Georgia.

Some councilmembers, however, raised concerns about whether that amount may be fair if a person were to be seriously hurt.

“It’s a very delicate balancing act but this council was elected because we spoke up for the citizens,” said 1st District Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier. “We do have a responsibility to the city and we’re taking that very seriously so I think we’re looking at options.”

Lanier proposed the cap be higher. However, 4th District Alderman Nick Palumbo says there’s already a proposal that would allow the city to waive a cap (on a settlement) if the council thinks the city should, in fairness, pay more.

“I think it’s kind of a false choice between trees or people,” said Palumbo. “You’ll always choose the individual and making people whole but this gives the city more flexibility moving forward. This is more about being a good financial steward of your tax dollars and trying to protect this historic tree canopy.”

The city must secure approval for any cap from the state and councilmembers say they hope to discuss the issue in more detail before priority requests are made of state lawmakers.

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