IADC Board of Director Jessalyn H. Zeigler, member at Bass, Berry & Sims PLC., successfully defended tree care and vegetation management company, Wolf Tree, Inc., on appeals in several consolidated cases collectively alleging approximately $45 million in damages related to two spot fires that occurred the night of the 2016 forest fire at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The three-judge panel for the Tennessee Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, which the firm also secured on behalf of Wolf Tree and was based on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims of negligence, trespass and nuisance fail as a matter of law.
“We are grateful to Judges Frierson, McClarty and Davis for their careful and thoughtful review of this matter,” said Jessalyn H. Zeigler, who led the legal team from Bass, Berry & Sims in Wolf Tree’s defense. “Since 2017, we have argued that the causes of these unfortunate fires fell well-outside of our client’s purview or duty under Tennessee statutory and common law and its contractual responsibilities or expectations, and today’s ruling upholds Wolf Tree’s position.” Zeigler added this case is important in its analysis of when a statutory or common law duty exists, as well as in construing contractual duties.
In addition to Zeigler, the firm’s legal team representing Wolf Tree included Scott D. Gallisdorfer and Sara K. Morgan. Ms. Zeigler and Ms. Morgan also defended the company in securing summary judgments in the original arguments before the trial court.
Following the 2016 Gatlinburg Forest fire, numerous insurance companies filed nine actions in state court against Wolf Tree seeking approximately $45 million in damages as the contractor who last serviced the areas (as well as against the local utility provider) where plaintiffs alleged that hazardous trees fell on power lines and caused the spot fires.
In addition to successfully consolidating the nine original cases into just two cases at the circuit court, the legal team succeeded in obtaining summary judgment in both remaining matters. In 2020, the trial court agreed that as a matter of law, the plaintiffs could not meet their burden of showing that Wolf Tree had a duty to inspect the trees at issue, which were outside of the “right of way” it had contracted to trim. In May 2021, the judge on the second case also ruled in the company’s favor and granted summary judgment on the same grounds that the plaintiff could not meet its burden to show that Wolf Tree had a duty to inspect the trees at issue, and thus its negligence, trespass and nuisance claims failed as a matter of law.