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Premises Liability and Tree Accidents: Who is Liable for Injury or Death?

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Typically people who are injured or killed by falling tree limbs and entire trees are those who are trimming them or cutting them down, but it’s certainly not unusual for motorists and pedestrians to be hit by falling trees and limbs due to a myriad of reasons.

It can happen on private property, commercial business or on property owned by the government such as a park, but no matter where a tree accident takes place the negligent property owners should be held accountable for lack of maintenance, failure to warn and or poor landscape design.

This type of claim falls under premises liability. An injured person may be entitled to a claim if the property owners failed to maintain the trees in a way that is reasonable safe so as to prevent harm to another person who may be lawfully on the property.

To claim a property owner is negligent, a plaintiff must show the following:

  • The defendant had a duty to maintain the property and keep it reasonably safe
  • The defendant breached their duty by failing to warn or fix the dangerous condition.
  • The defendant knew or should have known about the dangerous condition.
  • The failure of the property owner to do the above directly resulted in a person’s injuries.

The property owner may use the following defenses against the injured person:

  • The person hurt themselves by climbing the tree or trespassing.
  • The property owner did everything a reasonable person would do to maintain their trees, but could not have done anything more to prevent the tragedy.
  • The defendant may not own the tree in question if it is on a city-owned public right-of-way and they are not in charge of its maintenance.

MOTORISTS AND PEDESTRIANS ARE AT RISK FOR FALLING TREES AND BRANCHES

People have been killed and critically injured by falling tree limbs and entire trees toppling over onto pedestrians and motorists alike. The causes of these hazards vary from poor or neglected maintenance of a property to weather conditions such as heavy winds or too much rain.

Trees may also fall or drop limbs if they are infected with insects such as the ambrosia beetle, the bark beetle or pests that bore through the wood and fungus that undermine roots. Cities will usually cut down inflected trees to protect the public from them falling as well as prevent the spread to other trees in local parks. Heavy rains or flooding may also cause a tree to uproot as well as soil degradation or construction.

Trees are extremely heavy and can literally crush a person, a vehicle or a building as they topple into the street, nearby structures or at parks. These tree limbs and trucks can weigh hundreds to thousands of pounds and are a serious threat to innocent bystanders or motorists. Falling trees have been known to fall directly on vehicles or into their path from medians in roadways or the shoulder or hillsides next to freeways.

In fact, on March 9, 2014, a 22-year-old woman died of severe head injuries and died after her car was struck by a falling tree. She was driving her 1997 Toyota Camry on the Interstate 80 and a eucalyptus tree collapsed and fell through the roof of her car in Vacaville, California in Solano County.

A 29-year-old Tustin woman was killed in Newport Beach on September 15, 2011 when a 10-ton blue gum eucalyptus tree fell on her Hyundai Accent and crushed it as she drove on Irvine Avenue at 17th Street. It was determined that the trees that lined the street where the accident took place had fungi living inside them and termite decay as well as tortoise beetles.

The city allegedly had knowledge of the potential danger as it had removed fallen trees in this area prior to the woman’s death and has since removed 100 more to ensure public safety. This particular tree was also leaning dangerously close to the roadway. Her parents were given a $1 million settlement after they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the tree maintenance company.

Tree accidents can happen anywhere there are trees — even in local parks. On July 28, 2015 in Pasadena eight children were injured when a 75-foot tall Italian Stone pine tree uprooted and fell onto a group of children.

The young people were waiting at Brookside Park to be picked up by their parents after getting out of summer camp at the Kidspace Museum. Two children ages 6 and 8 years old were seriously injured in the tree accident and six others suffered less serious injuries. A local arborist who inspected the fallen tree suspected it’s possible that oak root fungus could be to blame for the incident, but the investigation is ongoing into the cause.

WRONGFUL DEATH DUE TO TREE ACCIDENTS

People are killed in accidents involving falling trees and limbs, but in order to file a wrongful death claim against the property owner a person needs to establish fault. The property owner may be held liable for a death if it can be proven that they failed to maintain their grounds, had prior knowledge of a dangerous condition and did nothing to protect others from potential harm.

The immediate family members of a person killed in this type of accident are the ones who may make such a claim including the children, spouse, parents, siblings of the victim. There is a specific order of who may make claim depending on the circumstances of an individual case.

TREES ON PUBLIC PROPERTY

Many cities and counties are involved when it comes to tree accidents because they own, manage and maintain public parks, medians and streets that have a significant number of trees and these can be located in areas of heavy traffic or use by pedestrians.

If you are hurt by a tree which is not properly maintained by the government entity, your attorney will have to prove that they did not provide adequate maintenance or warn the public about potential dangers. The good news is there are public maintenance records and other documents that may support your case. There are specific time limitations to file a lawsuit against a public entity. Under California statutes of limitations a claim must be filed within 6 months of the accident or a person loses their right to sue.

HOW DO I KNOW IF I REQUIRE AN ATTORNEY AFTER A TREE ACCIDENT?

Johnson Attorneys Group is an experienced personal injury law firm able to get to take the facts of a given case and determine whether there are grounds of a claim or lawsuit.

If you were hurt or have lost a loved one due to a fallen tree branch or tree toppling accident, it’s important that you do not delay and contact an attorney immediately to begin an investigation into liability for your losses. Call us today at 800-235-6801 for a free consultation. There is no money up front and we don’t get paid unless you get paid.

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