The Double Whammy


Johann F. Szautner, P.E, P.L.S. ::::

Case Synopsis: The lawn needed to be mowed. As the plaintiff walked from the driveway onto the lawn, and bent down to pick up a ball, she was struck by a falling tree branch. Fortunately, the tree limb landing on her shoulder was relatively light, but startled her. She made a hasty effort to get out of the perceived danger zone, and while looking up to the tree, tripped over a low tree stump, which remained after the tree was cut down earlier by the landlord. She suffered a broken ankle and lacerations in the resulting fall.

Expert Analysis: Falling trees and tree limbs are quite common and have injured and killed hundreds of people. While sometimes falling trees and tree limbs are what is commonly referred to as an “Act of God” random occurrence, many times they can be prevented by proper care and inspection. Obviously dead trees or trees with insect infestation are not structurally sound and can easily break or fall during wind storms, and/or under weight of precipitation, be it rain or snow, and therefore need to be removed.

In this case, the tree species itself was prone to shed branches as part of its natural growth cycle. The pine grove consisted of Loblolly pines, also known as “bull pines”. This type of tree sheds its lower branches in the process of developing a crown.

The landlord, who had constructed this rental property twenty years earlier, knew about the regularly falling branches and had cut down some trees over time, which were close to the dwelling structure, to protect it from damage. Most recently, he had cut an additional tree at the request of the housing inspector to meet conditions for this rental license. The stump remaining after cutting this tree contributed to the plaintiff’s trip and fall accident. The housing inspector had also recommended the trimming of the lower branches of all trees next to the structure, which was not done by the landlord.

The key elements of an accidental injury are that a hazard exists and a person is unaware of it. In this case, two hazards were created by not trimming the kind of trees known for frequently shedding their lower branches, and by not removing tree stumps in a foreseeable pedestrian path.

Had the recommendations of the housing inspector been followed, in addition to removing the tree stump and cutting the low branches of all trees next to the house, this accident would not have happened. Furthermore, the regularly shedding of tree branches was an unreasonably dangerous hazard, not only for the tenants and visitors, but especially for the toddler who regularly played in the yard.

Result: Case settled through mediation.

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Categories: Case Studies


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