Pedestrians at risk from falling trees

The danger of falling trees and branches

The danger from falling trees

We look at trees as a benign benefit of nature, but when they fall the consequences can be awful.

The law approaches fall trees or falling branches as it does most things, by saying those responsible for the tree must take reasonable care to avoid accidents. The law rarely demands an absolute guarantee; it demands only that reasonable care be taken to avoid likely injury. That is the balance between those responsible for something, such as a tree, which can cause injury, and those walking beneath it who could be injured.

Joanne Micklewright brought an action on behalf of the estate of Christopher John Imison against Surrey County Council. The case was heard at Guildford County Court in September 2010. Compensation was sought under the law for fatal accidents which allows a family to seek compensation for the loss of their breadwinner. The mechanics of fatal accidents can be read by clicking here.

The family went to Windsor Great Park to ride their bicycles. The car was parked in a designated parking bay. As Mr Imison was taking a bicycle down from a rack there was a crack, and a branch fell from a tree. Tragically the injuries were fatal.

The tree was an oak which was more than 200 years old. It was one of about two million trees which grow alongside roads in Surrey.

There was little argument as to the law. There is no law that demands an owner or occupier of land must ensure absolute safety. I will quote from the decision so I am accurate. ”The duty is to take such care as in all the circumstances of the case is reasonable. What is reasonable varies with the circumstances. It follows that the owner or occupier must make some assessment of the potential risk presented by any tree on his land. He must therefore inspect trees at appropriate intervals. In ascertaining how frequently trees need to be inspected the owner or occupier must have regard to the size of the risk involved and the difficulty of counteracting the risk.”

Moving on from that point failure to assess the risk does not make the owner or occupier liable if a defect could not have been seen. There was evidence from experts but the Judge concluded whatever caused the branch to fall was not obvious from a visual inspection. Even though it was found the Council’s inspection system was not adequate by the time of the accident, because the defect would not have been obvious the Council were not responsible in law. So to succeed in such a compensation claim a Claimant must prove that inspection would have revealed the danger.

If the incident is one which could not have been foreseen it is an accident, and a pure accident means no liability, and no compensation. There are areas of the law where the incident itself is enough to prove liability and gain compensation, but these situations are few.

That is the case in a nutshell, and the full judgment can be read by clicking here.

The Claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal but failed. The Court of Appeal is there to decide if the Judges decision was within the bounds of reasonableness. The Judge heard the factual and expert evidence and applied the correct law, so the appeal failed.

A very sad fatal accident which tells us that not every incident produces an action for compensation.

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