If you paid attention in high school biology, then you learned that trees keep us alive. They take in carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis produce oxygen, that sustains life on earth. For a personal injury lawyer, that is a pretty uplifting statement, right?
OK, back to reality. Trees can also kill us… or badly hurt us. Limbs fall on people, tree roots lift up sidewalks causing us to trip and fall, branches extend into electrical wires, which can lead to electrocution; and overgrown shrubbery impinges on street views and lead to car accidents.
This isn’t conjecture. Our law firm has sadly represented many a client who was struck in New York by a falling tree, tree branch, or tree limb. In one instance, a baby’s skull was fractured. In another, a grandmother was killed. In a third, a newlywed, with plans to start a family, had her back broken.
So, who is responsible for these killer trees and why do these accidents happen? That is the question I hope to answer with this blog.
Basic New York City tree knowledge
The majority of the trees (approximately 700,000) in New York City, and its outer boroughs, can be found in New York City’s parks and lining streets, and they are the responsibility of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (“NYC Parks Department”), with the remainder belonging to private property owners, or those trees planted along highways, which fall under the jurisdiction of the City Department of Transportation.
And, considering the sheer volume of trees, and the fact that some of these trees are more than 200 years old, the NYC Parks Department does a pretty good job at maintaining them. They have tree wardens, who are trained arborists with advanced degrees, who monitor these trees for damage, rot, and disease and then prune, trim manicure or remove those trees that pose a threat to the public.
In addition, the NYC Parks Department has mapped out all of the trees under their guise and maintain a database, which includes details about each tree: trunk diameter, species, ecological benefits, and a link to GoogleMaps Streetview. They also have a Tree Risk Management Program that allows you to contact them via 311 if you notice a threat. Once these complaints are entered, an arborist assesses the likelihood of a tree failure, and either schedules repairs or removal or alternatively, if the threat is not imminent, schedules the tree to be re-inspected at a later date.
So, why do falling tree accidents happen?
Unfortunately, due to budgetary slashing. When finances lower, then inspections, maintenance, and pruning don’t get done in a timely fashion. There have been years when less than 10% of the trees were inspected and other periods where trees, that are supposed to be pruned on average once every 7 years, don’t get pruned for 15 years. Try having only 10% of your car inspected, or not servicing for a decade and tell me the results would differ.
Storms have also played a factor, blowing down trees or causing branches to snap, on otherwise healthy trees.
Finally, there have been trees that fell and caused injury or death, after they had been inspected, and marked for removal, but before the scheduled date.
Who is responsible for falling trees and limbs?
Well, if the tree is on private property, it is the owner’s responsibility without question. However, with the City or one of its departments, one has to prove that the City failed to exercise reasonable care to maintain these trees. Put another way, one must prove that the City knew about the dangerous condition of the tree, or should have known by doing a timely inspection, and failed to take reasonable steps to make the dangerous condition safe.
Tree roots create tripping hazards
A different issue is a liability caused by tree roots lifting up or destroying portions of the sidewalks or streets, and leaving them cracked, uneven, and unsafe. In general, the duty to maintain public sidewalks in the five boroughs lies with the City of New York. However, beginning in 2003, the City Council enacted Section 7-210 of the Administrative Code, which transferred liability from the City to adjoining property owners, making the private owner responsible for their sidewalks and items contained on these sidewalks.
The law exempted from liability one, two, and three-family residential properties that are in whole or in part owner-occupied and used exclusively for residential purposes. In those situations, the City remains liable for injuries caused by defective sidewalks.
Still another exception to Section 7-210 of the Administrative Code, was that it did not include liability for defects inside tree wells.
Therefore, if a person trips on a defect in the tree well, the City is liable, provided one shows the City had prior written notice that the defect existed, and had a fair opportunity to correct said defect.
But an adjoining landowner may still be held liable for injuries caused by a tree well if the adjoining landowner created the defect or unsafe condition or used the tree well for a special purpose such as installing a metal grate within the well construction. So, if someone trips over the metal grate that the adjoining landowner installed, it would likely be the property owner’s fault.
Trees obstructing traffic
Like its trees, the City has a duty to maintain its roads in a reasonably safe condition. That duty extends to the trimming of trees to assure visibility. Reasonable care requires the City to trim roadway trees that become hazardous. For instance, a tree that blocks one from seeing a stop sign, even if it is planted by a property owner, is the City’s responsibility. And, again, the City must have had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition.
Many street trees intersect with overhead telephone and power lines, with the lines literally threading their way amongst the branches. This is the one instance, where the City seems to be completely off the hook and the utility companies are held liable. This fatal dosage of electricity creates a very high duty to exercise reasonable care in the operation and maintenance of the power lines.
The bottom line
A big tree can way more than 10,000 lbs. When it falls and strikes something, damage will occur. For now, be aware of the dangers, keep your wits about you, cross your fingers that government bodies and property owners are being responsible and if you get hurt by a falling tree, hire an experienced lawyer to represent your interests.