Article

In this case, a pedestrian was injured on an early winter morning when a tree that had fallen onto the roadway was struck by a passing vehicle and pushed onto the pedestrian. Several Robson Forensic experts were retained to address roadway right-of-way issues, decay patterns of the tree, and the responsibilities of the property owner.

Case Description

A pedestrian was injured on an early winter morning when a tree that had fallen onto the roadway was struck by a passing vehicle and pushed onto the pedestrian. The tree fell as a result of extensive decay in the lower portion of the trunk on the side of the tree facing the road.

Robson Forensic highway engineers addressed tree placement with regard to right-of-ways; our dendrologist addressed the rate of decay and deterioration of the tree; and our facilities engineer, Brian O’Donel, addressed the standard of care for the private property owner inspecting and maintaining buildings and grounds, including trees and tree removal.

Based on the tree’s rate of decay and the applicable standard of care for maintaining facilities, Brian was able to establish that the property owner knew, or should have known that the tree was in a dangerous condition for over a year prior to its falling. The property owner violated property maintenance standards and local codes when they failed to address the unsafe condition, and this violation was a cause of the pedestrian’s injury.

This case settled favorably for our client.

Report Excerpts

The full report is available for download in the “Details” section of this page

Names have been changed.

1.0 INTRODUCTION

On January 13, 2009, shortly after 6:00 a.m., Mr. Elwood Jones was attempting to clear a fallen tree from Creek Road in Hudson Valley, PA. Jones was struck and injured by a vehicle driven by James Arnold.

The tree had been growing on the adjacent Pullman Pumpkin Farm property before it fell. This report addresses if the owner/operator of that property had created dangerous conditions that caused the tree to fall. Reports by Steven Becker and a highway engineer with Robson Forensic address the actions of other parties, and the report of Kim Steiner, Ph.D., addresses the care and condition of the tree.

3.1 Site Conditions

The incident road is a 2 lane, paved PennDOT managed roadway running east/west through Concord, Bethel, and Upper Chichester Townships of Delaware County in southeastern Pennsylvania. The incident location has a designated total Right-of Way of 40 feet.

The tree fell from the property of the Pullman Pumpkin Farm at 1200 Creek Road. The property is on the north side of the highway and the tree had been growing approximately 2 feet off of the west side of the driveway on the property and approximately 7 feet off of the fog line/lane edge of the roadway.

Jones was an employee of the Creek Manor Retirement Home which is on the south side of the road across from the Pumpkin Farm.

3.2 Description of the Tree

Kim Steiner, PhD, in his report described the tree as “a red maple with extensive decay in the lower portion of the trunk.” Steiner described the remaining stump as “mostly hollow or filled with brown-rotted wood, and the decay extended to the outside of the trunk over approximately 25% of the circumference of the tree on its south-southeastern side, in the direction of Creek Road.”

The incident tree is located immediately beside the driveway to the Pumpkin Farm’s 1200 Creek Road property. The tree base was mulched and the lawn around it cared for. The tree is likely to have overhung the public road as well as the Pumpkin Farm driveway with the potential to be struck via its proximity. Inspection and post-incident photos showed the majority (~75%) of the stump/base to be rotted/decayed with exposed decay on the south/southeast half of the tree base. The tree base measured approximately 22 to 24 inches in outside diameter with the inner approximately 17 inch up to the outer most wood and bark completely disintegrated.

4.0 DESCRIPTION OF THE INCIDENT

At approximately 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning of January 13, 2009, Jones responded to a tree that had fallen onto the roadway (Rte. 491) near the front of the Creek Manor Retirement Home. While in the process of attempting to clear and warn traffic of the tree, Jones was struck by a vehicle driven by Arnold. The incident tree was owned and maintained by the Pumpkin Farm.

Rachel Robbins, a nurse for the retirement home, stated in her Witness Statement:

When I arrived at Creek Manor I mentioned to a nurse that there was a tree that had fallen and that it was blocking traffic. Moments later I saw “Woody” Elwood Jones, and mentioned to him that there was a tree on the road “Creek Road.” At this time “Woody” responded to me that he would check it out because if it’s on the Country Manor’s property he would need to take care of it.

The Police Report of Bethel Township Officer Wright stated that witness Sandy Turner observed Jones “holding a flashlight directing traffic around the fallen tree.”

Testimony by Behr described the tree failure as splitting down the trunk from the top in two big sections that came off the top. The one section fell on the roadway. The trunk was described as rotted 7 to 8 feet up with a little piece sticking up off of it.

The top fell onto the roadway mostly in the west bound lane and it was this section that was struck by Arnold’s vehicle.

Part of the decayed split trunk was left and Behr, testified that he later cut the tree up with a chainsaw and moved the debris [MB: 22:1-22:24].

5.1 The tree fell because it was decayed

Dr. Steiner, in his report, stated that “the subject tree failed on January 13, 2009, because it was rotted” and “that the hazardous condition of the this tree was exacerbated by the fact that the exposed decay weakened the tree on the side that faced Creek Road and by the fact that the remaining crown was almost entirely weighted in the direction of the roadway.”

Post incident photos and inspection of the stump showed the decay to be advanced internally and progressed all the way to the outer surface in the south and southeast quadrants. The absence of the material in the cross section of the tree base translates to a reduction in strength.

The weather conditions for the early hours of January 13, 2009, according to Wilmington (~10 miles south) data, was no precipitation with average wind speed of 4.5 mph. Data from Chester (~5 miles northeast) recorded average wind speeds of 0.85 mph. The data indicates that the tree fell in conditions of low winds.

Based on the manner in which the tree fell, and its condition, the tree failed and fell under conditions that a healthy tree would not have been affected by. This tree fell because it was decayed.

6.0 FINDINGS

Within the bounds of reasonable technical certainty, and subject to change if additional information becomes available, it is my opinion that:

6.1 The Pumpkin Farm violated the standard of care for safe facilities maintenance by failing to remove the tree, and that failure resulted in it falling and Jones being injured.

6.2 For a period of years before it fell, the fact that the tree was dangerous and required removal would have been identified in the course of reasonable facility maintenance.

6.3 The Pumpkin Farm should have known the tree was dangerous, that it could fall without warning, and that if it fell it would pose a hazard to anyone nearby and any users of the adjacent roadway.

The full report is available for download in the “Details” section of this page

 

Featured Expert

Brian O’Donel, P.E.
Kim C. Steiner, Ph.D.
Steven Becker

Brian O’Donel is a degreed engineer with 30+ years of experience in Facilities and Safety Engineering. As a facilities engineer, Brian was responsible for maintaining the safety of interior and exterior spaces, including the grounds, which includes parking lots, walkways, entrances, and trees. Brian can speak to the responsibility of property owners/managers to monitor, maintain and remove trees with consideration for the health and condition of trees as well as the potential hazards associated with their failure. In addition to his facilities engineering experience, Brian has run his family farm for more than 20 years.