This past week a 90-foot tree fell onto a house in suburban Philadelphia killing a woman in her bed.
Falling limbs is a specialty area of the law of personal injury. When limbs or entire trees fall down, they can cause personal injury and property damage on unsuspecting neighbors. Trees are alive until they begin to die or get diseased after which gravity usually does its work.
Weather can help limbs weaken and later to fall along with lightning strikes, diseases and/or a lack of maintenance. But not every death or serious injury caused by a falling limb is actionable. In fact more are not than are and so when a lawyer is called upon to give advice we oftentimes must first have the tree examined by an expert. What we are looking for is the reason behind the weakened trunk or limb. Is it diseased, is there rotted wood, a heavy snow load of some other cause? And then the a good legal mind must ask whether the situation was obvious or should have been to the owner?
A tree trunk or a limb falling and causing a death is not in and of itself an actionable case. Accidents do happen, but not as often as some people would like to think. It is an untrained eye that quickly concludes it was a freak accident.
Godzilla might cause a freak accident. Zombies cause freaky accidents. Nature, on the other hand, is a predictable instigator.
Here is what the police chief was quoted as saying in this case.
The chief says Alan Cooper's injuries didn't appear to be serious.
A wet snow was falling but Murray says he doesn't think the incident was weather-related. He calls it a "freak accident."
Freak accident huh? How did you get from A to Z so quick and without an arborist?
Concluding this was a freak accident is not justified. What may look like a freak accident to an untrained layperson, which the chief would be, may actually have been by a condition that simple maintenance would have made obvious to the tree owner. We all carry homeowner’s insurance for a reason and most insurance policies don’t provide coverage based on strict liability; which means you have to show a defect in the property that was known or should have been discovered by the owner. A diseased and weakened tree trunk or limb is such a defect.
What is an arborist? No, not an arsonist, but an arborist. ARBORIST
“Tree experts, known as Arborists, provide a variety of services to help you care for the valuable investment you have made in your trees. An arborist can determine what type of pruning is necessary to maintain or improve the health, appearance, and safety of your trees.”
So in this situation examining the tree before the insurance company comes in to haul it away to destroy it is not just advisable, it is imperative. Because without the tree limb all your evidence is gone as is your way of proving a case. There are reasons to hire a lawyer the day of the accident and not because you are a greedy litigious bastard out to get your neighbor. You need someone who can gather and preserve the evidence you will need if you should later want to file a personal injury or property damage claim. Insurance companies want it to be a freak accident and you won’t. Insurance adjusters run in to “clean up the mess” but with the intention of cleaning up the evidence. Yes, they do.
Insurance Claim Tip: Keep the diseased limb or the trunk. It's your yard it fell in so you get to say who comes on your property and what they can remove. Call a lawyer ASAP and hopefully one who knows his or her way around the courtroom. Because without the tree limb all your evidence is gone as is your way of proving a case.
Insurance companies do not help people to prove claims, quite the opposite. And so if you find yourself in this situation and are talking to a very friendly insurance adjuster, (even if they are from your own insurance company) don’t be fooled by their friendly demeanor. Do yourself a favor and secure the tree limb as evidence and then don’t let it out of your control until your lawyer has been hired and the lawyer has had the limb examined by an expert arborist.
And yes, on occasion we do handle these cases. But never when the evidence has already been destroyed.
- Arborist - Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
- Choosing an Arborist, ISU Extension
- FORESTRY EXTENSION NOTES - Iowa State University
- ISU Forestry Extension - Staff: Dr. Jesse A. Randall
- Board Members - Iowa Arborist Association
- International Society of Arboriculture - Search for Degrees
- How to Become a Certified Arborist: Certification and Career
- Arborist Schools and Colleges in the U.S.