In late July 2015, a 75-year-old California tree fell over without warning or provocation, injuring at least 8 children in the process. Although authorities are uncertain about what caused this particular tree to collapse, there is some concern that the drought may cause many of the other trees in the state to become diseased, damaged, and possibly break or topple over too. Unfortunately, establishing liability for injuries caused by thirsty trees may not be easy. Here are some of the challenges you may come up against when suing for injuries or property damage related to falling trees.
Requirements for Establishing Liability
Homeowners, businesses, and government agencies are required to ensure the land in their care is reasonably safe for people to use if that land is accessible to others. Failure to do so would make the person, business, or government agency liable for any injuries sustained by people who were hurt on the property due to unsafe conditions.
However, to adequately establish liability, you must prove four factors:
- The person had a duty to ensure the property was reasonably safe
- The person knew or should have known about an unsafe condition
- The person failed to correct the problem or warn others of the dangerous condition
- This failure directly caused the injury
When it comes to trees, however, the issue is complicated by the type of property and location of the tree involved. For instance, a homeowner who owns a large patch of land that includes a small forest some distance away from the home could not reasonably be expected to maintain the trees or know about dangerous conditions located there in the same way as the trees located in the person's front yard.
Additionally, people are expected to exhibit a reasonable amount of care and common sense. A person hiking through a large national park should reasonably expect that the trees may not be as well maintained as those found in his or her local park.
Drought and Liability
Drought presents a unique challenge to the issue of proving liability because it can be classified as an act of god. The lack of rain is typically caused by environmental factors that lie outside of any one person's control. Therefore, if a tree is damaged due to lack of rainfall and begins dropping limbs or falls over and crashes into your property, the owner of the tree could use the act of god defense to escape liability, especially if there were no obvious signs the tree was distressed or diseased.
Another problem that may pop up is the tree's owner could successfully pass liability onto another party. Currently, the California government is putting pressure on cities to slash water usage by 25 percent, which may trickle down to pushing residents and businesses to do the same. If the tree's owner can show he or she couldn't properly maintain the tree due to restrictions placed on water usage by the city, then you may have to chase after the government for payment for your injuries, which can be very challenging because of government immunity issues.
Although proving liability for damages caused by trees may be challenging when drought may be a factor, it's not impossible. As noted previously, people are responsible for maintaining their properties to ensure they are safe for others to use. Just because a homeowner or business may have a defense to the charge of negligence doesn't mean a court will accept their defense, especially if you can cast doubt on the person's claim.
For instance, a homeowner may claim the city's water restrictions inhibited their ability to care for the tree. However, you can rebut that by stating the owner could have purchased bottled water or removed the tree altogether to prevent a dangerous situation from developing or at least warned others about the problem.
If you sustained an injury or damage to your property because of someone failing to care for a tree he or she owns, talk to a personal injury lawyer about the best way to handle your case so you achieve the outcome you want.