The Benefits of the ANSI A300 Tree Care Standards for Tree Related Lawsuits

Guy + Chainsaw – Tree = Potential Lawsuit vs
ANSI A300 Tree Care Performance Standards

Does he know what he is doing?

Does he know what he is doing?

Background

Tree care professionals contracting for services are frequently members of the Tree Care Industry Association, (TCIA). The International Society of Arboriculture, (ISA), administers various types of arborist certification programs, including certified arborist or certified tree worker climber. The American Society of Consulting Arborist  offers arborists training and testing to become a registered consulting arborist, (RCA). These associations provide industry standards and best management practices for members to adopt into in their own practice.

Note the personal protective clothing, ropes, saddle etc.

Personal protective clothing, ropes, saddle etc.

In California, C-27 landscape contractors and D-49 tree service contractors are licensed by the state, both can legally perform tree care service. Prior to 1991, various industry associations, contractors and practitioners followed their own standards for tree care.

The industry recognized the need for a standardized, scientific approach and agreed to develop an official American National Standard, resulting in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A300 Tree Shrub, and Other Woody Plant Management Operations – Standard Practices.

They are voluntary industry consensus standards developed by TCIA and written by the Accredited Standards Committee (ASC) A300, whose mission is to develop consensus performance standards based on current research and sound practices for writing specifications to manage trees, shrubs, and other woody plants.

The ISA and ASCA are members of the ASC and their member practices should conform to the ANSI A300 tree care performance standards. The standards “apply to professionals who provide for, or supervise the management of trees, shrubs, and other woodsy landscape plants. Intended users include businesses, government agencies, property owners, property managers and utilities.” Many municipalities have adopted the ANSI A300 performance standards as part of their tree and landscape maintenance ordinance. The A300 standards are separated into 10 parts based on the tree care practice.

ANSI A300 Performance Standards for Legal Conflict Support

Arboriculture professionals adhere to the ANSI A300 performance standards for developing specifications for tree care. Gardeners, landscapers, designers, and handy men are not certified arborists and rarely have knowledge of industry standards. Even licensed landscape architects, civil engineers, general and landscape contractors may not be familiar with or have knowledge of the A300 standards. Ignorance of the standards is not a legal excuse for violating or ingnoring the standards.

The standards are separated into ten different parts. Through case experience, I have found three of the ANSI A300 standards applicable for plaintiff or defendant tree related legal actions. In conflicts I’ve been involved with, the civil engineer, landscape architects, general contractor, landscape and sub-contractors and even licensed tree care companies were not aware of the A300 standards. In some instances, industry professionals were aware of the standards but failed to adhere to the them.

Without proper planning and management, construction and development projects adjacent to existing trees commonly damage tree roots, trunks and limbs, increasing the risk of a potential tree failure and resultant lawsuit. ANSI A300 (Part 5) Standard Practices (Management of Trees and Shrubs During Site Planning, Site Development, and Construction) is the recognized industry standard for managing trees during construction and is the focus of this discussion.

The A300 Part 5 Performance Standard is intended for use for industry professionals, including all levels of government agencies, private entities including commercial, industrial and residential property owners and managers, engineers, architects and utilities for developing written specifications. The standards apply to any person or entity engaged in the management of trees, shrubs or other woody plants.

ANSI A300 Part 5 standard

ANSI A300 Part 5 standard

Without specifications for tree protection during construction and development, tree injuries occur. Depending on the severity of the injury, the defect may degrade the structural integrity of the tree. Over time, the injury may continue to decay, increasing the risk of failure and resultant damage to people and or property. The reason for the standard is to assess the level of risk and to provide information for risk mitigation.

Civil engineers, landscape architects and other professionals responsible for developing plans and specifications should be aware of the A300 standards. These professionals may not have the tree knowledge expertise, which is why the standard refers professionals to use a certified arborist qualified in tree management during site planning, development and construction.

The standard discusses implementation procedures that should be designed by a professional arborist including:
• Tree management plans in compliance with applicable ordinances and standards.
• Decision making should be based on the knowledge of health and safety of the tree resources present.
• Prime consultant and contractor should involve the arborist in the initial planning phases.
• Arborist site monitoring during construction should be specified to ensure compliance with plan requirement.
• Monitoring specifications should address demolition, grading, vertical construction, walks and pathways, playgrounds, excavations, trenching, drainage systems, and landscape.

For safety, the standard requires only arborists familiar with the standards, practices and hazards of arboriculture shall perform tree management. One of the objectives of the standard it to avoid damaging trees during construction; including damage caused by physical contact, grade changes and soil compaction. To achieve the defined objectives on any project, the arborist should be involved in the management of trees during all five phases of development including:
• Planning
• Design
• Pre-construction
• Construction
• Post-construction

Development and construction projects are complex, requiring planning and coordination among project shareholders. The prime consultant and or contractor should maintain arborist involvement throughout the various phases of the project in conjunction with the arborist developing specifications, resource assessment, conservation plans, monitoring and recommendations. The TCIA website has an exhibit of a Tree management plan flow chart defining what should occur during the development phases, arborist responsibility and development activity.

How the A300 Standard Applies in a Legal Context

The standard applies to all design and planning professionals such as civil engineers and landscape architects. These firms usually work as prime consultants and are responsible for producing the plans and specifications for development projects. They are responsible for knowing and adhering to the A300 performance standards. The same applies to prime contractors and their sub-contractors, and other project stakeholders.

Failing adherence to the A300 standards renders prime consultant(s), general and sub-consultants potentially liable if a tree related accident occurs. I used the A300 standard in a case involving a tree limb that fell from a tree onto an adjacent tot-lot.

A city decided to build a park within a former old growth forest. A civil engineer and landscape architect developed plans and specifications, including a grading plan with notes and a detail for tree protection. The general contractor, grading, and recreation equipment sub-contractors constructed the park. The design included a tot-lot with children play equipment built where trees were removed, with old, construction damaged trees remaining left intact at the edge of the tot-lot.

A few days after the park opened, a tree limb dropped onto the tot-lot, striking and killing a young child seated on a piece of play equipment. The parents sued the city, the design consultants and all the contractors because the defendants did not observe the city tree ordinance. The city ordinance adopted the A300 tree care standards as part of their tree ordinance, which the defendants ignored, arguing the standard did not apply to their trade(s). After extensive deposition testimony, using the standards in support of the Plaintiffs (parents of the deceased child), all the defendants settled rather than proceeding with a trial.

In another case, a property owner agreed to allow a guy to prune a tree. The guy claimed to have forestry experience. He had a rope tied around a limb that he cut just as a neighbor walked out of their house. The limb dropped, rebounded at the end of the rope causing it to swing and strike the neighbor in the face. In the resulting lawsuit, the A300 standards were used to support the plaintiff complaint with a resultant settlement from the insurer.

The A300 standards apply to tree care companies, certified and consulting arborists. Different standards may apply depending on the case. For example, A300 (Part 9), Tree Risk Assessment A. Tree Failure, provides performance standards for tree risk assessment and guidelines for establishing written specification and best management practices, (BMP).

As a certified and registered consulting arborist, tree risk assessment inspections and reports are consulting services I provide, I’ve incorporated this and other standards into my practice.  Tree care contractors might find other standards, such A300 (Part 1) Pruning, Part 5 (previously discussed) and Part 9 particularly applicable to their business.

In conclusion, the ANSI A300 Tree, Shrub, and Other Woody Plant Management Performance Standards are a powerful tool that may benefit a plaintiff or defendant involved in a tree related accident. The standards are broad reaching in scope and application to a wide variety of construction and development professionals. Attorneys and insures should consider the potential application of A300 performance standards in tree related cases.

Did You Take the Right Photo?

I receive inquiries about tree failures from attorneys, insurers, HOA’s, commercial and residential property owners.  Unfortunately, many inquiries concern a failure that already occurred, resulting in personal injury, property damage or both.  Potential legal clients want to know the cause of the failure and whether the Owner or contractor satisfied the standard of care.

Forensic investigation to determine the cause of a tree failure may be difficult.  Whether a limb or whole tree failure, the tree is usually removed and the accident site cleaned in a short period of time.  Without actual evidence of the failed part to examine, determining the cause of the failure is impossible.  Or is it?

If the Client took effective photographs of the tree failure at the time of the accident or shortly thereafter, a skilled arborist might be able to examine the failure for clues that could determine it’s cause.  Unfortunately, most people take pictures that have limited or no value for forensic analysis.

Whole tree failure due to root disease. (Photo by JoeLaForest)

Failure due to root disease. (Photo by JoeLaForest)

There are several types of failures to distinguish.

Root failures, usually due to a root rotting fungus, resulting in loss of anchorage, entire tree failure may occur, particularly during inclement weather. Blackened broken off roots may protrude out of grade.

 

Soil failure, the entire root ball rotates or heaves out of grade, typically occurs during wet, windy weather. In a soil failure, root protrusion from the soil mass is limited.

Soil failure resulted in tree loss.

Soil failure resulted in tree loss.

 

Collar and basal stem injuries may result in the tree snapping off at the base.  Collar injuries may occur from mechanical sources, such as string trimmers, mowers, or edgers.  Trees grown in small, confined planters, such as cutouts in sidewalk may develop girdling roots resulting in poor root development and anchorage.

Restricted root zone results in collar failures

Restricted root zone results in collar failures

Within five years, tree trunk diameter may outgrow the opening within a tree grate.  Construction activities that raise or lower the grade may also damage the root collar and surrounding surface roots.

Trunk failures may occur due to co-dominant trunks, two trunks of equal size sharing the same attachment.  Co-dominant trunks may develop included bark, which weakens the trunk attachment, resulting in the trunk cracking or completing splitting apart along the weakened plane of included bark.

Co-dominant stems crack. (by Cherokee Tree Care).

Co-dominant stems crack. (by Cherokee Tree Care).

Limb failures are perhaps the most common type of failure. Limbs may drop for a number of reasons.  Typically, limbs fail due to weak attachments to the other larger limbs or the trunk.  Multiple limbs attached at the same point, poor architecture, excess load, cracks, and cankers inevitably start to decay.  As the decay decreases the structural stability of the attachment, the limb is susceptible to breakage or detachment from the tree, typically during inclement weather events.

Weak limb attachments. (by Randy Cyr)

Weak limb attachments. (by Randy Cyr)

However, sudden and summer limb drop are syndromes whereby healthy limb failure occurs during calm weather, usually May-October.  The syndrome is still not fully understood or how to manage.

Although not a tree failure, surface roots may be responsible for damaging infrastructure, particularly lifting and cracking concrete sidewalks and patios, a major source of trip, slip and fall accidents.

Roots lifted sidewalk

Roots lifted sidewalk

 

Sidewalk replacement due to root damage

Sidewalk replacement due to root damage

As roots age, they increase in diameter, just like a branch or trunk.  As roots grow under a sidewalk age, they increase in diameter, slowing lifting sidewalk panels over time.

Trees typically fail suddenly,with little warning.  The resulting impact may cause extraordinary property damage and possible personal injury or death.  When an event occurs, emergency workers, media and the public are focused on the event, saving life or restoring traffic, not on taking forensic photographs of the accident.

By SD Union Tribune

Emergency crews at work. (by SD Union Tribune)

Forensic reconstruction of a tree failure relies upon factual evidence.  If the failed tree or limb has been disposed, it is impossible to assess why the failure occurred unless well taken photographs exist.  If a tree limb fell due to a cavity or defect, photographs showing the limb lying on the ground are of limited value.

Forensic photographs should depict the condition of the failed limb or whole tree.  While a photo of the limb lying on the ground adds some context, it does not depict the cause of the failure.

Limb failed due to an old decaying canker.

Limb failed due to an old decaying canker.

Photographs should show the end of limb that broke off the tree and the scar or injury left on the tree trunk. Sometimes, it takes a long time for a limb canker to decay. Over time, the decay weakens the attachment of the limb which eventually fails.  A photo showing the broken end of the limb and the damaged trunk area could prove invaluable.

Considerations for effective forensic tree failure photographs:

  • Timing:
    • Take as soon as possible from date of the accident.
    • Take photographs of changes in condition, ie:  the tree stump remained one day but was removed a week later.
    • If case extends over time, take photographs over the time period, this may help establish original tree wounds and healing rate.
    • If using a digital device, turn on the date stamp for photographs.
  • Include Photographs of The Site:
    • Establish the overall accident perspective with wide angle photographs depicting the entire site, street, park etc.
    • Overhead or underground utilities, adjacent structures, construction activity.
    • The presence of irrigation system.
    • Damp, wet, moist, standing water conditions.
    • Planter size, confined by curb, gutter, sidewalks, asphalt paving, driveways or other obstructions.
    • Grade condition, accumulation of tree litter, mulch or compost placed around tree trunk and roots.
    • Add a tape measure for scale
  • Include Photographs of the Subject Tree or Part:
    • The entire tree or limb from one end to the other.
    • Surrounding trees of same species for comparison.
    • The broken end of the limb
    • The  torn, damaged area on the trunk the limb detached from.
    • The root condition.
    • The planter or turf area the tree was growing within.
    • The soil conditions.
    • Add tape measurements for scale and dimensions.

Tree failures occur infrequently, but when a failure occurs, consequences may be severe. The first reaction of emergency responders and the general public is to assist in an emergency, not document the cause.  Since most tree failures are cleaned up and removed within a short period of time after the accident, valuable forensic evidence may be lost.

Photographs shown in this blog show the location of the failure, not the end result of the failure.  Effective forensic photography should depict the failed tree component(s), including trunk scars, injuries, failed or torn limb ends.  Tape measurements included in the photograph may prove very helpful.

When the tree or limb has been cut up and hauled to the landfill, the only effective evidence might be photographs taken at the time of the accident that depict defects that might establish the cause of a failure.  An arborists requires evidence and facts to assess why a tree failed.  Well taken photographs are often the most effective forensic tool available for analysis.  So, take the right picture!