Surprise! Looks like winter isn’t quite yet over in Southern California. February, which is traditionally the wettest month of the year, has finally brought some much-needed rain to the region. As I sit here writing, the rain is pouring down and combined with some strong wind gusts, it is a potentially dangerous situation for trees.
While taking a lunch break at a park along Mission Bay in San Diego, I couldn’t help but admire the towering Eucalyptus, Ficus and Carrotwood trees. The sun was shining and lots of people we out enjoying the weather, picnicking, stretching, working out and performing yoga, most of these activities were beneath various tree canopies.
A few days later, we had a Santa Ana wind condition and I happened to be taking my lunch break at the same park. The wind was blowing at a constant 15 mph with gusts easily reaching 25-30 mph. The same trees that appeared so benign during a sunny day now appeared quite different. The towering Eucalyptus trees were dropping copious amounts of leaves, twigs, and small branches. Mexican fan palm fronds were bent horizontal, dead fronds were flying down from 45’ tall trees.
Winter storms test tree health and vigor, typically resulting in broken branches, limbs, trunks, and sometimes a complete tree failure. When the weather is nice, few people really look at a tree and consider whether it is safe. We assume trees are strong and pose little threat. Go for a walk in your neighborhood on a nice sunny day, no doubt you will find large size Ficus trees, or massive Coral trees, Pine trees, Eucalyptus or even 60’ tall Mexican fan palm. As a certified arborist, I enjoy examining large specimen trees and still find myself marveling at how these wonderful organisms support their massive trunks and branches, especially during wind and rainstorms.
TREES, RISK AND PREMISE LIABILITY
While I spend a lot of time looking at trees, most of us do not. For the most part, trees go unnoticed until there is a tree related accident. The accident may be the result of weather, motor vehicle collision or no particular cause, the tree just failed. Trees certainly receive a high degree of attention when a person is injured or property is damaged from a tree accident.
Have you stopped to consider the trees on your property or on property you manage? Most homeowners rarely consider tree safety as their responsibility until an accident happens. Premise liability has been increasingly extended into tree and arboriculture cases, as Owners are found liable and responsible for protecting and keeping the public safe from trees on their property.
Owners and property managers have a standard of care to manage their tree assets and protect the public. A property Owner has a duty of care to protect the public from a hazardous tree(s) that might pose a risk of harm to the public or property. Ignorance of the law or of tree expertise does not relieve property Owners and managers from their responsibilities. If your tree fails and injures someone or damages property, you could be held negligent and liable for damages in a court of law.
The same is true for tree assets located within the open space of private condominiums, apartments, campgrounds, motor home parks, public and private commercial campuses and developments. Ideally, trees located within public settings should be pro-actively managed and maintained to reduce tree risk and exposure to lawsuits. Unfortunately, the downturn in the economy has reduced budgets and funding for tree risk assessment, tree inventory and tree management programs normally utilized by property managers and Owners to reduce their exposure to tree related negligence and liability cases. Can you afford to assume the risk of a tree related accident that could have been prevented by having a tree risk assessment, tree inventory or tree management program implemented?
ALL TREES EVENTUALLY DIE AND FAIL
While the odds for a tree failure are not very high, it only takes one accident to change lives. It is a sobering thought, but all trees die, when they do; they are either cut down or fall down on their own. Certain tree species (Eucalyptus), can fail without any notice or sign of abnormality. Other species (Erythrina) grow fast, producing fat, thick trunks known to shatter in high winds. Palm trees in confined planter spaces fall when their root systems can no longer support the plant.
The point is trees do not live forever and as they age, they acquire injuries, diseases, cavities and decay; they withstand drought, insects and diseases. As a tree ages and matures, environmental stresses increase tree susceptibility to disease and decay. Over time, accumulated injuries, decay and stresses weaken structural tree components that may increase the likelihood of a tree limb breaking, partial or complete tree failure. As trees mature and then become overly senescent, their risk and property Owner liability typically increase.
WHAT IS A TREE INVENTORY AND WHY HAVE ONE?
Would you drive your care for ten years without an oil change or tune up? How about ignoring visiting the doctor or dentist for a decade. We maintain our vehicles, machinery and equipment and constantly work on keeping our homes painted and upgraded. But when it comes to the trees growing on our property, they are often overlooked, maintenance is an after thought or not considered at all. Only after an accident is a certified arborist consulted on why the tree broke or failed.
Savvy property Owners and managers consult with certified arborists to professionally manage their tree assets while reducing risk and liability. Owners and property managers first priority is to protect themselves from lawsuits that arise from accidents caused by unmaintained, damaged or risky trees that create a hazard or risk to the public. The first step in the process is to develop a tree inventory for all trees on the property. A tree inventory is a wonderful tool that is a starting point to implement a tree management program. A tree inventory typically will plot all the trees on a map, identify and log the tree, including the tree trunk diameter at breast height, height and spread.
The tree inventory will also identify the tree location relative to flatwork, sidewalks and other root inhibiting structures. The inventory may record the root, trunk, and canopy characteristics and identify maintenance needs such as thinning, reducing, and removing deadwood. The inventory may identify hazardous trees that require a full tree risk assessment. During the inventory process, any dangerous tree conditions are immediately reported to the Owner for action.
The tree inventory is a living document that provides a record of all the trees on the property and a starting point for collecting tree data. As time goes by, the tree inventory maybe updated to reflect changes in the tree size, characteristics, injuries, maintenance actions, activities, and service dates. Most importantly, a tree risk assessment and tree inventory reflects the property Owner or managers proactive concerns and demonstrates a positive willingness to identify tree hazards and minimize risk to the public. In a tree lawsuit, the Owner or manager who had implemented a tree inventory, risk assessment and management plan will have an improved defense and increased chance of success.
Tree science has not yet reached a point where anyone can successfully predict a tree accident or failure. Even with the latest advancement in tree risk assessment techniques, certified arborists can only rate the relative safety or risk of a tree, not predict when a tree accident will occur. Therefore, effective risk management dictates establishing a tree management budget for preventative programs rather than face the enormous financial risk caused by a tree negligence lawsuit.
If you own, manage or operate a mobile home park, you are aware of changes to the civil code that make it the sole responsibility of the mobile home park manager to properly inspect, prune and maintain trees within common areas. Many mobile home parks are older properties with lots of deferred tree maintenance. If a common area tree fails and damages property or worse, injures a pedestrian, the mobile home park is susceptible to a negligence lawsuit.
With the high density of mobile home properties and people combined with large, old trees in close proximity, it is only a matter of time for an accident to occur. A mobile park manager should prioritize public safety and effectively budget and manage their tree assets, utilizing the full arsenal of tree inventories, tree risk assessment and tree management programs.
Even a single family owned property with a few trees could benefit from having their trees inspected for risk and health assessment. It isn’t the quantity of trees you have; it only takes one defective or risky tree to cause an accident. If you have ignored your trees, thinking they can take care of themselves, you should re-consider your position. Most of us live in an urban/suburban environment. We created an environment and nonnative landscape that is artificial, trees and shrubs that would not normally exist except for our development. The trees we plant in the landscape are not the same as trees growing in the wild. They require our assistance to promote their health and vigor.
Remember, we all need a doctor checkup once in a while. Consider a certified arborist to be like a tree doctor. Preventative medicine typically is cheaper and far more effective than trying to cure an illness, the same is true for trees. If you own trees or manage property that has trees, take a look at your trees and consider the last time they were inspected for health and safety. If you have a large number of trees, protect your tree assets and exposure to lawsuit by having a certified arborist inspect your trees and create a tree inventory or tree risk assessment.