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The High Court has ruled that a bus driver who was badly injured when a tree fell onto the cab of his bus is entitled to compensation from the local parish council. The Court ruled that the council was liable due to its inadequate inspection regime, despite the tree being assessed as a high risk, and that a tree surgeon who had failed to detect a fungal infection in the tree had lied about his inspection of the tree. The amount of the claimant’s compensation has yet to be finally assessed.
The claimant, Andrew Cavanagh, was trapped in the cab of his bus when an 80-foot tree fell onto the vehicle during strong winds in January 2012, in Witley, Surrey. He was in intensive care for 13 days and was left with a brain injury, numerous fractures to his face and body, and subsequently lost the use of his right hand.
On 14 February 2017 at the High Court, Sir Alistair MacDuff found Witley Parish Council liable to compensate the claimant in full.
Sir Alistair said the tree, close to a bus stop and leaning over a road, was ‘high risk’ to pedestrians and motorists, and should have been inspected at least every two years. The council’s three-year inspection cycle for the tree was ‘inadequate’; although the tree appeared healthy, its roots were affected by fungus and in a state of ‘severe and extensive decay’.
The Court also found independent tree surgeon David Shepherd had lied when he denied having inspected the tree in 2009 when he had ‘clearly failed’ to detect the fungal infection.
Sir Alistair said Shepherd was ‘deliberately dishonest’ regarding his inspection of the tree for the council, and had ‘lied in an attempt to escape liability’.
Despite the judge’s findings against Shepherd, he was cleared of liability to compensate Mr Cavanagh. Sir Alistair said that, whether his 2009 inspection was ‘cursory or careful’, evidence of the tree’s decay would probably not have been visible at the time.
The amount of Mr Cavanagh’s compensation has yet to be finally assessed, but he is claiming a sum around £500,000.
Points to consider
The key points arising from this case for Parish Councils to consider include being aware of the consequences of actions which appear sensible and for the good of the community, i.e. maintaining trees adjacent to a bus stop, but which lead – as here – to legal responsibility for risks which would normally not arise (because they were not the Highway Authority), and more routinely that contractors are engaged on terms which are clear on the standard of works to be carried out, the duty of care, and the existence of adequate insurance.
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