Roadside trees pose a clear health and safety risk in the event of disease, and those who bear responsibility for them are under a duty to inspect their condition regularly. In a case concerning a serious road accident caused by a fallen tree, a judge condemned one such inspection as little more than an empty formality.
The lime tree, which was about 17 metres tall, stood amongst others on the central reservation of a major road. It was dark when it fell and a car, which was travelling at about 50 mph, collided with it. Both the driver and his teenage son, who was a front-seat passenger, were injured, the latter very seriously. They brought a claim against the highway authority that bore responsibility for the tree.
Ruling on the matter, the court noted that the tree was infected with a wood decay fungus. It was inspected by a subcontractor on the authority's behalf on a three-yearly cycle. That was inadequate in that the old and large tree was liable to become diseased and unstable in a relatively short timeframe. It posed a high risk to road users and it could not be said that the authority lacked the resources required to carry out inspections more regularly than once every three years.
The court found that a drive-by inspection of the tree about 10 months before the accident had not been performed in either a competent or adequate manner. It was difficult to see how it could have picked up anything but obvious defects in the tree, the diseased condition of which rendered it a legal nuisance.
The authority had breached its duty by abrogating its responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of the tree to the subcontractor, whose performance was not monitored. The court's ruling entitled both accident victims to full compensation for their injuries. The amount of their awards would be assessed at a further hearing if not agreed.