01 November, 2018
Witley Parish Council has lost its appeal against a decision that it was negligent after a tree fell and injured Mr Cavanagh whilst he was driving a bus.
In 2012 after a stormy night, a large lime tree situated on the Council's land next to a bus stop fell across the road at the same moment as a bus driven by the claimant was passing by. The tree hit the bus and Mr Cavanagh sustained serious personal injury.
The claimant brought a successful claim in negligence against the local authority with the Court finding that the tree in question was in a high risk position and as a result that the three-year inspection cycle adopted by the Council was inadequate.
Witley Parish Council appealed the decision. The critical issue before the judge was whether the Council's three-year inspection regime was reasonable or whether, as the claimant contended, given the size and location of the tree, a more frequent inspection of it, every 18 months to 2 years, was required.
The Court of Appeal unanimously found that the judge's reasoning in relation to the need for an inspection at least every two years and his conclusion as to the liability of the Council were "unimpeachable" and dismissed the appeal. The tree had been in a high-risk zone alongside a public road and presented a significant potential hazard owing to the size, age and weight of the tree. Given the position of the tree the Court of Appeal agreed that the judge had been entitled to find on the evidence that the local authority should have inspected the large, mature tree at least every two years, rather than every three years as had been its practice.
Local authorities owe a duty to act as a reasonable and prudent land owner, which includes the duty to undertake regular inspections of trees. To be in a position to defend similar cases, local authorities must be able to demonstrate that they implement a system of inspection where consideration has been given to identifying and prioritising the inspection of those trees which pose a greater risk to people and property. The Forestry Commission supports a zoning policy as a sensible and economic policy as it enables council resources to be channelled to a more frequent inspection of some trees, with savings being made in zones where there was little or no risk.