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Tree danger to the public: know your responsibilities

Tree danger to the public

Know your responsibilities

The subject of responsibility over trees in or adjacent to areas of high public use has become a hot topic, following a landmark court case concerning an incident in Witley, Surrey. It has raised the stakes for public authorities, such as Parish Councils, who now need to re-examine their tree inspection regimes and make sure they are not leaving themselves exposed to costly law suits.

There is a longstanding assumption that three-yearly tree inspections are sufficient. But as the case in question – Cavanagh v Witley Parish Council – has illustrated, that is not always true.

Cavanagh v Witley Parish Council: what happened?

On 3 January 2012, high winds uprooted a mature lime tree, which fell across the A283 near Milford, Surrey, onto a bus being driven by a Mr Andrew Cavanagh. Cavanagh sustained severe personal injuries and sued Witley Parish Council for damages.

The Council had been operating a three-year inspection cycle, carried out by a tree surgeon. The last inspection had been in October 2009 and no signs of decay had been reported. The tree had failed in the intervening two years and three months.

The judge ruled that, given its position, the tree should have been inspected at least every two years, and ideally every 18 months. The Parish Council was ordered to pay damages to Mr Cavanagh. The tree surgeon was not pursued for his part in the incident because the Council’s insurers believed he did not have the means to pay out.

The judgement was passed in 2019, setting a new precedent that local Councils need to be aware of.

Lessons from the Witley case

The most important lesson from the Cavangh v Witley Parish Council case is that landowners with large trees in an area of high public use, which would undoubtedly cause severe damage if they fell, must increase the frequency of inspections to no less than every two years and ideally every 18 months.

Had Witley Parish Council followed this frequency of inspections, the failure in the tree would have been identified in time to make it safe before it fell, avoiding a costly law suit for the Council and life-changing injuries for the claimant.
It’s also worth considering the role of the tree surgeon in this case. While he was deemed competent to carry out tree inspections to the level required, had he identified any faults in the tree, the Council would have needed to call in a qualified arborist to carry out a more through inspection.

By using qualified arborists to carry out all tree inspections, Councils can cut out the first step and ensure that any trees that pose a threat to the public are thoroughly examined every time. Furthermore, had Witley Parish Council employed a firm with its own liability insurance, they would not have been left to pay the full cost on their own.

How Connick Tree Care can help

At Connick Tree Care, we have qualified arborists who can advise Councils and other landowners which of their trees require more frequent inspections. We can give a safety assessment for all the trees on a client’s land, produce a tree strategy document and carry out regular inspections to ensure they meet their legal responsibilities.

Unlike the tree surgeon in Witley, we are also fully insured, so if an event did occur in which we were found to have been negligent, we would be able to pay our share of damages.

This case highlights the importance of expert tree care. Mr Cavanagh suffered severe personal injuries and was lucky to escape with his life. The overriding lesson is stark: trees can kill – don’t take them for granted.

If you have trees that could pose a threat to the public, send us a message or call 0800 975 4535.

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