By JARED SHELLY, senior editor/web editor of Risk & Insurance®
After parking her car in front of a tree, Brittney Barry heard a loud crack and knew that something was wrong. Suddenly, the tree began falling toward the car and the 21-year-old narrowly escaped before it crushed her Saturn Ion. The Massachusetts resident got out unscathed, but the tree crumpled her car's top and shattered its windshield.
The country has seen more than its share of stories like this one, as old trees become brittle and break sending massive branches or even whole trunks crashing to the ground.
The problem is that cash-strapped cities and towns can no longer devote the necessary attention to pruning and otherwise caring for aging trees within city limits. New York, for example, has dramatically cut its budget for taking care of city trees, leading to "overstretched and haphazard system of tree inspections and care, one in which the crucial job of spotting dangers can be left to untrained workers, and repairs and pruning are delayed to save money," according to the New York Times.
In 2007, Alexis Handwerker was sitting on a Manhattan bench when a large branch from an 80-ft. elm fell on her, pinning her to the ground. In the accident, she suffered a broken arm and other serious injuries. After she filed a lawsuit claiming that New York did not do enough to maintain its trees, the city settled with her for $4 million.
In 2009, New York paid $500,000 to Betty Luh, who was struck by a falling tree while sitting on a park bench.
In New York alone -- where trees grow as high as some buildings -- there have been 10 incidents of falling tree branches injuringpeople on the ground in the last 10 years, according to the New York Times. Five of those cases are still pending, including the death of a six-month-old girl outside the Central Park Zoo in May 2010.
Cities and municipalities have plenty to worry about these days, so it's no wonder that the task of cutting back old, brittle branches, or felling diseased trees, has been relegated to the backburner. But that lack of oversight is costing cities in legal fees and putting people in danger.
It's clear that plenty of cities and municipalities are trying to do more work with less workers, said James D. Smith, director of risk control services for Arthur J. Gallagher in South Florida. The rule of thumb in public works is -- once you see a dead or rotting limb, you've got to remove it, said Smith. However, that is tough to do with less personnel available to spot problem trees and safely cut them down.
Cities should also have an 800-number so that citizens can report rotting or broken trees, said Smith. Another option is to use private contractors for public works projects since they may have better equipment and workers with more skill and experience to get projects completed. But city risk managers should be careful because using contractors instead of city workers can cause a political uproar.
After all, city politicians are tied to the will of the constituents, making the issue tricky. Lots of earth-friendly types fret when a beautiful tree, that they might have grown attached to, is taken down, no matter what the reason.
"A lot of people want police and fire, so other departments have to tighten their belts," said Smith.
"Even if trees are uplifting the sidewalk and destroying the curbing, residents don't want you to touch them. How do you manage that?" he said. "The cities are trying to do what people want but safety has to take precedence. It's a real sensitive topic. Not a win-win."
May 21, 2012
Copyright 2012© LRP Publications