Cities and counties usually have broad immunities from lawsuits.  But, if a statute provides a basis, such as when a city allows a dangerous condition to exist on public property, there can be liability.

The California Supreme Court recently found that trees planted or maintained in a median can pose a foreseeable danger to drivers, and that a city can be liable, even in a case where another negligent driver causes a car to veer into the median and hit the tree.  The court found it was not necessary for the plaintiff to prove the trees caused the at-fault driver to operate his vehicle recklessly. The court held plaintiffs need only show the trees – in this case which were alleged to be too close to the road – were a proximate cause of the injuriesCordova v. City of Los Angeles.  August 13, 2015.

Tree cases are blooming of late.  In 2014, City of Pasadena v. Superior Court held that local agencies could be liable for inverse condemnation when a city-owned tree damaged in a windstorm fell and damaged private property.

Dangerous conditions of trees can lead to large verdicts, as seen in a suit filed in 2011 by a man who was rendered paraplegic after being crushed by a falling queen palm after the city canceled its tree-trimming program due to budget cuts.  Mission Hills resident Michael Burke, the plaintiff in that case, received a verdict of a reported $7.7M against the City of San Diego.  Press after the case focused on the need for inspection, monitoring and care of trees under government control, especially palms which have shallow root systems and topple more easily.

And lower trees blocking views can be just as bad a problem.  In March, 2015, a baby was killed and her father injured when her father pushed a stroller across an intersection at Catalina Blvd. and Canon Streets in Point Loma.   The motorist who hit them indicated a tree had blocked his view.  That palm tree has since been removed by the city.

Local agencies should be viewing these cases as a call to remove or trim trees before tragedies are repeated.  In some areas, untended brush impeding views may be the problem.  But, just as worrisome, drought conditions and water restrictions can weaken trees.  And, parched trees can and do fall.

Homeowners and local entities responsible for public grounds should take heed of these new cases and the conditions increasing potential liability.