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County council defends High Court claim brought after driver killed by falling tree

Hampshire County Council was not in breach of its duty, nor was it negligent when a tree fell onto a road killing a father of three, the High Court has ruled.

The High Court made the ruling despite claims from the man's family that the local authority and tree inspectors had been negligent in failing to spot alleged structural issues with the tree's roots.

In Hoyle v Hampshire County Council & Ors [2022] EWHC 934 (QB) (19 April 2022), the claimant - the deceased's father suing as admininistrator of his son's state - brought a claim under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 for damages arising from the incident which occurred in June 2017.

The claim rested upon the evidence of an expert arboriculturist, Mr Jeremy Barrell, who considered that the tree had a "severely imbalanced crown towards the road and an asymmetrical root system that had no significant structural roots" extending towards a ditch that it bordered.

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Any competent tree inspector should have noticed the imbalanced roots and raised the alarm, Mr Barrell said.

Two tree inspectors had inspected the tree the year prior, one in February 2016 and a second in November 2016.

The defendants submitted that there was nothing about the condition of the tree which would have suggested to a reasonably competent arboricultural inspector that it would fail within the next 12 months or that more detailed investigations were required to properly assess the status of the tree.

In addition, the claimant had not shown the weight of the evidence contradicting Mr Barrell to be illogical, the defendants said.

There was no dispute that the council's inspection regime was adequate and met the guidance recommending inspections of trees at least once every three years. The local authority had a policy of inspecting trees in 'high target' areas on an annual basis and those in medium target areas every three years - both were to be inspected after extreme weather events.

There was no dispute as to the two tree inspectors being appropriately qualified, the court found, with one inspector holding four decades' worth of experience.

Kirsty Brimelow QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court judge, found that the claimant failed to prove that the tree suffered from a structural defect prior to its failure. "I do not therefore find any breach of duty of care on the part of any of the defendants," the judge said.

She added: "In relation to the matrix, even if [the April 2016 inspector] had scored the tree at a higher risk, I am satisfied that HCC would not have started work on the tree prior to the accident. The evidence conflicted as to whether this work would have prevented the failure of the tree, but the claimant has not shown that it would have prevented its failure. Finally, Mr. Barrell, save for one answer in re-examination, agreed with the recommendations of work by [the April 2016 inspector]. He had not opined that [the tree] required felling."

The judge found that the inspectors relied upon by the local authority had used all care expected of reasonably competent tree inspectors.

She also gave significant weight to the evidence of an arborist sent by the council's highways department who had attended the scene after the incident. The arborist said that the tree had heaved out of its position from very wet ground during windy weather. He also spoke to the tree team on-site and was informed that the hole had been full of water, a conclusion that all three experts supported at the hearing.

Turning to the disagreement on the significance of the root and crown, the judge found that the claimant had not shown that the tree was defective and had not shown that, if it was defective, it was such that no competent body of tree inspectors would have failed to identify the defect.

She added: "In light of my findings that the defendants were not negligent it is not necessary to consider whether section 41 HA applies in this case. However, if required, I would likely have found that it did not apply to this case."

Tackling the individual inspections, the judge found that there was no evidence of negligence in the inspections both inspectors carried out.

In regards to the November 2016 inspection, the judge said: "The weight of the evidence as a whole leaves me in no doubt that the condition of [the tree] was not such as would have put a reasonably competent arboricultural inspector on notice that this tree would fail within the next 12 months, or that more detailed investigations were required. At minimum, the claimant has not proved on the balance of probabilities that [the tree] actually was at risk of failing or that that risk was visible to an ordinarily skilled tree inspector."

Judge Brimelow said a "cruel combination of circumstances" had resulted in the tree falling onto the deceased's care at the moment he was passing.

She concluded: "It is understandable that the [the victim's] family seek liability against the defendants. But whilst understanding the Claimant's desire for compensation for such a loss, it would require the defendants to have done more than was reasonable to ensure safe tree lined roads. Requiring a greater risk adverse approach would result in unnecessary removal of trees and accompanying destruction of habitats. The value of trees as described in HCC's Tree Safety Policy would be reduced."

Judge Brimelow added: "The law ties compensation to negligence. And I cannot find the defendants negligent or in breach of their duty in relation to this terrible moment on 6 June 2017. It was a tragedy where I am satisfied that no one was to blame."

Adam Carey

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