The past week’s tree-related headlines were topped by a tragedy

Torrential rains soaked southern California for several days.  In San Jose, a family returning home parked their car under a large shade tree in front of their house.  Just as the parents were unbuckling their 2-year-old son from his car seat, the tree fell and crushed the car, killing the young boy.  News articles on the story were accompanied by many reader comments about the accident, some readers blaming the city for being negligent for allowing a hazard tree to exist, and some asserting that such an “act of God” was horrific, but unpredictable.

A casual observer probably could not have anticipated the failure of this tree.  But evidence I saw (from 3,000 miles away, of course) showed some defects that would have raised red flags for an arborist, had one been employed to assess the condition of the tree.  Previous improper pruning and the burying of the tree’s trunk flare was obvious, and would have indicated to the arborist a need for a more comprehensive inspection, which in turn would likely have resulted in the prediction of a high probability of failure.  But of course, it is too late now.

After the tree had fallen the reason for its failure was obvious – there was very little support root structure remaining.

But the question (for the lawyers to decide) – whose fault was it?  Was this an unpredictable “act of God” or should the church, on whose property the tree stood, be held liable for the car owner’s loss because it failed to remove a predictable hazard?

Once again the average person probably would not have noticed an impending catastrophe by looking at the tree.  It probably looked reasonably healthy, and there were no really obvious defects to the above-ground portion.  But, (also once again) an inspection by a qualified arborist would surely have turned up evidence of this tree’s hazard potential.

Do you see the “mushroom” at the base of the tree trunk?

This is the fruiting body of a decay fungus (it appears to be Inonotus dryadeus).  This would have told me that the tree probably has an extensively decayed root system.  With that information the tree owner might have decided to do something to avoid this problem.

But, once again it is now too late.  And, as I said, it’s now a job for the lawyers.