Most sports and recreation complexes have this exposure
A recent news story in our local paper illustrates perfectly how recreation organizations and facility owner/operators can be liable, even when they appear to be following best risk management practices.
A tree limb fell on a 3-year-old boy who was playing on a park playground in the town of Irmo, SC. Tragically, he died from his injuries. His parents alleged negligence on the part of the town hall and six companies involved in the planning and construction of the park.
A settlement of $3.6 million was reached, though none of the defendants admitted liability. The mayor insists the boy’s death was the result of an “act of God.”
The allegations and the defense
In the suit, the parents claimed that those involved in building the park neglected to clear trees that could constitute a threat or danger. They also alleged earlier complaints about falling limbs around the play area were ignored by town officials and that warning signs.
The trees in the three Irmo parks undergo weekly inspections, according to the town’s mayor. Approximately 100 were removed in the last three years. Independent specialists inspected the tree involved in the lawsuit after the boy’s death and found it to be healthy. The mayor also said that the town contracts for quarterly inspections of park trees by specialists.
What this means for you
Under common law principles, the property owner can be held liable for negligence if a dead tree or branch falls and injures a third party. However, old trees often have branches that are alive, as evidenced by greenery that falls due to rotting. Even if the law is on your side, defense can be expensive. And juries are often swayed by the amount of damages instead of the technicalities of the law of negligence. It’s best to play it safe and be over aggressive when eliminating older trees and pruning questionable branches. In addition, it might be helpful to post signage about the dangers of falling branches.