The New York Times recently ran a three part series about the dangers of falling tree limbs and branches in Central Park and many other popular destinations for pedestrians, bicyclists and tourists alike. Contrary to popular belief, these incidents can often provide grounds for civil liability, as they frequently involve devastating injuries (or even death) from "failing" trees that were previously known to be diseased or structural unstable in ways that aredetectable before the tree becomes a hazard, with enough time to take appropriate action.
The first article in the series demonstrates how parks records, sworn testimony from city officials and parks workers, and a review of city procedures depicts an overstretched and haphazard system of tree inspections and care. The crucial job of spotting dangers can be left to untrained workers, and repairs and pruning are often delayed to save money. Miscommunication between various city departments and workers abounds.
The second and third articles detail the City of New York's attempts to aggressively fight several of these cases, including following and videotaping accident victims and destroying relevant evidence. However, in at least two recent matters, the city's position, arguing for reduced liability, has been rejected by appellate courts. The Courts noted that a scientific system has evolved in recent years in the "risk management" of trees in high-traffic urban areas-- a system which New York City has chosen not to keep up with, to the public's detriment.
A follow-up article to the series noted how a host of arborists and tree-care experts believe that New York City could significantly improve public safety by ensuring that the workers who evaluate trees understand the warning signs of decay and failure.
Nonetheless, assessing liability can only be determined only on a case-by-case basis. For the general public, it is wise to remain observant and make a fallen tree or branch removal request onlineor by dialing 311 when and where appropriate.