Municipal Tree Warden found liable for a tree that fell on home
The Connecticut Law Tribune
Homeowners who inform a municipality about a leaning tree that is in danger of falling on their home can qualify for an exception to municipal immunity that applies to identifiable victims, subject to imminent harm.
In March 2009, John Trifari, who owned a residence in Manchester, observed that a tree appeared to be tilting, and that utility wires that ran through the branches of the tree were being pushed aside, or deflected, by the tree. The tree was located in the street right-of-way. The Trifaris contacted Michael Tupper, the tree warden for the municipality, and he inspected the tree the following day. Michael Tupper met with a representative of Connecticut Light & Power, and its arborist did not find that the tree constituted an immediate hazard. Connecticut Light & Power arranged to remove the tree on April 7. The tree fell on the Trifaris' residence on April 5. Cambridge Mutual Fire Insurance, which insured the Trifaris, brought an insurance subrogation action against the municipal defendants and Connecticut Light & Power, alleging that the defendants were negligent.
The plaintiff's tree expert, Dennis Panu, opined that the tree's risk of falling was 12 out of a maximum of 12 points, because it was leaning and exhibited root failure and soil mounding, and the tree, which was large, could strike the Trifaris' residence. The municipal defendants argued that they were entitled to immunity. The court found that the Trifaris qualified for an exception to immunity that applies to identifiable victims who are subject to the risk of imminent harm. The tree fell into the extreme risk category, and immediate action was required.
The geographic area was restricted to the fall zone of the tree. The Trifaris were identifiable victims. Connecticut Light & Power failed to recognize that the tree constituted a danger and to take appropriate action. The defendants failed to prove the Trifaris were contributorily negligent. The court granted judgment to the plaintiff insurance company in the amount of $110,000 and found that the municipal defendants were 50 percent responsible and Connecticut Light & Power was 50 percent responsible.