City tree damage

The city has had numerous claims from people whose cars were damaged by limbs and trees blown over by the Aug. 20 windstorm, such as this truck owned by Chris Blann. Generally, these claims are handled like ones for damage caused by potholes. If the city had no prior knowledge that the tree might be dying or that there might be dead limbs it has no liability. 

Courtesy photo

The power went off, the fan in the bedroom stopped whirring, and Chris Blann woke up.

It was raining. The wind was blowing. So Blann got up, opened the living room window, and looked out — just as a tree fell on his Toyota Tundra, parked in front of his house.

Blann closed the window, told his wife about the tree, then sat down for a few minutes to let the mishap sink in.

Blann and his wife stayed up most of that night, checking on neighbors, helping to clear away some of the debris from the street.

A few days later, after the city removed the tree from South Cotner Boulevard, Blann filed a claim with the city seeking $14,000 for his totaled truck.

The Aug. 20 storm wreaked havoc on city trees and whatever sat beneath them. This fall, the city removed 92 trees damaged by that storm.

A few of the people whose property was damaged by city trees have filed claims for the damage. But like those who file pothole claims, most are unlikely to get any money. 

It’s very difficult for anyone to prove negligence and get reimbursed for their loss.

"If we don’t have knowledge of a defect, whether it is a pothole or a tree, there is no negligence and the city is not liable for damages," said City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick.

"Our liability kicks in when we have knowledge,” Kirkpatrick told the City Council during a recent discussion. 

The city has paid just one of the 14 recent tree damage claims. In that case, the owner of the property had called the city about the tree several months before the limb fell. But parks staff had not yet been out to trim the tree, according to Elizabeth Elliott, a city attorney. 

Three of the people whose tree damage claims were denied by the city Law Department took their cases to the City Council on Oct. 30. 

Council members, with lots of questions about the city’s tree-removal system, delayed any decision on the claims until Monday's 5:30 p.m. council meeting.

In his claim and in his testimony to the council, Blann said he and a neighbor have complained about the tree that fell on his truck several times.

And Blann had pictures showing the rotted wood on the branches that fell on his truck and the street.

Blann said he reported problems with the tree in the summer of 2016. A neighbor told the council she also reported problems with the tree periodically for the past five years.

Kirkpatrick said the city did respond to a phone call about the tree in July 2016 and removed a problem branch.

There had been no calls recorded about that tree since then, Kirkpatrick told the council.

The city did remove the tree after it was severely damaged by the Aug. 20 storm. 

As far as the city was concerned, the tree was healthy in July 2016, Kirkpatrick said.

Another Lincoln resident said she had even more-recent conversations about a city tree in front of her home.

Anne Romjue is seeking around $4,500 for damage to both of her family’s cars from a tree that she said she had specifically asked the city to remove.

Romjue talked to the city forester a number of times last spring seeking to get the tree cut down after a friend told her a city-owned tree in the front of her newly purchased home was a problem.

The forestry staff inspected the tree, said staff would would trim the tree, but it did not need to be removed. City forestry staff had not yet gotten to her home to trim the tree. 

Like others, Romjue was awakened around 1:30 a.m. Aug. 20 by the sound of branches falling on vehicles, she said.

The tree now has a number on it, meaning the city intends to remove it, Romjue told the council.

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But she couldn't get the city to remove the tree earlier in the summer. 

Romjue said she has been calling the city since May "for something to be done with this tree."   

Kirkpatrick said the city forester had inspected the tree twice in June and determined a branch needed to be trimmed “but it was essentially a healthy tree.”

It was damaged on Aug. 20, “but that was a strong wind. We don’t have the resources to go out and cut down every healthy tree,” Kirkpatrick said.

A third person, Steven Loos, said he had no clue a city tree presented a problem before it destroyed his car, parked on 11th Street, during the August windstorm.

The wind uprooted the large oak from the base and pushed it across 11th Street, he told the council.

He had never reported the tree, but he asked the city to do the right thing and pay his claim of $700, which included the value of his wrecked car and a parking ticket he got because he didn’t move the crushed car off the street fast enough.

The liability issue doesn’t make sense to a common citizen, he told the council.

Loos said he attended a trial as part of a high school criminal justice class where the prosecutor told the defendant that ignorance of the law was no excuse.

The city's ignorance — not knowing there is a problem with a tree — is no excuse for running from the responsibility, he said.

"A tree on city property separated from the base and crashed into my car," he said. 

Blann has purchased an SUV for transportation, but he misses the truck, which he used for camping and hunting.

The truck sits in the driveway while he waits for the money to repair it.  

It was reliable, dependable. And it was paid for, he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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