— City Attorney’s Office denied liability claim, filed in September 2016 —
San Francisco, CA – Today, The Veen Firm, a San Francisco-based law firm focusing on personal injury matters, filed a lawsuit against the City and County of San Francisco on behalf of the Zhou family. The lawsuit claims that the negligent pruning and maintenance of a pine tree at the Washington Square Park playground caused a 100-pound tree branch to break off and fall on 36-year-old Emma Zhou, resulting in a severed spinal cord, brain damage and permanent paralysis below the waist.
Public records obtained by The Veen Firm show the playground’s pine trees had previously been reported to be dangerous. “At least one of these pines was reported to have dropped multiple branches on the playground in 2008 and then in 2009 the playground was taped because of hanging branches,” said Jeremy Cloyd, Attorney with The Veen Firm, which is representing the Zhou family. “The City knows that trees pruned like this must be watched closely and pruned frequently because they will continue to develop branches that are too heavy and large for the tree to support.”
A July 2010 assessment of the City’s Urban Forestry Operation warned that Recreation and Parks Department maintenance program was entirely reactive, that is, dependent on reports from the public about the trees’ maintenance needs. The outside consultant cautioned against reliance on untrained professionals to identify maintenance needs and recommended that the Department begin a proactive maintenance and inspection program in effort to prevent these types of incidents.
“Despite the known condition of these improperly pruned pine trees, their location at a public playground, and the recommendations made in 2010, a review of the public records does not show the City ever undertook proactive maintenance and inspection of these trees,” said Cloyd.
The nearly 50-foot-tall pine tree was improperly pruned using an illegal practice called “tree topping”, during which the upper trunk of trees are removed, causing stubs or lateral branches to grow quicker and larger. The branches then break off due to their excessive size and weight, turning trees into dangerous hazards. While the City has reported that the trees are healthy, and described this particular incident as a “freak accident”, it is unknown whether the City has looked for and eliminated other hazardous branches created by the topping.
“The City’s negligence has destroyed an entire family, and it needs to accept responsibility for their fault in this tragedy. More importantly, they must do everything they can to ensure that this never happens to another family,” added Cloyd.