City Trees to Get More Service In Wake of Costly Injury Cases

The city has received 29 personal injury and property damage claims in connection with alleged incidents involving trees this year

With the city of San Diego facing another serious personal-injury case involving trees on public property, officials are now ramping up tree-trimming efforts.

For all too many years, municipal budget balancers have avoided red ink, in part, through reduced spending on infrastructure – and maintenance of 200,000 trees that are the city's responsibility.

Many have toppled over or dropped limbs, with severe consequences for vehicles, property and people.

The city recently denied a claim involving a huge limb that crashed down July 22 on Lauren Toepee, a 31-year-old physical therapist, in Mission Bay Park.

Toepee was hospitalized with a broken leg, spinal injuries, five fractured face bones – and then got a staph infection.

In October, she filed a damage claim against the city through Santa Monica attorney Browne Green.

Because the city’s Risk Management Dept. rejected it last month, Green tells NBC 7 that he’ll bring litigation on Toepee’s behalf next month.

So far this year, the city has received 29 personal injury and property damage claims in connection with alleged incidents of downed trees and limbs.

Green represented San Diego lawyer Michael Burke in a case where a jury awarded $7.6 million over Burke's paralysis stemming from a fallen palm tree in Mission Hills three years ago.

The city attorney’s office declined to appeal the verdict.

On Tuesday, to better manage a so-called “urban forest” that spreads along 5,000 miles of sidewalks and flourishes in 65 square miles of parkland, officials got City Council approval for the first of five major tree-trimming contracts that'll be awarded in coming weeks and months.

“We try to do whatever we can to make sure that these trees are being maintained and cared for as best as we can,” Andrew Field, the city’s interim Park and Recreation Dept. director told NBC 7 in an interview at City Hall.

The bottom line to keeping the tree-tops properly trimmed, it seems, is a Council commitment to invest more in the effort.

The initial pact, with Anaheim-based West Coast Arborists, Inc., covers trees in 50 "maintenance assessment districts," and calls for services over a five-year period with payments of up to $10.5 million.

Private property owners in those districts will actually pay those costs, which dwarf the roughly $1 million the city spent on outsourced tree maintenance during the 2012-13 fiscal year.

The other tree contracts to be issued, and funded by taxpayers, will cover public rights-of-way, parks, golf courses and city building sites.

City Hall observers note that there's more money in the budget now and fresh incentive to spend it on proactive maintenance.

"It shouldn't take someone being permanently debilitated to make sure the city does its job,” says Liam Dillon, whose City Hall coverage for Voice of San Diego includes a focus on infrastructure issues. “The city is taking this more seriously now than it was … it should be something the city does as a matter of course. The same way they pave city streets, the same way the take care of buildings.”

San Diego residents who spoke Tuesday with NBC 7 were generally supportive of the renewed emphasis on tree maintenance.

“They're on an active program, and it's good to see that,” said Paradise Hills resident Garrett D’Aigle, as he finished up a morning session of lawn bowling in Balboa Park. “I know some of the (trees in traffic) islands were bad for a while. Now they're starting to clean some of those up."

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