Defendant owed no further duty to prevent tree stem falling on train

The legal liability, for fallen branches, of a landowner who owns trees can be summarised as follows:

1. He owes a duty to act as a reasonable and prudent landowner but that duty must not amount to an unreasonable burden or force the landowner to act as the insurer of nature. But he has a duty to act where there is a danger which is apparent to him and which he can see with his own eyes.

2. A reasonable and prudent landowner should carry out regular preliminary/informal inspections or observations. In certain circumstances, the landowner should arrange for fuller inspections by arboriculturalists. This will usually be because preliminary/informal inspections or observations have revealed a potential problem, although it could also arise because of a lack of knowledge or capacity on the part of the landowner to carry out preliminary/informal inspections.

3. The resources available to the owner may be relevant to how the duty is discharged.

In the High Court case of Stagecoach South Western Trains Ltd v Hind & Anor [2014] a stem fell off the defendant’s ash tree and damaged one of the claimant’s trains.

The issues were as follows:

1. Is an ordinary landowner routinely obliged to instruct an expert arboriculturalist to carry out regular inspections of the trees on his or her land? No, that was coming far too close to making the landowner an insurer of nature. In the absence of any trigger or warning sign, a reasonable and prudent landowner is not obliged, as a matter of course, to pay for an arboriculturalist to carry out periodic inspections of the trees on his or her land.

2. If not, is the landowner obliged to perform preliminary/informal inspections? An ordinary landowner, being required to act reasonably and prudently, is obliged to carry out regular preliminary/informal inspections of the trees on his or her land, especially where those trees border a highway, a railway or the property of another.

There may be cases where a landowner cannot fulfil that obligation. They may be absent for long periods, or may be physically unable. It could be that the landowner is so completely ignorant of trees that he or she would be unable to carry out a meaningful inspection, even if such an inspection was just preliminary or informal. However, here, the landowner would be obliged to instruct an arboriculturalist.

3. Did Ms Hind have sufficient knowledge and experience to carry out proper preliminary/informal inspections? Yes. She was an educated woman and a regular and enthusiastic gardener. In addition, she plainly knew a reasonable amount about trees.

4. Did she carry out proper preliminary/informal inspections? Yes. She carried out regular informal inspections/observations. She inspected the Tree and noticed its healthy foliage and the lack of deadwood.

Did she inspect it properly? Should it have become apparent to her that there was a potential problem with the Tree which required the more detailed inspection of an arboriculturalist?

She carried out the informal/preliminary inspections properly. There was nothing which should have triggered any concern or suspicion in her mind, as a reasonable and prudent landowner, that there was a potential problem with the Tree which needed to be investigated further.

Accordingly, her duty extended no further than the carrying out of periodic informal or preliminary observations/inspections of the Tree. She was capable of performing that duty and complied with that duty. There was nothing that should have put her on notice, that the Tree was anything other than healthy, or required a closer inspection by an arboriculturalist. The civil claim for nuisance and negligence against her therefore failed.

This blog has been posted out of general interest. It does not replace the need to get bespoke legal advice in individual cases.