Helen Harris found her car badly damaged by broken branches cascaded down on her car one night
That’s the lesson motorist Helen Harris won’t forget in a hurry after finding broken branches had cascaded down on her car one night, badly damaging it.
She was legally parked on a road beside a tree-lined grass verge in the leafy Home Counties.
It was mid-August last year and calm weather, but when Helen returned to her special edition Mini Cooper in the morning she found that it had taken a bashing.
Identifying the cause, an old oak, was easy.
But finding out who might be responsible for its maintenance, or lack of it, and what compensation she could be owed, was far more difficult, Helen soon discovered.
“Part of the value of my car is the vintage acrylic stickers it has.
They should ask for evidence that the council has arranged regular and sufficient inspections
Only vinyl experts can make replicas,” she explained, fearing that if her motor insurance had to bear the repair costs her no claims discount would be wiped out too.
“It’s not been straightforward establishing who is the landowner,” Helen told Crusader when she came to us wanting to know her rights as the injured party.
She was annoyed too because she says when she approached Hampshire County Council as the most likely owner she struggled to get a straight answer.
“At first I was dismissed,” she explains.
“Then I was pointed in the direction of its Hampshire Highways department, and given to believe the tree might be on a potentially unregistered piece of land.
“My partner, whose work vehicle was also damaged but covered by his employer, then got a call from Hampshire Highways indicating the tree was in a state of decay and needed trimming, but only as a safety measure not because of any ownership.
Hampshire County Council failed at providing Helen with a straight answer
“When I refused to be fobbed off they sent me a form to fill in.
“It was also galling to see tree surgeons trimming it more than once a few weeks later.”
Crusader’s check on previous law suits involving local authority trees did not augur well with appeals dismissed, one even involved a death when someone was hit by falling branch and the family sued unsuccessfully, because the law ties compensation to proof of negligence.
When we put the case to Hampshire, the county council’s transport and environment executive member Cllr Rob Humby rejected any liability, saying: “There is no automatic right to compensation – the County Council investigates each claim individually before reaching a conclusion.
“It is essential that council taxpayer’s money is used appropriately.
“In this case, the tree had been inspected earlier in the year, and the defect which later caused the accident was not present at the time of that inspection.
Jane Senior, partner at Lodders Solicitors
“On this basis, the County Council does not believe it is liable for the cost of repairing the car.”
According to property and land expert Jane Senior, partner at Lodders Solicitors: “Unfortunately for the motorist, as the council says if they have managed the tree properly, they will not be responsible.”
But she adds: “I would suggest however that the motorist doesn’t accept what the council says at face value; they should ask for evidence that the council has arranged regular and sufficient inspections.
“If it is a busy route, the inspections should be more frequent.
“With budget cuts, councils may be hard pressed to undertake these duties as thoroughly as they should.
“It is worth checking that a suitably qualified arboriculturist was employed to carry out the inspection.
Hampshire Cllr Rob Humby rejected any liability when the Crusader put the case to him
“In one case, ‘drive-by’ inspections had been undertaken and this was found to be insufficient.”
Legal expenses cover might be used to pursue a liability claim, one insurer told us.
But it does depend on the policy detail.
Another said these kind of expenses were more for recovering uninsured losses such as a policy excess in the case of a no-fault accident.
But the good news for Helen is it’s now been confirmed her no claims discount is protected so she won’t lose it.
“Others take heed,” she advised, “steering clear of trees is difficult, but a quick check especially when wild weather is forecast could be worth it.”