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Tree Tumbles onto Train Tracks


An interesting case recently came before the High Court which considered the responsibilities of landowners in maintaining trees in their garden.


In Stagecoach South Western Trains Ltd v Hind and another [2014] the first defendant, Ms Hind, owned a cottage adjacent to a railway. Although she was a keen gardener part of her garden was overgrown. In December 2009 the stem of an Ash tree in her garden had fallen on to the railway line and unfortunately a South Western train crashed into it.


South Western sought to claim damages in the sum of £325,000 and also brought a claim against the second defendant Mr Steel, a tree surgeon who had carried out work to the trees and shrubs in the garden.


It transpired that there were two reasons for the fall of the tree. Firstly, a crack which had developed in the union between the main trunk and a stem growing from it. Secondly, reason was a scar on the tree which had spread internally and was causing decay to the tree. Neither issue had previously been noticed, largely due to the fact that the tree was covered in dense ivy and that part of the garden was virtually impassable due to brambles and nettles.


The High Court dismissed the claim against Ms Hind. In considering the case the Court drew on the principles of earlier case law and provided a useful summary of the position.


It was held that the owner of a tree owed a duty to act as a responsible and prudent landowner, although this duty should not be unduly demanding. The landowner therefore has a duty to carry out regular informal inspections of the trees on its land, but is only required to act where a danger is apparent upon inspection. That may then require further assessment and say, instructing an expert to assess the tree. The Court recognised however that the latter would generally only be necessary where warning signs are apparent from the inspection – a landowner is not obliged to periodically instruct an arboriculturalist to inspect trees on their land. The Court therefore found that Ms Hind’s duty extended no further than carrying out informal inspections, something which she was capable of doing and had complied with. There was nothing to alert Ms Hind that the tree was anything other than healthy and accordingly Ms Hind had done everything which was expected of her.


The Court did however also imply that the particular circumstances, including the resources available to the landowner, may be taken into account when considering the way in which the duty is discharged. This means that for example a rural landowner or a wealthy company may be held to have a higher duty of care.


Turning to Mr Steel, the Court quickly concluded that he was not liable either. Mr Steel owed no obligation to either Ms Hind or South Western to advise them generally about the state of the tree. The work Mr Steel was to undertake was limited to the terms of the contract agreed with Ms Hind – and this made no mention of advising about the state of the tree. Furthermore, Mr Steel was not involved in any activity which gave him any control or responsibility over the safety of the trains. The work Mr Steel undertook had nothing to do with the safety of the railway and he therefore owed no duty to South Western.


It is an interesting case given the unusual circumstances. Landowners on the whole do not need to be concerned although it does highlight the need to be aware of any particular factors about their land or neighbouring properties that may require additional caution or action from time to time.

For more information please contact Alastair Frew on 01789 206117 or by email.

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