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City rejects tree damage claims

Council says no to post-windstorm demands. At least one homeowner files lawsuit.

July 11, 2012|By Daniel Siegal, daniel.siegal@latimes.com
  • This large tree fell on an SUV art 625 Houseman St. in La Canada Flintridge during last year's powerful windstorm.
This large tree fell on an SUV art 625 Houseman St. in La… (Raul Roa / Staff…)

During the windstorm that rocked La Cañada Flintridge in December, uprooted trees smashed into cars and homes while other trees suffered damage that wouldn't become immediately apparent.

Months later, four residents have filed claims asking the city to pay for damage inflicted by city-owned trees. But the city says the damage is not its responsibility.

Resident Emily Larcher asked for $1,050 after a city-owned Chinese elm uprooted on Feb. 16 and fell on her fence. She said she remembers the morning it fell, as contractors were repairing other damage from the windstorm.

“I was actually on the phone talking to a friend about school, just daily things, and then I heard all of a sudden the ripping sound and all the guys in the front yard screaming, ‘Oh, my god,'” she said.

Larcher said another Chinese elm on the edge of her property fell in December, and she thought the two incidents might be connected.

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“I think the root systems were intertwined — it makes me think the city could have checked it a little bit closer before it fell,” she said. “But sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and pay for it yourself.”

The City Council voted to deny Larcher's claim on June 18. The city rejected four claims that day, including one from Michael Martin, whose 1965 Mustang was smashed by a Chinese elm on Dec. 1, the day hurricane-force winds whipped through the region.

The car was parked in Martin's mother's driveway. Rebecca Martin said her son was devastated by the damage to the car.

“That was his graduation gift in high school. His dad got it for him, and it was his pride and joy,” she said.

Rebecca Martin said her son has retained an attorney and is looking into taking legal action against the city.

One resident, Ramsey Nucho, has already taken that step, filing suit after the city denied his damage claim on May 7.

According to the claim, on Dec. 1 at 11 a.m. a large, city-owned eucalyptus on La Taza Drive was felled by the high winds, striking an electrical line and causing a transformer to fall into Nucho's home. Nucho is claiming it inflicted $51,926 in damage.

Nucho's insurer, Flor and Associates, claims the tree had visible signs of injury before the storm, and that the city failed to conduct inspections that could have prevented its fall.

Jessica Idom, legal assistant at Flor and Associates, said the firm and the city are in settlement talks.

City analyst Carl Alameda confirmed that the city had been sued, but declined further comment.

City Manager Mark Alexander said that it is not unusual for the city to face claims following a major weather event like the windstorm, but that the barrier to successfully suing a city over damage caused by natural events is very high.

“There is often a common misperception that because the city owns a particular tree, that if it falls and damages property, the city is automatically liable,” Alexander wrote in an email.

Alexander said if the city were to be found liable for damage caused by trees planted on city property, it likely would mean not having any city trees at all.

“It would be a major deterrent to cities planting trees to begin with because of the wide and varied liability exposure that would be created any time a limb falls, branches break or a tree falls,” he said.

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