Council fined £150,000 after falling tree branch killed woman’s unborn baby

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A council has been ordered to pay out £150,000 after a tree branch fell on a pregnant drive’s car – killing her unborn baby.

Wirral Borough Council, in Merseyside, has been slammed for a raft of failings in its tree management duties following the tragedy.

Mum Liz Stear was driving her 13-year-old daughter and six-year-old son to school on Arrowe Park Road, Wirral at 7.45am on November 10, 2016 when a branch suddenly fell without warning.

The branch crashed down on her vehicles from a tree in a nearby park, crushing her stomach and trapping her in her vehicle.

Ms Stear was 36 weeks pregnant at the time and was rushed to Aintree Hospital to give birth by caesarean section,then transferred to Liverpool Women’s Hospital.

Despite the best effort of the hospitals’ medical staff her premature baby, Lucia Stear, died the following morning, reports the Liverpool Echo. 

Wirral Borough Council today admitted its failure to ensure the safety of its trees under section three of the Health and Safety Act.

Craig Morris, prosecuting, told Liverpool Magistrates’ Court how the branch smashed into Ms Stear’s car, hitting the right side of her abdomen and trapping her in the vehicle.

Firefighters cut the branch and released her, but she told paramedics she could not feel her baby moving and was experiencing abdominal pains.

At 10.01am that morning Lucia Stear was born – but the court heard as a result of the trauma had little chance of survival.

Mr Morris explained today that the HSE charge related to a breach of health and safety at work for failing to manage the trees both on and before November 10 2016.

He told the court that an HSE investigation found that the failings were present and “significant” over a number of years leading up to the incident.

A report in November 2013 by the council’s senior manager of parks and countryside detailed that an arborist was employed by the council 10 years prior, but in 2003 they left the post.

The report explained that since 2003 there had not been a tree safety inspection for the park and countryside trees.

Mr Morris said: “Trees on highways itself were periodically inspected, but other trees including those close enough to the highways to fall onto it weren’t dealt with.

“A real issue that had been raised on a number of separate occasions well before this tragic incident.”

In the years leading up to the death of Lucia Stear the council had considered employing an arborist but had “stopped short of doing so”, Mr Morris said.

Minutes read from a council meeting in February 2012 regarding the management of park and countryside trees stated that the tree management was “lacking” but no action was taken.

Mr Morris said: “Most parks had received little or no arboricultural attention for several years. Highways have been the only department whose trees have been managed for four and a half years prior to the incident.”

In 2013 the council considered commissioning a survey of the trees to identify risks, but again it failed to follow through.

Even after a large branch fell on the same road and allegedly caused damage to a taxi on January 28, 2015 – one year before the death of baby Lucia – no action was taken.

The council did once more consider getting a survey by an independent contractor for the trees, and even got as far as getting a quote but still failed to carry it out.

Jeremy Barrell, an independent tree expert hired by HSE, said that a proactive check looking at the trees every three years would have appropriate.

Following the tragic death of Lucia on November 17, 2016, Ben Welling of the council’s contractor Mancoed explained that the issue was with the horse chestnut trees which were showing signs of the infection bleeding canker.

The infection had spread to such an extent that 25 of 35 trees had to be felled in one section of the park.

Mr Morris stated that between 2003 and 2016 there was no formal system in place to check trees, although they thought about it but failed to do so.

He explained that the council’s income is £450 million, but recognised that it is a local authority with financial difficulties and not a private company and that any fine would impact on people living in the Wirral.

David Lewis, defending, said: “Anything I say in no way deters from the council’s position which is a sincere and profound apology to them for their tragic loss and their loss occurred from failings from the council.

Shaer Halewood, director of resources, for Wirral Borough Council, was present in court for proceedings.

Mr Lewis went on to explain that the council pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and cooperated fully with the HSE investigation.

He invited District Judge Wendy Lloyd to consider the challenge the council faces in its management of trees, explaining that there are 240 parks and open spaces, 44 allotments and nine golf courses with a total of over 40,000 trees.

Mr Lewis stated short of cutting down all the trees it is impossible to reduce the risk of a branch falling entirely.

In the borough he said over the last 26 years there have been 25,680 road accidents – of which seven involved trees falling, and of those two were fatal.

He expressed that for this reason there was a low risk.

Mr Lewis also explained that while there have been failings “it goes too far to say they weren’t being dealt with at all”.

The court heard how the issues were being addressed but were “struggling to come to a workable solution” in time.

Wirral council has a significant workforce and has trained them in felling trees and branch removal, however, he recognised it “didn’t reach the standard it should have”.

He did state that regarding the arborist post, there is no requirement for authorities to have someone in that post and that ultimately management of trees varies from authority to authority but that was “only a very small part of the picture”.

Mr Lewis said that members of staff were able to take action should there have been a complaint from a member of the public but that in terms of tree management in parks and countryside the council worked on a “reactive” rather than “proactive” basis.

He also stated that the risk of a branch falling and causing a fatal outcome is “lower than low”.

Regarding the council’s finances, Mr Lewis explained that due to coronavirus Wirral Borough Council has in a £16 million deficit, and although it expects a £3 million boost from central government will remain in a £13 million deficit.

Judge Lloyd ordered the council to pay £100,000 and £49,363.04 in costs as well as a £170 victim surcharge.

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