Trees have the uncanny ability in winter to stick their branches straight up and appear to need no trimming. But, in the spring, throw in a few leaves and those same branches bend, curve, and dance in the wind. Those branches that bend, curve and dance in the wind will smack roofs, twang power lines and wave at moving and stationary objects. Sidewalks that could be walked along for blocks are suddenly encroached by limbs.
In Kane v Bethany Community Church, Slip. Op. (Wash. App. 2017)(unpublished opinion) the crabapple tree on church property probably picked that very night in July (about 11pm) for its limb to obscure a stop sign. Of course, because such limbs on trees are a bit sneaky, it did not block the view of the stop sign from every angle on the street. A drunk driver with a blood alcohol of .116 ran the stop sign and injured the plaintiff, a moped pilot. In a deposition in the case brought against the church over the tree limb, the drunk driver admitted the crabapple limb might have obscured his vision. He could not under oath definitively state that it had.
The appellate court affirmed summary judgment, judgment without trial, awarded to the church by the trial court. “To say that the tree would have obscured the stop sign at the vantage point shown in a photograph is not inconsistent with, and does not overcome, [the drunk driver’s] testimony that he does not know why he failed to stop.”
The outcome in favor of the church is not the lesson that should be derived. The lesson is that church property should be inspected carefully, at least annually, and even something as minor as an errant crabapple tree limb should be mitigated, especially around public right of ways like streets and even church parking lot entrances and exits. The other lesson is the church liability policies should likewise be reviewed at least annually. However good these things are to do, in volunteer organizations like churches, and because the Pastor cannot be everywhere, they will not always be done or done effectively. In the case of tree limbs that move about especially in the wind, and that grow and change with the seasons, even a good inspection may not catch it.