In an important decision for gardening enthusiasts and landowners in general, a primary school headmistress who was sued for £325,000 after an elm tree in her garden collapsed onto a railway track – seriously damaging a train – has been cleared of all blame by a judge.
Kathleen Hind was on the receiving end of a crushing claim by Stagecoach South Western Trains Limited after the elm toppled over in snowy conditions in the early hours of a December morning. A Waterloo-bound train that was passing her home in Staines, Middlesex, struck the tree and was badly damaged.
Fortunately, the train was empty and no one was injured. However, Stagecoach argued that Ms Hind bore legal responsibility for the accident as the tree was in her garden, was in close proximity to the track and was not as healthy as it looked.
In dismissing the company’s claim, however, the judge said that there was nothing about the apparently 'healthy and strong' tree that should have put Ms Hind on the alert. He rejected Stagecoach's plea that individual landowners were obliged by law to engage trained arboriculturists to periodically inspect trees for which they were responsible and which might cause damage to others. All that could be expected of a reasonable landowner was to perform regular, informal, checks on their trees and Ms Hind had been capable of doing that herself.
The train company argued that the tree had hidden defects, covered by ivy, which would have been discovered on a proper inspection. However, the judge said, "A reasonable and prudent landowner in Ms Hind's position was not obliged to struggle her way through the nettles and brambles to the foot of what appeared to a be a healthy tree...in order to look for decayed areas behind the ivy."
Stagecoach's claim against local tree surgeon, Andrew Steel, who had carried out work on the elm in 2006, was also dismissed. He was not a qualified arboriculturalist and had never been asked to inspect the tree's condition. Ms Hind, not the train company, was his client and he thus owed Stagecoach no legal duty of care.