Picture the scene. It’s a beautiful autumn day and you decide to take a walk through your local park. The sun is shining, but there is a cool breeze as fall marks the transition from summer to winter. You sit underneath a tree to relax when suddenly, without warning, your tranquility is interrupted as a pine cone strikes you on the head.
Has the incident ruined your day? No, but it probably startled you. Would the unwelcome pine cone cause you to suffer ongoing stress or anxiety? Of course not, it’s only a pine cone. Should you file a lawsuit against those responsible for the park? A lawsuit? That would be ridiculous, right?
Well, what if I told you that the pine cone weighed 16 pounds and was covered in spikes. To put this into perspective, the average bowling ball weighs 15 pounds. Imagine a bowling ball falling from 20 foot and landing on your head. Yeah, that's going to be a problem!
"The pine cone weighed 16 pounds and was covered in spikes."
So how do you feel about those questions now? No doubt you would like to revise some of your answers and wish to hold someone responsible. The incident would almost certainly affect a lot more than your day. It is highly likely it would have a huge impact on your ongoing quality of life and could pose a risk of death.
Sadly, this scenario is not a hypothetical. These are the facts that caused Sean Mace, a 55 year old military veteran, to sustain a serious brain injury. Mace was visiting the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park in October last year to find a spot to watch the Blue Angels air show. He found what he thought was a peaceful place to rest under a coniferous 'araucaria bidwillii' tree, more commonly known as a ‘bunya pine’. Unfortunately for Mace, one of the pine's cones broke loose and landed on his head, crushing his skull and causing internal bleeding.
Mace was rushed to San Francisco General Hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain. He required another surgery five days later to relieve further pressure that had built up inside his skull. “This guy has an irreversible brain injury and he’s only in his mid-50s,” said Mace’s attorney. “He’s had two surgeries already and he is going to need a third.”
The law of negligence
These types of incidents are governed by an area of tort law known as 'negligence', which has previously been explored by the McGill Law Office in our earlier blog post on Auto Accidents. Negligence occurs when a person fails to exercise a level of care that a reasonable person would do in the same circumstances. Individuals, companies, local authorities, states and even the federal government can all be held liable for a negligent act.
Every person, organisation and public authority you interact with owes you a duty of care, just as you owe them a duty of care. From the person walking passed you down the street, to the hospital that provides you with medical treatment, to the cab driver who takes you home.
"Every person, organisation and public authority you interact with owes you a duty of care, just as you owe them a duty of care."
If the person walking down the street is not looking where she or he is going and knocks you to the ground, injuring your arm, this is negligence for failure to exercise the level of care one would expect from the reasonable pedestrian and you have a right to sue them. If the doctor at the hospital you attend fails to identify that your x-rays clearly shows that you have fractured your arm, which causes you extended suffering, this is negligence for failure to exercise the level of care one would expect from a reasonable doctor and you have a right to sue. If the cab driver who is taking you home from the hospital hits the back of a vehicle when puling up outside your house, the cab company is negligent as the driver failed to exercise the level of care one would expect from a reasonable cab driver and you have a right to sue.
So is the National Park Service liable?
Let's consider Sean Mace's claim. The National Park Service is responsible for the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. A key part of the test to establish negligence is what would 'a reasonable park service' have done to protect the public given the circumstances?
The answer to that question will largely depend on whether a jury finds that the park service knew or should have known that the bunya pine cones grows to a weight of 16 pounds and has a tendency to fall from the trees. If the answer is yes, then clearly the pine cones presented a foreseeable risk of injury to park users and the park should have taken reasonable measures to ensure the safety of all park users.
What is particularly damaging to the park is that court papers allege that park staff actually planted the bunya pine trees, which were from Eastern Australia and were not native to California. If this is correct, it is reasonable to expect that the park should have researched any risks associated with the bunya pines at the time that they were planted. One can only assume that research was not carried out as the bunya pine is famous for its large, heavy prickly pine cones. Even if proper checks were not carried out at the time the bunya pine was introduced, the court will consider whether the park's employees should have been aware of the fact that the tree's pine cones presented a foreseeable risk of injury.
A further obstacle that National Park Service would need to overcome if it challenges liability is that various news reporting agencies interviewed local residents who claimed that they had witnessed the pine cones fall on numerous occasions and that it was obvious that they presented a risk to people walking through the park. If accurate, this will certainly encourage a jury to conclude that the park should have been aware of the risks. Following the incident, the bunya pines were cornered off with a safety fence and warning signs were erected displaying the dangers posed by the giant pine cones.
What should we take from this incident?
This story highlights some valuable lessons. From a social and safety perspective, always check to see what dangers you may be exposed to when you decide to rest, play or picnic underneath a tree. From a cultural perspective its yet another reminder that pretty much anything found in Australia can kill, even the trees. From a legal perspective, it is a good example of the numerous duties of care that others owe you in everyday life.
"... another reminder that pretty much anything found in Australia can kill, even their trees."
Sometimes accidents simply happen and no-one is to blame, but if you are ever personally injured, sustain damage to your property or suffer economic loss, always ask yourself whether an individual, a business, a state authority or the federal government owed you a duty to keep you or your property safe from harm. If you are unsure, please do not hesitate to contact the McGill Law Office to explore whether you have a claim.
Content prepared by Richard Parry. © Richard Parry, 2015
This message and the information presented here do not create or evidence an attorney-client relationship nor are they intended to convey legal advice or counsel. You should not act upon this information without seeking advice from a qualified lawyer licensed in your own state or country who actually represents you. In this regard, you may contact The McGill Law Office and then representation and advice may be given if, and only if, attorney Edmond McGill agrees to do so in a written contract signed by him.