POST ONLINE: Blog: Getting to the root of tree liability claims

21st May 2018
This article has been reproduced

Need to know:

  • * Tree root claims are long-tail, particularly if cracks are being monitored or repairs being undertaken

    * Assessing causation accurately requires adjusting and surveying experience and in-depth knowledge of construction
    * Liability must be identified correctly to protect the tree owner’s insurer and the street tree scene

Tree root liability claims are complex and lengthy but, handled properly, their costs can be contained, explains Jeremy Carpenter, tree root liability specialist at QuestGates.

Spring – it’s a time when our thoughts turn towards our gardens and parks and outdoor action, and whether the summer will bring a heatwave and an extended dry spell.

And there’s no better time than the spring for liability insurers and local authorities to get some good, professional, balanced advice on tree root claims.

Many local authorities have made significant commitments to plant trees – the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan pledged £750,000 at the beginning of the year to plant more than 40,000 new trees across the capital. However, this activity may lead to future tree root liability claims.

These claims are often particularly complex and lengthy. But, handled properly, they can be controlled and the claim spend can be reduced.

Most parties appreciate that claims of this nature are long-tail with a flurry of activity at the beginning and the end, with often little happening during the intervening period. This is particularly true if action has been taken to fell or remove the implicated trees, the cracks are being monitored or lengthy and perhaps complex repairs are being undertaken.

The average lifecycle for a tree root claim is about 18 months. Claims involving direct mechanical damage to walls, structures and driveways will be much quicker, while claims involving indirect subsidence damage will often take much longer to settle.

Site visits on tree root claims are desirable. Desk handling can overlook essential topographical and vegetation features that could shift the emphasis away from the insured’s trees. Information can be readily gleaned from the homeowner about date of purchase, discovery of damage, previous claims, extensions, basements, and planting and removal of trees. The position or existence of third-party trees needs to be noted accurately.

To assess causation accurately and with confidence requires a good deal of adjusting and surveying experience along with an in-depth knowledge of building construction and an appreciation of how different materials react to drying, wetting and thermal changes. Other causes of cracking are numerous, including rotten lintels, shrinkage, settlement, mine workings, calcium silicate bricks and defective drains.

The precise scope of damage needs to be accurately recorded for reference later when repair schedules and costs are presented by third-party solicitors.

Thorough assessment of technical evidence is a vital stage. An analysis of the site investigation report together with soil tests and root identification must be undertaken. The existence or otherwise of a shrinkable clay subsoil and desiccation needs to be ascertained and calculated by careful and experienced analysis of all the various reports available. Monitoring data will be reviewed and interpreted. Tree maintenance and mitigation programmes will be considered too.

Only following completion of this complex investigation matrix can potential liability be properly considered.

However, the amenity value of the trees to the area must also be considered in addition to financial implications. With ever more of us living in urban areas (around 82% currently) and many more of us spending an ever higher proportion of our daily lives in towns and cities, most of us appreciate the existence of street trees and accept that they play a vital and uplifting part in any modern street scene.

Trees in this country are threatened by a catalogue of diseases, pathogens and conditions. In my view, it is, therefore, vital that our industry works hard to ensure that any liability for tree root nuisance is properly identified, accepted and acted upon in a way that not only protects the position of the tree owner and their insurer, but also preserves the future of the street tree scene in our urban areas for the next generation.