California Appeals Court Upholds Verdict For Defendant Following Tree-Trimming Injury

A plaintiff appealed from the trial court’s entry of judgment on a jury’s defense verdict in his personal injury lawsuit against Asplundh Tree Expert Company. On appeal, he challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdict and contended misconduct by Asplundh’s trial attorney also required reversal of the judgment. The appeals court affirmed the judgment.

cypress

In May 2010, the plaintiff and his brother, Peter, decided to trim the cypress trees under a power line in the backyard of the Villa Park home owned by Peter’s in-laws . The power line was about 26 feet off the ground. The brothers used a metal ladder propped against a metal fence, which was about 18 feet high, around a tennis court in the backyard. It was not clear from the plaintiff’s brief whether the homeowners viewed the trees’ proximity to the power lines as a reason to cut them; instead, the record suggested the homeowners’ primary interests included reducing the “sagging” of the trees, presumably from their height or volume, and leveling the tops of the trees into a straight line. The homeowners had not asked Peter to trim the trees, and they were out of town when the brothers embarked on the task as a favor. They managed to safely trim all of the trees to a distance of five or six feet from the power line.

Unfortunately, they were not satisfied with their handiwork and returned the next day. Neither brother testified, nor did the record or the parties’ briefs specify why they returned, but the jury could infer they did so because the tops of the trees remained uneven. The plaintiff connected three metal tent poles together to a length of more than 20 feet to measure the height of the trees, apparently to gauge where to trim them level. While standing on the metal ladder about 12 feet off the ground, he contacted the power line with his makeshift rod. Shocked, he fell to the ground, struck his head on the tennis court, and suffered severe but unspecified injuries.

The plaintiff sued Asplundh, among others. Asplundh acknowledged its role as Southern California Edison’s line-clearing contractor, tasked with ensuring 18 inches of “radial clearance” near Edison power lines, as required by utility regulations. At trial, an Asplundh foreman testified that in August 2009, approximately nine months before the accident, he conducted an annual inspection of the power lines in the in-laws’ neighborhood and determined their cypress trees did not need trimming because they were still three or four feet below the lines. An Edison employee testified he conducted a spot check of Asplundh’s work about six months after Asplundh’s August 2009 visit, and he confirmed no trimming was required to maintain the requisite clearance before the lines’ next inspection, presumably in August 2010.

In a special verdict, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff on Asplundh’s asserted negligence by a vote of 10 to 2, but against the plaintiff by a vote of 9 to 3 on whether Asplundh’s negligence was a substantial factor in his injuries.

On appeal, the plaintiff challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury’s conclusion Asplundh did not cause his injuries. The appeals court found two flaws in his argument. First, in focusing solely on the height of the trees as a basis for the homeowners’ projected satisfaction in May 2010, thereby preventing the ill-fated conversation Peter overheard, he ignored that leveling the trees was important to the homeowners, indeed a “primary” consideration. The jury could infer from the brothers’ efforts that pruning to ensure the trees were level was a separate and additional step beyond trimming for radial clearance, and it was not something Asplundh would have undertaken if it trimmed the trees in August 2009.

Second, in arguing there was an inevitable chain of causation from the jury’s negligence finding to determining Asplundh’s conduct was a substantial factor in his injuries, the plaintiff assumed that in proving negligence, he proved causation. But they are distinct elements, and he bore the burden of proof on both. And the jury reasonably could have found the unevenness of the trees undermined his ability to prove causation.

The plaintiff next argued on appeal that attorney misconduct necessitated a new trial. The appeals court held, however, that the trial court reasonably could conclude that alleged misconduct by Asplundh’s trial counsel did not require a new trial, particularly since the plaintiff only sought an admonition as to one of six claimed instances of misconduct. The appeals court concluded that on the record, in which the trial court sustained the plaintiff’s objections and correctly instructed the jury on the law, there was no basis to overturn the judgment.

For these reasons, the lower court’s judgment was affirmed.

The personal injury lawyers at Neumann Law Group represent victims throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.

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