How Often Are People Filing Claims Against the Council for Tripping on Tree Roots?

Twenty-four people brought tree-root-related injury claims against Dublin City Council over the past three years, according to council figures.

The council paid about €162,000 in settlements and costs for claims during the same period, the figures show.

In November last year, the council’s chief executive Owen Keegan was quoted in the Business Post as saying he’d cut down every “roadside tree” in the city to mitigate the risk of personal injury claims against the council.

Courts have made it too easy for people to bring successful trip-and-fall claims against the city, he reportedly told the newspaper .

The council did have to pay out five claims over the past few years. But was the cost enough to suggest cutting down every single roadside tree in the city?

Some councillors said they were actually surprised at how low the figures provided by the council are.

In response to a request for records that showed how many tree-related personal injury claims were lodged against Dublin City Council for the past 3 years, the council provided figures “where claims were recorded as associated with tree roots”.

It is possible that there could be other claims that are somehow tree-root-related, but the council did not judge, or hadn’t logged, as falling within these parameters.

Whatever the numbers are now though, it’s still worth looking at how to reduce the risk of claims further, some councillors say.

A Drop in Claims

In 2017, nine personal-injury claims were logged as being related to tree roots, according to the council.

In 2018, that rose slightly to 12 claims – before dropping again, substantially, in 2019 to three claims.

In 2017, two cases were settled with a total payout of €88,769. The council paid out an additional €1,547 in costs for two more cases that closed without settling. Five more cases were ongoing that year.

In 2018, three cases were settled, and the council paid out €70,867 in settlement costs. Another case was closed, and the council paid out €498 in costs for that. There were eight ongoing cases that year.

In 2019, no cases were settled or closed, and the council did not pay out any costs or settlements. There were three ongoing cases in 2019.

Was the fear of future claims preventing the council from planting more trees? Is the risk of between three and 12 tree-related claims per year enough to justify threatening to remove a large number of trees in the city?

A spokesperson for the council said, by email, that it has an ongoing programme of tree planting throughout the city.

They listed streets in the north-east inner-city where the council has recently planted trees. In particular, on James Joyce Street, Amiens Street, Store Street, and Dorset Street.

They also pointed to tree-planting on St Brigid’s Road in Drumcondra. “Trees are only felled if they are diseased, dangerous or a hazard to the public, which is in accordance with the policies of the Dublin City Tree Strategy 2016-2020,” they said.

Some councillors said they were surprised at how few tree-root-related claims there were per year.

“The claim amount is relatively low,” said Councillor Racheal Batten of Fianna Fáil.

“But the actual cost … is an awful lot of money,” Batten said. “The council could use it to provide housing and other services. That’s a huge portion of money for the council to give out, and it could definitely be used better elsewhere.”

Dublin City Council’s revenue budget for this year – which covers council services like housing maintenance, parks and so on, as well as payroll and council supplies – is roughly €1.03 billion.

Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney said she expected the number of claims and the amount of money paid out to be higher. “I did think there would be more,” Heney said.

“I’d prefer if we didn’t have to pay any taxpayer money out on trip claims on tree roots, but … that’s the system we’re in. If people are injuring themselves and falling, that’s something we have to deal with,” she said.

“It’s a reasonable target, I believe, to want to get that down to zero,” she said.

Removing Healthy Trees?

“What happens is the roots grow out, break the paths, and often cause slip-and-fall incidents. People lose their footing and fall,” said Batten, the Fianna Fáil councillor, recently by phone.

That opens up the council to costs in the long-run, payouts on injury claims as well as repairing footpaths, she said.

Batten says it might be cheaper to remove and replace some trees now with other species without such sprawling root systems. “I think you have to invest to have a long-term gain.”

She talked about the idea of balance and compromise. While certain areas in the city are known for majestic old trees, perhaps in other areas, planting smaller, more suitable species of trees would be a sensible plan.

“If we want better infrastructure, there has to be compromise,” she says.

At the monthly council meeting in December, Batten asked Chief Executive Owen Keegan to review the council’s policy not to remove healthy trees, even in cases where they’ve damaged a footpath. He answered in writing at the council’s January meeting.

Could “more suitable trees” be replanted in those areas? she had asked, in her written question.

Decisions around whether to replace trees are made on a site-by-site basis, said Keegan’s written response to Batten.

The City Tree Strategy 2016–2020 sets out the city’s policy for managing trees and “is based on best arboricultural practices and due diligence with regard to public safety”, Keegan wrote.

Labour Party Councillor Alison Gilliland said she’d like to see a council protocol in place, so that when someone gets injured because of a broken footpath, whether or not a tree root did the damage to the path, that area of footpath would be immediately fixed.

“I think we should have a risk-mitigation policy associated with all of those claims,” she said.

If the cause of the damage to the footpath is a tree root, a barrier could be put up to protect both the tree and pedestrians, if there’s enough room, Gilliland says. “We’d make it safe, and as a last resort, it would be removed.”

Gilliland isn’t sure if a procedure like this already exists. She’s in the process of seeking clarification, she says. The council hasn’t yet responded to questions about this sent in on Tuesday.

Gilliland has also been trying to find out how many people have fallen on the same “tree trip”, she said.

“You can’t punish a whole city” because some people have fallen on tree roots, Gilliland says. “I think what we need is greater consciousness where there might be roots above the ground that could cause accidents, and that we act on it.”

Give and Take

Some Dubliners might fear from Keegan’s comments late last year that the council is about to embark on a tree massacre, that the streets are going to be stripped back to grey concrete and the occasional box of pansies.

But policy hasn’t changed, it seems.

“The Parks Service actively seeks to preserve the city’s stock of trees by only allowing removal in exceptional circumstances,” said a council spokesperson.

“The city council, in my experience, don’t chop down trees easily,” said Heney, the Fianna Fáil councillor. “Certainly the people working under [Keegan’s] guidance wouldn’t cut trees down.”

“I would regularly get requests from residents wanting trees removed beside them,” Heney said, but “it’s very difficult to get the city council to remove a tree”.

Instead, within the council, there’s a “huge emphasis” on tree planting and greening, she said. “We protect trees, in my experience.”

At the moment, the council’s press officer said they estimate that the council owns and manages around 100,000 trees. That includes individual street trees, as well as groups of trees and woodlands in public open space and parklands.

How many it felled in 2016 and 2017 hasn’t been recorded, said the spokesperson.

But in 2018, the council felled 475 trees. “This high number is due to the damages to trees caused by storm Ali in 2018.”

In the first six months of 2019, the council felled 127 trees.

Meanwhile, staff planted 1,690 trees in 2016, 1,349 trees in 2017, and 1,283 trees in 2018, said the council spokesperson. The figures for 2019 won’t be available until April, they said.

When a tree does have to be removed, a new one is planted wherever possible, they said.

“Since 2016, the number of trees owned by Dublin City Council has significantly increased.”

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Erin McGuire: Erin McGuire is a city reporter. Her stories often offer an intimate window into the lives of those we share the city with. You can reach her at erin@dublininquirer.com.

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