The first question to ask is:  Was the tree a City owned or controlled tree?  Though there are no easy ways to know if a particular tree is a City tree, there are clues: Is the base of the tree located between the sidewalk and the street?  Does the tree have large branches that overhang the street or sidewalk?  Is the tree located on City property (e.g. a park, land next to a city building, etc.)?  Is the tree in a City’s recognized historic district?  For the most part, if it is not a City owned or controlled tree, then you are out of luck with the City (though you may have a claim against the owner of the tree or others).

Next you should determine whether it is worth it to pursue a claim against the City?  Sometimes it is not worth your time (and your sanity) dealing with the City’s bureaucracy.  I have been involved in a number of claims where dangerous trees under the City’s control fell on cars and killed people.  Though these claims ultimately settled for large sums of money, the City refused to offer ANY settlement offers until after a lawsuit was filed with the courts.  Paradoxically, sometimes the smaller the case, the more likely the City is to just pay the claim.

Regardless of whether the City is responsible for the loss of your car, it may be a battle better fought by someone else.  Do you have coverage under your automobile insurance?  If so, you might consider making a claim against your insurance policy and let the insurance company pursue (subrogate) a claim against the City.  Car insurance companies are used to the hassle of making these types of claims (and, hey, let them earn those premiums that you pay them) and they typically (if they are successful) can recover any insurance deductible you may have paid.

If you make a claim on your insurance, it should not raise your rates (in North Carolina) unless your negligence contributed to the tree falling on your car (i.e. you knowingly parked directly under a large broken branch that hung like the Sword of Damocles over your car).  If your negligence contributed to the tree falling on your car, you would lose a claim against the City anyway.  So, make that car insurance claim instead.

Now, if someone was injured by that tree, you should call an attorney to start the investigation immediately.  The trees (think “evidence”) have a way of making their way to the wood chipper quickly (think “they are trying to make mulch out of my case”).  If you or a loved one have been injured by a tree, you should consider scheduling a meeting or phone call with our highly qualified attorneys to explore your options.

William C. “Bill” Trosch
Managing Partner