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Tuesday, June 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

$7.7 Million Verdict Against San Diego

SAN DIEGO (CN) - A jury ordered San Diego to pay $7.7 million to a man who was rendered paraplegic when one of the city's thousands of palm trees fell and crushed his legs, after the city canceled its tree-trimming program due to budget cuts.

A 60-foot tall queen palm fell on Michael Burke in his Mission Hills neighborhood on Jan. 21, 2010, shattering his pelvis and left leg.

Burke, who sued the city in Superior Court in 2011, said San Diego knew as early as 1984 that many of its stately palms are aging and diseased and should have been removed.

Burke also claimed that the city - which provided periodic maintenance and tree trimming - created a dangerous public condition by not removing the sickly palms.

"[A] reasonable inspection of these trees would have revealed that they were diseased and susceptible to falling in winds," Burke said in his complaint. "The palm tree involved in this incident had been diseased for many years and a reasonable inspection would have necessitated a removal years before claimant's tragic injury."

San Diego blamed budget cuts - and God - for the accident during the trial, which began Dec. 3.

But last week, after deliberating for just half a day, the jury found the city liable for Burke's injuries, and awarded him and his wife $7.675 million.

The Burkes' attorney, Browne Greene of the L.A. firm of Greene Broilett & Wheeler, said the verdict should be a wake-up call for San Diego.

"Michael Burke will never walk again because the city of San Diego created the dangerous condition which caused his injuries, and no amount of money can ever truly compensate him for the loss that he has suffered," Greene said in a statement. "The lesson of this trial is that public safety must prevail over the politics of budget cuts. Until the city of San Diego reinstates the tree inspection and care program it abolished in 2007, it continues to play a game of roulette where it's just a matter of time before someone else who lives, works or visits San Diego will fall victim to a toppling tree, not as an act of God, but as an act of San Diego's indifference to the public's safety."

Daniel Balaban, with Balaban & Spielberger in Los Angeles, co-counsel for the Burkes, agreed.

"Today's verdict is one which brings relief to Michael Burke's family which is a step in the right direction," Balaban said in a statement. "However, it is a shame that the city of San Diego was not proactive in accepting responsibility for what happened, but forced the Burkes through the ordeal of a trial to see that justice was served. We hope that the city of San Diego will now take serious pause and act accountably to prevent such future accidents."

Burke, who faces possible below-the-knee amputations due to the severity of his injuries, expressed his gratitude to the jury.

"I am truly grateful to the jury for its careful consideration of the evidence and for seeing to it that justice was served," Burke said. "The award today enables me to take care of my medical needs and gives me some peace of mind in knowing that I will be able to care for my wife and son."

Burke urged city leaders to remove sick trees before tragedy is repeated: "In the wake of this trial, what would be truly gratifying to me would be to see San Diego's leaders step up to the plate and reinstate a system to inspect, monitor and care for the thousand of trees under the city's control, starting with the aging queen palm trees that continue to dominate the Mission Hills landscape where I live. Until then, anyone who lives in San Diego, works in San Diego or visits San Diego is at risk to be hurt or killed by a tree that topples without warning."

Palm trees have shallow root systems and topple more easily than trees with more developed roots.

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