Uncle Sam Cleared on Tree Branch Injuries

     (CN) – A woman whose skull and teeth fractured when a tree limb fell on her at Valley Forge National Park cannot sue the U.S. government, a federal judge ruled.
     “Thousands, if not millions, of trees” dot the 3,500 acres of land in the Valley Forge National Park northwest of Philadelphia, according to testimony cited in the decision.
     Michele Schroller said she often enjoyed walking the 30 miles of trails in the park and was doing just that one morning in October 2009 when a tree limb suddenly fell on her.
     Schroller had been walking on the main paved pathway by the park’s welcome center when the limb fractured her skull, lacerated her scalp and broke her teeth.
     In addition to the concussion and scarring, Schroller said she tore her right rotator cuff and developed vertigo.
     She and her husband William sued the United States, seeking more than $150,000 in damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
     Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Kelly dismissed the complaint Friday.
     Though there was no formal written policy for dealing with hazardous trees at the time of Schroller’s injury, there was an unwritten plan in place at the time, and “no evidence suggesting that the Park Service failed to follow this informal policy,” the judgment states.
     “The unwritten policy consists of park employees completing yearly or biyearly informal inspections of the trees, and additional inspections subsequent to storms,” Kelly wrote. “In addition, Park Service employees are taught to look out for hazards and report them when found. From these assertions, it is clear that the inspection plan in effect at the time of the accident did not compel Park Service employees to inspect certain trees on certain days or remove certain trees according to any timeline. Thus, we conclude that the informal plan ‘did not mandate any particular methods of hazardous tree management,’ and find that, to the contrary, the policy granted the employees discretion in dealing with the trees in VFNP [Valley Forge National Park].”
     The government’s conduct was discretionary and of the kind that the discretionary function exception (DFE) to the Federal Tort Claims Act was “designed to shield,” according to the ruling.
     “The Park Service’s 2006 Management Policies state that ‘[t]he means by which public safety concerns are to be addressed is left to the discretion of superintendents and other decision-makers at the park level who must work within the limits of funding and staffing,'” Kelly wrote. “This language explicitly grants discretion to the Park Service employees in dealing with dangerous conditions in VFNP, and leads us toward the conclusion that the government’s conduct was within the scope of the DFE.”

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