A threat drivers never saw coming proved deadly in Hanover County, Virginia (VA), on July 11, 2015, when a tree fell across the roadway and crushed their vehicles. A woman behind the wheel of a Chevy Camaro lost her life, and the driver of an SUV sustained serious injuries. The deadly accident occurred near the intersection of West Patrick Henry Road and Blanton Road in a stretch of the county between the towns of Ashland and Montpelier.
County law enforcement officials and emergency responders described the fatal tree fall as "unfortunate" and the result of "natural causes." A full investigation into the incident, however, may show that the drivers could have been spared.
While it is true that trees come down after dying and rotting from the inside, get knocked over by strong winds and split when struck by lightning, two of those causes can be addressed by the owners of the land on which the trees grow. In fact, property owners have legal responsibilities for ensuring that trees and other plants are healthy and do not pose risks to visitors and passersby. Under law, this is called premises liability, and it is a major reason homeowners and businesses carry insurance.
The tree that killed the woman and injured the other driver appears to have been located on county property. Governments also have premises liability, though accident victims can sometimes face difficulties in bringing wrongful death and personal injury claims. Roadblocks put in the way of collecting insurance payments and receiving damages can come in the form of laws that exempt government agencies from certain kinds of liability and government's reliance on contractors to perform many jobs.
While my Virginia wrongful death and personal injury law firm colleagues and I cannot draw conclusions about the tragedy in Hanover County without having much more information, we know from decades of experience that all statements regarding "natural causes" bear close examination. Circumstances that require looking into include whether anyone knew the tree was in danger of falling and if proper landscaping was done to minimize risks. Most so-called accidents can be stopped before they happen.