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Council ordered to pay out £150k after tree branch fell and killed driver’s baby

A council has been fined £100,000 and ordered to pay almost £50,000 in costs after a branch from a tree fell and struck the vehicle of a pregnant mother while she was driving with her two children.

Elizabeth Stear was 36 weeks pregnant at the time of the incident, in which she suffered injuries. Her prematurely born baby, Lucia Jayne Steer, lived for 15 hours before passing away.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council following an investigation.

Liverpool Magistrates’ Court heard that on the morning of 10 November 2016, Mrs Stear had been performing the daily school run. She was driving along the A551 Arrowe Park Road with her 13-year-old daughter and six-year-old son when her moving vehicle was struck by a large branch falling from a mature horse chestnut tree.

The branch broke through the windscreen and front driver window and struck the right side of Mrs Stear’s stomach. She was taken to hospital with suspected major trauma and her baby girl was delivered by an emergency caesarean.

The HSE investigation found that the large branch that fell had a crack on its upper edge where it was joined to the main trunk. It had begun to separate from the main trunk for at least one growing season before the failure.

The tree, located within the boundary of Arrowe Park, adjacent to the highway, had not been inspected for at least 13 years.

The HSE said Wirral had failed to identify and manage the risks from falling trees and branches, and had failed to implement a robust system of inspection of trees in its remit despite a similar incident occurring on Arrowe Park Road in January 2015.

The council pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

Mrs Steer: “Usually when you think of your children, you remember things like holidays, achievements, sports days, family days out, their favourite foods etc. We don’t have those memories for Lucia. We would like to thank our family and friends, Aintree Hospital, Liverpool Women’s Hospital neonatal team, the midwives, Honeysuckle team, the Police and Claire House who are still supporting me today.”

After the hearing, HSE inspector Rohan Lye said: “There are no winners in this sad case. Councils have a duty to proactively assess and control risks to members of the public. This tragedy could so easily have been avoided if the risk had been identified, warnings had been heeded and an adequate tree management system had been implemented.

“Tragically, due to these systemic failures, Elizabeth and Alex, together with their two children have been left without Lucia and have had to restructure their lives from the devastating impact they have each individually experienced.”

Cllr Julie McManus, Cabinet member for Community Services at Wirral, said: “I would like to reiterate my deepest sympathies to Mr and Mrs Stear and their family. I know there are no words that could make things any better for the family, but on behalf of Wirral Council I would like to apologise unreservedly for the failings which contributed to their tragic loss.

“The issues that were highlighted as a result of the investigation that followed Lucia’s death – and which formed the basis of this case - have led to substantial investment by Wirral Council in how it now manages tree inspections.

“Improvements and changes have been put in place and extensive works have already been carried out by in-house experts, working alongside external tree specialists. These plans and works will continue and form part of Wirral’s first comprehensive 10-year tree and woodland strategy, which should be approved this month.”

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