Expert Lawyers Say Case Highlights Importance Of Health And Safety Checks In Public Places
The heartbroken parents of a 13-year-old girl who suffered fatal head injuries from a falling tree branch after she went to a park while her school was closed by a teaching strike have spoken out for the first time in the hope lessons are learnt to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.
Schoolgirl Sophie Howard was sitting on a bench in a park in June last year with friends from Sawtry Community College in Peterborough, Cambs, when the tree branch above her head snapped and fell, knocking her unconscious and killing her instantly.
Her devastated parents Laura and Martin Howard, from Yaxley, instructed public liability experts at law firm Irwin Mitchell in a battle to discover what happened and are speaking out after the village’s Parish Council agreed to pay an undisclosed out-of-court settlement to the family.
Experts at Irwin Mitchell say Sophie’s Mum, Dad and twin brother Elliott, were determined to find answers about why she was so tragically taken from them and they’re now calling for councils across the country to ensure public places are maintained to a safe standard to prevent any further tragedies.
Evidence gathered by a tree consultant, commissioned by the Coroner, found that had a suitably qualified or experienced tree inspector examined the tree prior to the incident and the expected recommendations implemented, the tree would have been made smaller, greatly reducing the risk of branches snapping.
It also suggested the tree should have been taken down, which the Coroner’s tree consultant said he would have recommended, had he been responsible for the inspection.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) served an improvement notice on Yaxley Parish Council after it found the council could not prove it had an effective system for managing trees in the park, and it had therefore not ensured the health and safety of members of the public.
Investigations found that Yaxley Parish Council had not ensured risk assessments were carried out by qualified inspectors on the trees, or the position of the bench.
The HSE then issued an enforcement notice which ensured an inspection of all the trees in the park was carried out a month after Sophie’s death by a qualified tree consultant. It was found that 11 trees in Middletons Road recreation ground were found to be a “high risk” hazard that required immediate removal and a further 18 were found with defects also requiring immediate treatment.
Katrina Elsey, from Irwin Mitchell who represents the family, said “This is one of the most tragic cases I have ever worked on and we were determined to get answers for Sophie’s family to see if anything could have prevented her death and also ensure lessons are learnt by councils across the country to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.
“Had Yaxley Parish Council carried out regular tree inspections by a qualified tree inspector they would have identified the Poplar tree was a high risk, due to its age, size, and previous branch shedding history.
“An inspection would have also highlighted that it was a safety hazard to leave the bench that Sophie sat on under the tree, and that the bench should have been moved. It is appalling that the HSE identified nearly 30 trees that were a potential risk, and is very fortunate no one else was hurt.
“This case highlights how important health and safety checks in public places are to protect people from serious and tragic consequences. Sophie’s parents are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that their daughter would still be here today if these checks had been carried out.
“No amount of money could make up for what happened, but we hope now they have answers, they can begin to come to terms with their loss.”
An inquest at Huntingdon Law Courts was held last December and Coroner David Morris recorded a ‘narrative’ verdict, and said: “Prior to this tragedy the propensity (natural tendency) of this tree towards the phenomenon of “Summer Branch Drop” had not been previously recognised.”
Sophie’s parents said: “The last 16 months have been horrendous as we’ve struggled to come to terms with the fact Sophie is no longer with us.
“She was a beautiful girl with her whole life ahead of her but this has been taken from her and it is heartbreaking. Her loss to us is immeasurable, and our grief endless.
“At first it seemed a tragic case of fate or wrong time, wrong place, sadly after the Coroner’s inquest it became apparent that this was not the case.
“We were horrified when we heard the HSE’s report found that Yaxley Parish Council was not following the health and safety guidelines for risk assessments and maintenance in public places and that almost 30 other trees were in a hazardous condition.
“We just hope councils across the country take note and learn from the mistakes that led to Sophie’s death. Nothing can bring her back, and no amount of money could ever make up for what happened, but we want to be sure no one else suffers such a huge loss as we have.”