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Falling branches

A passerby took a photo of Anita Osorio’s car parked near Lower Columbia College in October before city workers cleared a fallen limb from the damaged Toyota.

If a tree branch falls in the city and your car is there to catch it, will the city pay for it? Probably not.

Anita Osorio learned that the hard way in October when she returned to her car after class at Lower Columbia College. She found the roof and hood of her 2013 Toyota Corrola were dented and part of her windshield smashed.

But there was no branch or limb nearby — just a card left by the city of Longview.

Osorio called, filed a claim and later had it denied, with the city’s insurance finding the damage no fault of the city.

That left Osorio frustrated and scratching her head.

“If it wasn’t your problem, why did you come clean it up?”

Since Osorio had comprehensive insurance coverage, the damage ended up costing her $500 out of pocket on a repair bill reaching beyond $4,000. If the Kelso woman only had the minimum insurance required by the state, the whole bill would have been her burden.

Either way, it made a dent in an already tight budget supported by financial aid.

“That took $500 away from my household and my child,” said Osorio, 56. “That’s a big chunk when you work two days a week and attend nursing school.”

Osorio’s case is common. In fact, all six claims seeking money for vehicle damage caused by falling tree limbs were denied by Longview’s insurance last year. In all the case, the city’s insurer found there were no known risks, so there was no liability.

“It’s basically case law in the state — it’s not just city tree owners, it goes for private owners too,” said Ann Bennett, executive director of the Washington Cities Insurance Authority. “Being the Evergreen State, there are lots of trees, but we’re not the insurer of God.”

She said tree owners are liable and potentially on the hook to pay for damages if they are aware of problems and do nothing about them.

“Unless you’re on notice of hazardous conditions, you’re not negligent, and you have to be negligent to be liable,” Bennett said.

City workers keep tabs on more than 17,000 trees in Longview’s urban forest. In recent years there have been troubles with many of the elms and oaks planted around Lake Sacajawea and older areas of town nearing the end of their lives. Early last year, a 30-foot limb fell on and destroyed a teacher’s car on Nichols Boulevard — though the elm showed no signs of decay.

Though the city can’t test every last tree, residents can be on the lookout for arborial anomalies.

“If trees require maintenance, all it takes is one phone call to our office,” city arborist Curt Nedved said. “We try and drive for less than a three-day turnaround, most of the time much less than that. We’ll at least inspect immediately and get it scheduled.”

That leaves a pretty narrow window of liability for the city, though Bennett said some accidents have occurred in that kind of time frame.

“In other cities we have paid those claims,” she said. “The city goes out, marks trees that (need to) come down, and one goes down” before the city can perform maintenance.

In Osorio’s case, she said it was a dead limb blown from the boughs above her car, parked just off Maple Street near LCC.

What’s more, days after her accident she found another dead limb snagged in the old trees that line streets in the area.

“I believe it happens a lot, and I try to avoid Longview city streets that have trees.” Osorio said. “If a branch falls down again they’re not going to pay for it.”

Residents who notice problems with city-owned trees can call 442-5421 to start the inspection/maintenance process. Privately owned trees are the responsibility of the property owner.

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Contact Daily News reporter Brooks Johnson at 360-577-7828 or bjohnson@tdn.com.

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