Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Landscape company sued
for injuries from tree

The parents of Julia Engle, the Manoa girl who suffered severe head injuries when a large pine tree crashed into her bedroom while she slept, filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit yesterday against the landscape company that was contracted to inspect city-owned trees.


Julia Engle: Her lawyer says it is not known if she will be able to lead a normal life

The Nilasoni Landscape Co. of Pearl City was hired by the city to monitor disease and insect damage to specific pine trees, including a group on Beckwith Street, where 12-year-old Julia lives, said Rick Fried, the family's attorney.

"The mistakes by the Nilasoni people were egregious," Fried said at a press conference to announce the filing of the suit for negligence in state Circuit Court.

Fried noted that Nilasoni was the low bidder on the contract, offering $45 a tree, compared with others that wanted $95 to $110 to monitor each city-owned tree. He said that Nilasoni's arborist "met minimum requirements."

David Louie, the attorney representing Nilasoni, said he had not read the lawsuit and declined comment. A woman who answered the telephone at the landscape company also declined comment.

Fried has not included the city in the lawsuit, but said he wants to conduct further questioning to determine whether it has any responsibility. "Just because it's the city's tree doesn't necessarily mean the city is on the hook," he said.

Fried said his questions include whether the city was under any obligation to supervise or inspect the work of its independent contractor and whether it knowingly hired a company with an incompetent arborist.

Fried noted that the city has been cooperative and that after the accident it removed seven other pines on Beckwith Street with termite damage and decay.

Julia was asleep the morning of March 15 when a 75-foot Cook pine that was hollowed by extensive disease and termite damage fell on the Engle home at 2347 Beckwith St.

She was rushed to the Queen's Medical Center, where she languished in a coma for almost three weeks. After several surgeries, Julia was transferred April 15 to the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific where she remained until her release home Friday.

Julia has relearned to walk and talk. Fried said she is still in physical, occupational and speech therapy and will receive tutoring for academic subjects.

"She has a long way to go before she could start over as a seventh-grader at Punahou (School)," said Fried, adding, "It's too early to tell whether she will have a normal life."

After the accident, the tree that fell on the Engle home was found to have "extensive termite damage that hollowed between 25 to 28 inches of the 36-inch base of the tree," according to the suit. The termite infestation extended about 30 feet up the tree, the suit said.

"Any competent arborist should have seen this was a seriously diseased tree," Fried said.

Under the city contract, Nilasoni's arborist was required to inspect the Norfolk Island and Cook pine trees on Beckwith and other streets and immediately notify the city if a tree was diseased so the city could decide about its removal.

Fried said that if a tree were 50 percent decayed, many arborists would advise removal. He said any tree that is 70 percent decayed would be removed. "This tree was 84 percent hollow," he said.

Fried said that Nilasoni's tree expert examined the tree on Nov. 4, about five months before the accident.

Fried said that tree experts with whom he has conferred said the termite and disease damage would have been evident then, particularly since these pines exude white sap when stressed to contain disease. He said the tree trunk was covered with white sap.

The lawsuit does not state how much money the plaintiffs are seeking, but Fried said it would be in the millions.

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