Family members of a 61-year-old woman who was killed by a falling 80-foot tree at her daughter’s 2016 wedding party in Whittier reached a tentative $28 million settlement with the city, according to court papers filed by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The lawsuit stemming from Margarita Mojarro’s death was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in April 2017, alleging wrongful death and that a dangerous condition of public property existed. The case was later transferred to Norwalk Superior Court and the plaintiffs’ motion for a finding that the settlement was made in good faith is scheduled to be heard Friday by Judge Raul Sahagun.
The motion does not involve the part of the family’s case against West Coast Arborists LLP, which contracted with the city to inspect and trim trees at William Penn Park, where the tree fell, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ court papers. The city also has a cross-complaint against the company for indemnity.
The 19 plaintiffs include the woman’s husband, Feliciano Mojarro — who is scheduled to receive $2.9 million from the settlement — and four of her children — including the bride, Patricia Mojarro, whose share is to be $3.3 million. Both suffered physical injuries and have post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The tree, which toppled over at the park in the 13900 block of Penn Street about 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 17, 2016, was over-watered and allowed to grow on an unsafe 20% grade, according to the complaint.
“What makes these circumstances even more tragic is the simple fact that the complete failure of the subject tree was entirely avoidable,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys state in their court papers.
Matteo Garbelotto, who holds a doctorate in forest pathology and microbiology, examined the remains of the tree and submitted a declaration on behalf of the plaintiffs.
“The decaying branch stub where decay started would have been visible 10-plus years prior to the accident,” Garbelotto said. And because the tree was located on a steep bank and was allegedly excessively watered, it should have been “identified as a tree requiring to be inspected closely and often at a level beyond the simple visual inspection,” he said.
Root damage to the tree was extensive and could have been detected by probing the surfacing roots for at least five years before the fall, according to Garbelotto.
Margarita Mojarro, of San Pedro, died at a hospital. A 3-year-old niece of the bride was hospitalized in critical condition with a traumatic brain injury and a half-dozen other people were treated at a hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.
The tree was a Blue Gum eucalyptus that had become “acutely diseased,” according to the lawsuit. “Before plaintiffs knew what was happening, the massive, multi-thousand-pound tree was upon them and they could not escape its path of destruction.”
In earlier court papers seeking dismissal of the suit, lawyers for the city stated that the accident was “a tragic stroke of nature” and that “there is no basis for concluding that Whittier is at fault or liable to plaintiffs under California law.”
Arborists hired by the city trimmed the tree in 2014 “and reported nothing to Whittier about any problems with the tree,” according to the defense’s court papers, which also say that Whittier’s park manager inspected the tree two months before the accident “and saw no indications of disease, decay or any other reason for concern.”
Before it fell that day, the city never received any complaints, reports or problems about the tree, according to the city’s court papers.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys maintained, however, the city knew of the dangerous condition of the tree and had the means and authority to protect park visitors against such a tragedy.
“The city buried its head in the sand and now claims it never had any notice the subject tree was in decline and dying,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers alleged in their court papers. “It follows that if you don’t inspect, you will never find any dangerous conditions. The `We see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil’ excuse is no defense.”
The park is a popular photo-taking spot because of its mature trees. The wedding party was posing for pictures when the tree fell.
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