Chichester tree surgeon loses National Trust damages claim

Court results.
Court results.

A CHICHESTER tree surgeon who was paralysed in a 50-foot fall from a giant conker tree has won a top judge’s ‘enormous sympathy’ - but has failed to win multi-million-pound compensation from the National Trust.

James Alexander Yates was aged just 22 when he fell from the diseased and dying tree in the grounds of National Trust property, Morden Lodge, in Morden Hall Park, Surrey, in December 2009.

Mr Yates, now 26, of Carleton Road, who is permanently confined to a wheelchair and has no use of his legs, blamed the Trust for the accident that wrecked his life.

However, dismissing his claim at London’s High Court, Mr Justice Nicol emphasised that tree surgery is a hazardous business and ruled that, as he was working for a private contractor, the Trust owed him no legal duty of care.

The judge said: “Mr Yates suffered a fall which caused him grave injuries. They have radically altered his life and, in addition to the pain and suffering which he must have endured, they will have caused him very substantial financial loss.

“Anyone who learns of the case must have enormous sympathy for him.

“The Trust, or its insurers, undoubtedly has a deeper pocket than he does. If the question before me was which of the two was best placed to shoulder these losses there could be only one answer”.

But he added: “That is not the question which I have to address. Mr Yates is entitled to compensation from the Trust if, and only if, the Trust owed him a relevant duty of care.

“I have concluded that it did not. The inevitable consequence is that this action must be dismissed”.

Colleagues on the ground were concentrating on feeding branches into a chipping machine and noone saw Mr Yates fall when he was just an hour-and-a-half into the two-day job. He had to be cut from his climbing rope and harness by the emergency services.

He had no memory of the catastrophic accident, the cause of which remained a mystery.

The judge said it was unlikely that he had cut through a branch on which he was sitting, but it was possible that he had sliced through his rope with his chainsaw, that a rotten branch had given way or that he had inadvertanly detached himself from his anchor point.

Mr Yates’ legal team argued that the Trust was negligent in employing the firm that he worked for - local tree surgery firm, Jackman & Sons - without checking that its staff were properly qualified and insured for such a dangerous job.

But the judge said that a tree surgeon’s life was necessarily a hazardous one and the the team of workmen would have been well aware that the bleeding canker and Honey fungus-infected tree posed an obvious risk.

The Trust had taken adequate steps to check out the credentials of the firm - which had carried out jobs at Morden Lodge before without incident - and had not assumed responsibility for Mr Yates’ safety.

The park’s warden, Chris Heels, could not have been expected to supervise the job any more closely than he did. He had regularly visited the scene but had seen nothing to indicate that the team were working unsafely.

There was nothing to put Mr Heels on notice that Mr Yates was not qualified to carry out the work safely and, on those facts, the judge concluded that it would not be ‘fair, just and reasonable’ to impose a duty of care on the Trust.