$28 million to go to family of woman killed by falling tree at wedding in Whittier park

The family of a San Pedro woman who was killed by a falling tree at her daughter’s wedding nearly four years ago has reached a tentative $28-million settlement with the city of Whittier, according to court documents filed by the plaintiffs’ attorney.

a group of people wearing costumes: Los Angeles County firefighters work on a large eucalyptus tree that fell on a wedding party in 2016 in Whittier. (Keith Durflinger / Associated Press)

© (Keith Durflinger / Associated Press)
Los Angeles County firefighters work on a large eucalyptus tree that fell on a wedding party in 2016 in Whittier. (Keith Durflinger / Associated Press)

Margarita Mojarro, 61, was at Whittier’s Penn Park in December 2016 when a 70-foot blue gum eucalyptus fell onto the wedding party as they posed for pictures. Mojarro was killed, and several others were injured, including a 3-year-old girl who suffered irreparable brain damage.

“There is no amount of money that can bring back family members or heal the damage that was done,” said Brian Leinbach, the plaintiffs’ attorney, “but they are pleased to put this tragic event behind them, and they feel good about that.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2017, alleged that the city should have known about the danger of the tree, which the suit said was “negligently, carelessly, and recklessly maintained in dangerous character and condition attributable to advanced rot and decay.”

The tree was over-watered and situated at a dangerous 20% grade, according to the suit, and the city both failed to remediate the threat or warn parkgoers of any danger.

The case has been fiercely litigated for more than three years. The city initially maintained no fault in the accident, which it called “an unforeseeable Act of God,” and said that park managers had inspected the tree “three or four times” in the two years prior and found no cause for concern. The “failing” of the tree, which weighed several thousand pounds, followed several days of heavy rains that could have loosened the soil and unearthed its roots, arborists said at the time.

But an independent tree pathologist hired by the plaintiffs said that more than 90% of the tree’s roots were dead, and that its rot and decay should have been observable for at least five years. Whittier park manager Mike Montoya had previously flagged the same defect on another tree and had it removed.

It was “an accident waiting to happen,” the court papers said.

California is home to millions of trees in cities, parks and forests, but tree failure isn’t highly common. In the last three decades, only 6,316 fallen trees have been reported to the University of California’s Tree Failure Report Program — although program manager Katherine Jones said the number relies on community cooperation and is “nowhere near the number of failures that have actually occurred since then.”

Oak and pine were the most reported trees to fail, followed by eucalyptus, which composed roughly 12% of the reported tree failures.

The $28-million sum was reached during a mediation session that followed multiple rounds of settlement discussions and tentative trial preparations. The matter is scheduled to be heard Friday in front of a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge in Norwalk. The judge is expected to find that the settlement was made in good faith.

The judge will also confirm the allocation of the $28 million to the 19 plaintiffs, who were members of the wedding party and families. Mojarro’s husband, Feliciano Mojarro, is set to receive $2.9 million, while her daughter Patricia — the bride — will receive $3.3. million. The child who was injured will receive $7.5 million, records show.

“The amount of money paid by the city is an acknowledgement of responsibility, and that is something that in and of itself provides a lot of healing,” Leinbach said. “This has been a long, hard battle — no doubt about it — but the legal system does work, albeit sometimes slowly, and you can achieve justice.”

Friday’s scheduled ruling does not account for the family’s additional action against West Coast Arborists, the company hired to maintain the trees in Penn Park. That action is listed in court documents as “non-settling.” The city also has filed a cross-complaint against the company.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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