Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Man Sues Ojai Over Fallen Tree

By Nao Braverman

Three months after a tree came crashing into Mel Williams’ duplex in downtown Ojai, a Ventura attorney helped him file a small claims action against the city.
For the 18 years that the Georgia-born Ojai resident lived in his Franklin Street home, the community had been good to him, and he, in turn, had given back to the community in his own way. Every Christmas, Williams, dressed in a red suit, black boots and white beard, poses as Santa Claus for the neighborhood kids, and anyone in Ojai who would request it.
But when a rotten tree on nearby city-owned land, fell on his home, destroying his Chevrolet custom van and some of his property, no one at City Hall could offer him help.
Strapped for cash, with many of his belongings lost or destroyed, Williams filed a claim with the city asking for payment of his damages. But the city denied his claim outright, with no explanation, said Ventura attorney, Tina Cowdrey who is taking the case pro bono.
The damages for which Williams holds the city responsible include the destruction of his van which was hit by the falling tree, and a television, VCR and stereo, which were taken by looters while the property was surrounded with red tape and declared off-limits.
Williams had asked if he could go in to retrieve some important paperwork, but city officials wouldn’t let him into the destroyed home, he said. That’s when the looters came and took his belongings, he added.
He is asking for $7,500 for his loss, which he believes actually came out to about $9,000, including the $5,000 van and approximately $4,000 for the lost furniture, including a couch, chairs and bed, and other miscellaneous goods, a television, VCR, stereo, clothing, and pictures on the wall. Williams holds the city responsible because it failed to maintain the tree and diagnose it as rotten, according to the claim.
City manager Jere Kersnar said he did not know the details of the incident, but said that the city automatically hands such cases over to the California Joint Powers Insurance Agency, a pool for sharing liabilities among 119 California cities, of which Ojai is a member. The advice of the insurance agency’s third party administrator, Carl Warren & Company, was to deny the claim, so that’s what the city did, he said.
George Mankiewicz, a claims supervisor at Carl Warren & Company said that a neighbor of Williams had called to complain about the rotting tree in December 2006, about a year and three months before the incident.
Ojai’s arborist inspected the tree, and had it trimmed at that time, said Mankiewicz.
“It is our contention that the trimming of a tree between a year and two years is reasonable. The regularly scheduled inspection was in January 2007, a month later, so the city was ahead of the game. There was no outward indication that the tree was rotting away from the inside.”
According to Mankiewicz, the city has an obligation to inspect its property, which it did, to the best of its ability. The city would also be liable if it were aware of the dangerous condition on the property. But if the city failed to discover the dangerous condition on its own, it was not liable.
“Nobody’s perfect,” said Mankiewicz. He added that several trees went down in Ojai during the heavy winds in March.
But it has not been as easy for Williams to hop back on his feet. Williams receives Section 8 vouchers which help pay his rent. He had no renter’s insurance, and there is no requirement that owners of Area Housing Authority-subsidized property provide insurance.
The Ventura County Chapter of the American Red Cross had placed Williams in the Capri Motel for one week and, after having a hard time finding a place which accepts Section 8 rentals, he finally found a one-bedroom apartment in Meiners Oaks.
But the cost of living has risen considerably since. Gas and water are more expensive at his new place and Williams has scrambled to come up with funds to refurnish his new apartment that he shares with his grandson and a boxer-pit bull mix.
“It’s been hard on us,” he said. “I went into debt just trying to survive here,” he said.
“When we first got here we didn’t even have a bed to sleep on, but people have been nice and offered donations,” he added.
Williams has a heart condition and is mostly confined to his bed, he said. He remembers the day when he was sitting on his sofa with his grandson and heard the strangest noise he had ever heard coming from outside the window.
“Then in came the windows, and then the door and the roof,” he said. “I grabbed my grandson and dove to the floor.”
A light came in through the windows illuminating the dark remains of the living room on that fateful day, and Williams realized that it was emergency personnel shining a flashlight through the window, he said. Community members were helpful but city officials were not, said Williams.
He is awaiting a judge’s opinion and a small claims court trial date is set for the morning of July 25.
The Franklin Street duplex that was partially crushed by the tree is still boarded up. A week before the incident, the structure had been damaged by a vehicle that crashed into the duplex, according to a letter from Ojai’s Community Development Department addressed to the Wisconsin-based property owner. With damages from the vehicle crash and the tree falling combined, the units are deemed dangerous to the public.
The property owner was ordered to abate the public nuisance in the beginning of April but no changes have been made to the property.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

um, it was an accident...doesn't he have insurance???

Anonymous said...

oops, i meant "why" doesn't he have insurance??

Anonymous said...

The question is does the city have insurance? A tree on city property just "falls"? I can see if this happened on a windy day, but from the sound of it the tree just fell and destroyed this guys property. Also, the city refused him access to his property to be able to secure his belongings, which makes them culpable to the losses that occurred out of theft (really, what we should be discussing here is how people take advantage of other people during times of misfortune -- it's appalling!). I say let the city help this guy out.

Anonymous said...

old oak trees fall all the time! if my neighbor's tree falls into my house, I am responsible and I call my insurance company.

in this case, it was a rental property. shame on him for not having rental insurance.

on the other hand, i will agree that the looting is on the city's watch.

Anonymous said...

that's ojai for you {don't you have ins}over 50% of ojai is poor ie not rich people. we tend to have a nasty habit of eating. the dollar is falling in value proof is at the pump it is to make way for the amero the north american union the dollar will be worthless in 09 look it up sovereignty bill of rights gone bottom line if you crash into a power pole or a tree and damage it they make you pay for its worth{cost to fix}good right so not a 2 way street why?? and was the house moving no the tree fell {not mells fault} and they {police} can keep him out but not thieves nice in times of emergency i bet they come and take the registered guns from legal owners and let the criminals run free

Anonymous said...

I bet you would be calling your insurance co. chaching I would be pissed if negligence on the city's part caused all these problems buy spending 2grand on dead or deceased tree removal and got 1,000-500.in tax rebate 1,500.00 cost to remove and solve the problems smarter leadership is the best insurance make all the excuses you want if it helps you sleep. Say it did fall on your house and just say it only landed on the corner but it is the corner of your kids rooms will your policy cover that ?????? good luck to mell

Anonymous said...

The question is, did the city arborist really provide an adequate evaluation of the tree? Another very credible arborist was working in the trees on the property next door and identified the decay center in the tree that fell. His client was alerted, and hence so was the city. The city's arborist is renouned for "drive-by" tree inspections, and for telling his clients what they want to hear. This guy never even goes up into the tree he is supposed to be inspecting. If he had even gone 10' up a ladder and had his eyes open, it would have been clear that the tree posed an unacceptable hazard that could not have remedied by the mere pruning of deadwood that he recommended in his report to the city. Perhaps if the city loses the law suit they may take the issue of tree safety more seriously, and hire an arborist that doesn't have his blinders on. Good thing nobody was injured or killed, if this were the case, the city would have much more than a small claims lawsuit on their hands.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps if the city loses the law suit they may take the issue ... more seriously

Ah, the truth comes out. The logic appears to be "if the city loses a lawsuit, we all benefit." LOL! Good luck with that line of reasoning.

James Hatch said...

Let's face it. The real problem is the trees. They should all be cut down so we don't have to worry about this again. All it takes in one tree to kill an innocent bystander.

Anonymous said...

The logic appears to be "if the city loses a lawsuit, we all benefit." LOL!
This is really a no "LOL!" matter. The city has a mandate to protect indigenous trees that have been here longer than any person that is reading this blog. To just go and cut down every tree with the assumption that they are the organism creating a problem is absurd. Most sane people appreciate the ambiance trees provide, not to mention the fact that our very lives are dependent on the Oxygen that trees and other green organisms provide.
Lets face it folks, the real problem is not the trees, it is the people. The trees have not encroached into our realm of inhabitable life zones. Humanity has encroached upon and is over -running the trees.
So also, the city has the mandate to protect its human inhabitants.
The dilemmna is that the city is apparently cutting cost by hiring the same consultant that they have for years. This person is apparently "tenured" into his position, This person is supposed to be retired, but as long as he produces the 2 paragraph reports and 10 minute inspections that continually let the city and developers off the hook, he will be their man. In this case, the city and the insurance companies are labeling this tree failure as an act of god. Which is the classic cop-out for insurance companies that are more into reasons to exclude benefits and payouts than they are to perform what they are paid for.

Anonymous said...

james....go take your Seroquel and watch a nice movie.

Good boy.

Anonymous said...

Good Boy...er uh James...
Seroq? That must be the medication that helps you to be complacent, and trusting when basking in the shade of an Oak tree that has been certified to have a clean bill of health by the city arborist. ZZZ...

Anonymous said...

People are the only real problem with Ojai. Everything else is just fine.

James Hatch said...

When I write, people read. That's the simple truth. James Hatch writes from a position of knowledge and experience with the cutting ability to see the problem and identify the solution.

Problem: Tree falls on house.

Solution: Cut the trees down so it doesn't happen again.

What I bring to the table is a straightforward approach based in logic and reason.

Let's face it, the reality is that houses don't fall on trees, trees fall on houses. If the city didn't treat the oak like the sacred cow, people would have to rake less and would no longer live with the fear the next fallen oak could very well be one falling on the lady pushing the stroller.

Anonymous said...

Buildings fall on people during earthquakes. Let's get rid of all the buildings.

Anonymous said...

How many other trees need a more thorough assessment to ensure public safety? It certainly seems that if other trees declared to be safe could be shown to be diseased and a hazard, that the city would have no argument to make in this lawsuot.

Anonymous said...

If you don't trees, move to Big Sur. They don't have any trees anymore.

Anonymous said...

When Mel lived on South Montgomery, his house burned down. When he moved, a car ran into his house. Then, a tree fell on his house. When the tree fell on his place, a nest of bees in the tree drove him out.

Is there any meaning to be found in all of this?

Anonymous said...

city planners are morons

Anonymous said...

Why not sue the arborist who inspected the tree and bypass the city entirely? I'm sure HE must have insurance!

Anonymous said...

Another suggestion to sue somebody?

By his own admission, this guy had a $9,000 loss at most, far less than a legal action with two lawyers would run up. Let's see what his small claim trial brings on 7/25. Meanwhile, he continues to get Section 8 housing vouchers, people have been donating out of the kindness of their hearts, a lawyer has helped him for free, and the Red Cross has helped him.

Anonymous said...

His truck was not insured? Where are the teenagers' parents? Where is the rest of the family? Interesting reading the article, and comments as well, still lots of questions...I wish him well.

Anonymous said...

I think that this case should be simple. Pay this man.
Now , from here on in the trees should really be inspected and trimmed when necessary. Yes our trees have been here longer then humans and that is why they are now a danger to humans. Please just do your job and cut these trees when it is needed. You will actually save money in the long run.

Anonymous said...

I think that this case should be simple. Pay this man.
Everybody is so free and easy with other people's money. This will be decided later this month in small claims court.

m. guadian said...

as a former neighbor of mels, he is a elderly man, who can barely move his arm. he's had like three surgeries. his grandson is 13. they wouldn't even let him in for his heart medicine. who cares where the tree hit. the thing is it scared the hell out of him. and he was scared for his grandson. and what no one has mentioned is that the same tree lost a huge branch a few years back. so when the city had to clean that up why wasn't it checked then to see if it was dead or not. regardles if he has insurance or not he shouldn't have had to suffer or go homeless just because of "donations" or "section 8". those are the people with money talking. when you live on a fixed income it doesn't come as easy for us as for you. ojai can raise money for ugly park on el paseo and how much for the skate park. a secret society of men donated how much? puleeeeese! some people in this town just look for reasons to say something about low income. they don't want us here. rent is more than anyone can afford. but you may not think this man is worthy of $9000.00-he could of added emotional and mental anquish.
at least he's honest.
now, who's going to make more smart ass comments about mel williams? he also lost alot he can never get back. his personal pictures, etc. this man fought for our country. my kids did a report on him for a school project. he is a very special person with that southern drawal. and calls everyone honey. you should thank him instead of trying to belittle him because of his income bracket.
oh, and some people can only affford what the law says we have to have on our cars. and that is when you hit the other person. so i doubt very much he can afford apt insurance. i know i can't

Anonymous said...

who cares where the rest of his famiy is. he received as much help as he could from them and people who CARE.
its not the only tree in town that has fallen on its own.
and whoever planned that street with the sidewalk going around the tree. have they gone back and checked how much it has grown. you have to walk with your head down to make sure you don't fall. the house across the street remodeled and pulled out roots from this tree. in the toilet drain. like i tell my kids if your going to say something make sure you know the facts.

Anonymous said...

James Hatch, tell us you are joking about cutting down all the trees?