Paralyzed citizen sues City after falling branch breaks spine

A woman whose spine was broken when a large tree branch fell on her in San Francisco’s Washington Square Park last month has filed a claim for negligence against The City.

The claim, filed on behalf of Emma Zhou, alleges The City improperly pruned the 50-foot-tall pine trees in the park using a practice called “tree topping,” which removes the upper trunk and allows stubs or lateral branches to grow more quickly.

The practice has been outlawed under city law since 2006 and violates the city’s pruning standards, according to attorney Jeremy Cloyd:

“There’s really a public safety issue here that hasn’t been addressed.”

Cloyd said other pine trees in the park have been pruned in the same way:

“This was a needless tragedy that would have never occurred if the City had simply followed its own pruning standards.”

The branch that struck the 36-year-old mother of two on August 12 as she visited the park with her two daughters weighed an estimated 100 pounds and fell more than 50 feet, officials said.

City Recreation and Park officials said after the incident that the Canary Island pine was assessed in 2008 and 2010 and was considered to be in good condition. Two years ago a private tree care company pruned and up-limbed the trees around the park’s playground where the woman was injured, officials said.

Zhou suffered a severed spinal cord, brain damage and permanent paralysis below the waist, according to Cloyd. She will need another 16 months of hospital rehabilitation and is not expected to be able to walk again.

The family is struggling, Cloyd said, and the Zhou’s husband, Tony Tan, has had to move out of the family home to be closer to her while she remains in the hospital. A Go Fund Me page has been established for the family to help cover expenses at https://www.gofundme.com/hitbytree.

The city has six months to review the claim. If it rejects it, attorneys can then proceed to file a lawsuit.

Andrea Guzman, a spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, said the office is in the process of reviewing the claim:

“We are always saddened when tragic accidents occur, and our thoughts are with Ms. Zhou and her family.”