Lawsuit filed by family of teen killed climbing tree in Oakland

The family of a 16-year-old boy who was killed while climbing a tree near Oakland’s Lake Merritt last year is suing the city, alleging that Oakland employees knew the tree was unsafe but failed to act in time.

Jack Lewis of Oakland was killed shortly before 6 p.m. on Dec. 4, 2015, while climbing a tree in a park near Children’s Fairyland on the shore of Lake Merritt.

According to the lawsuit filed Monday, Lewis was with friends that evening celebrating one of their birthdays. Several of the teens were sitting on a 20-foot-long, 12-inch-thick branch as Lewis was climbing up to join them when the branch disconnected and fell on his head.

Lewis suffered a fractured skull and was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the lawsuit.

The tree was removed days later. Lewis’s parents Michael and Lisa Lewis, as well as their attorney John Winer, contend that the city knew the tree was diseased and dying but did not remove it in time to prevent their son’s death.

Lewis’ friends and family gathered today to announce their lawsuit against the city near the stump left from the tree’s removal, which was adorned with flowers and candles.

They contended that city workers were aware that the tree was dangerous and liable to fall and had already been marked for removal with blue paint.

Winer said the city had to be aware of the state of the tree after having pruned the top of it before the incident. But he said he has had difficulty getting city records to find out exactly what the city knew about the tree and when.

Winer said:

“The Lewis family should be enjoying the holidays together rather than as a shattered family which has lost one of its members forever.”

Lewis’ friends and family remembered him as kind and adventurous, the one who always jumped first into the water.

He was a Boy Scout and a rower and loved to climb trees. His father said:

“His adventurous ways were everything we wanted him to be.”

In addition to his parents, Lewis left behind a younger brother, now 15, and a 10-year-old sister. To examine the safety of the surrounding area, Winer and the family have consulted with an arborist, Denice Britton, the former urban forestry manager for the city of Chico.

Britton said today she has found several trees in dangerous states in the area immediately surrounding the accident site. She pointed out one tree with a large crack in its bark and said it was liable to break around that crack. She pulled bits of rot from the bottom of the tree and knocked on the trunk, pointing out its hollow sound.

While the city can’t be expected to abate every sick or failing tree, it needs to prioritize trees in well-traveled areas such as near Lake Merritt, Winer said. Children play frequently in the area and the tree itself was popular to climb and watch sunsets over Lake Merritt.

While the lawsuit primarily seeks a financial award for the family, Winer said he hopes that it will also contribute to making the area safer.

Oakland public works officials could not be immediately reached for comment on the case.