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If a tree falls and you’re standing under it, what kind of court case does it make? A pretty good one, attorney Matthew Davis has learned. He has filed four such suits, and he settled the first two for a total of $3.5 million. Today is an appropriate day to file No. 5 — Arbor Day. He’s suing the city of Pacific Grove over a falling tree limb that killed a woman. Since leaving the San Francisco city attorney’s office in late 2001, Davis, a partner with the plaintiff firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly, Wecht & Schoenberger, has become San Francisco’s most arboreal personal injury lawyer. “He’s the only one I’ve heard of who’s had multiple cases [in San Francisco],” said Barri Bonapart, a Sausalito solo who specializes in all types of tree litigation. Davis’ latest case, Royal v. City of Pacific Grove, to be filed in Monterey County Superior Court, is the fifth tree injury/death suit he’s handled since entering private practice. In that case, a family’s trip to see migrating monarch butterflies was disrupted when a tree limb fell on the grandmother’s head and she died. Representing the surviving family members, Davis argues that the city of Pacific Grove knew the tree “was likely to fracture in whole or in part” and had slated it for removal. Preparing for his Arbor Day filing, Davis stressed that he isn’t faulting the flora. Trees don’t kill people; improper maintenance does, he said. “The thing about it is that I love trees. What I’m promoting is that people take care of trees,” he said. In all of his cases, Davis argues that landowners or public agencies were responsible for preventive tree maintenance. His first tree settlement came on the third day of a 2003 trial in which he argued that Caltrans was responsible for a Monterey pine that fell across Highway 1 in San Mateo County, resulting in the death of a motorist. The $800,000 agreement in that case apparently caught the attention of the tree-afflicted — since then Davis has had more tree cases than he can handle. “I’ve turned a few away,” he said. His biggest settlement so far was $2.7 million for the family of a woman who was crushed inside her car by a falling tree at a San Francisco apartment complex. In that case, a former property manager testified that the complex’s owners knew the tree was diseased and structurally unsound. While the plaintiffs have been paid, the defendants are still embroiled in a lengthy indemnity donnybrook. A separate case against the city of San Francisco, on behalf of a woman whose neck was broken by a falling tree while she waited for a bus, is slated for trial May 17. Another, brought in Napa County by a couple whose lunch was interrupted by a broken gum tree limb, is in mediation. Davis said the key to such cases is taking only ones in which the tree was in a highly populated area, and tree maintenance was therefore required to guarantee public safety. “If someone was in the middle of the woods, the hinterlands, it’s not a good case,” he said. “You can’t expect people to manage forests, in areas where there are not a lot of people, for those risks.” That still leaves plenty of trees. Indeed, with old age and disease making San Francisco trees increasingly big and brittle, lawyers expect to see more suits. “As our urban forest ages, we are, and we will be, continuing to see more and more problems related to tree failures,” Bonapart said. Most notable, Davis said, is a relatively recent blight called pine pitch canker. The disease, which weakens trees and makes them susceptible to a host of other ailments, is responsible for tree failure in at least one of Davis’ cases, and probably in two more. Even as he continues to prepare tree cases for trial, Davis said he never set out to be known as an advocate for victims of broken boughs. But after a successful result in the first case, he didn’t have much choice. “I branched out,” he said.

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