Council fined £280K for failing to fell tree that killed little girl

A local authority has been fined £280,000 for failing to cut down a decaying tree by a school playground that fell on and killed a six-year-old girl.

Little Ella Henderson and her friends were hit by tragedy when a piece of a rotted willow broke free in a gust of 32mph wind and landed on them in the playground of Gosforth Park First School.

The largest and heaviest section of the tree fell directly onto the Year Two pupil and even though the other children scrambled to safety, Ella’s injuries meant she died the next day, the Chronicle Live reports.

At South Tyneside Magistrates Court today (Tues) Vikki and Neil Henderson said they dropped their daughter off at the school gates on September 25, 2020, expecting her to be safe.

Outside the school in Newcastle a bank of floral tributes appeared in the days following the tragedy with messages of condolence and cuddly toys left in remembrance.

Gosforth Park First School and Newcastle City Council were investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The local authority which was contracted to maintain the trees in the playground admitted failing to ensure Ella’s safety and that of the other children at the school under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Magistrates heard how a qualified arborist had inspected the willow tree two years before the tragedy and identified signs of decay with a further inspection ordered. But the court head subsequent inspections were carried out by “operatives of a lower standard” and reports to the school were “badly communicated” meaning the head did not receive the original report for two years.

The willow tree standing at the edge of the primary school playground had a 35 degree lean and a decay ‘red flag’ of flowering fungi on the trunk that showed it needed to be removed.

James Towey, prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive, told the court: “It was towards the conclusion of lunchtime that Ella was playing with her friends on the playground when a large section of a willow tree that stood on a grassed area adjacent to the playground collapsed and fell directly onto several children.

“All of them, apart from Ella, were able to climb out from under it and they suffered only superficial injuries. But because of the large piece of tree that fell on Ella, staff were unable to effect a rescue immediately. She was rescued by the emergency services and taken to hospital. It is most sad that in the early hours of the following morning she lost her life. The cause of death was given as crush asphyxia.”

Mr Towey detailed how the council was responsible for the management of trees at the school, which is run by the Gosforth Schools’ Trust. He said the tree had become an “accident waiting to happen” after the council failed to properly investigate its condition following an inspection in February 2018 that identified the need for another detailed look at it again within six months.

The council also admitted to having failed to properly communicate the need for the tree to be further inspected with the school, with emails having been wrongly sent to other schools by mistake. Ella’s parents Neil and Vikki watched the court proceedings via video link and Mrs Henderson made a heart-breaking statement to the court.

Mrs Henderson, who has another daughter called Abi, said: “Up until September 25, 2020, we had the perfect life. There was not one thing we would have changed. We had two happy, healthy, little girls who were just the best of friends and life was amazing.

“Having lived that life, we now live with a complete hole in our lives. Having a six year old who loves life and wakes up every morning with ‘What are we doing today, Mummy?’, loving everything we did and everywhere we went, to suddenly this life, is just indescribable.

“Taking her big sister places now and knowing how much she would love everywhere we go and taking photos without her is heart breaking.

“It’s not just the big things like birthdays, holidays and Christmas, it’s also all the small everyday things like not washing her clothes, not buying her toys or clothes but knowing what she’d love, not setting her place at the table or booking a table in a restaurant for four.

“Going to restaurants and being constantly asked “just one child” and having the empty chair at a table for four. Staying in a cottage and instead of her sharing a room together with her sister, there is now an empty bed. It’s just a constant reminder, not that we will ever need one, that she’s not here.”

Mrs Henderson said the “hardest part” is that the family did what every parent does each day and left their child at the school gates thinking she should be safe.

She said: “When I pass schools on the way somewhere and hear that innocent noise of children playing, I think, that was all she was doing. She was just playing ballerinas with her friends.

“Life is so unfair, and she was so loved and had so much to give this world. As her reception teacher said, ‘The world is a much sadder place without Ella in it.’

Mr Towey said the willow tree should have been further examined by an expert with qualifications from Lantra, the official body responsible for training arborists.

Mr Towey said: “Further services were carried out by operatives of a lower standard on Lantra. Reports were badly communicated to the school and to other schools in the Gosforth area.”

Representing the city council, Ben Compton KC offered an unreserved apology to Ella’s family. Admitting the council’s failures, he said: “The bottom line is that that tree should have been felled. It should not have been standing on that dreadful day.”

Mr Compton told the court how a scheduled review of the council’s tree team earlier in 2020, which if carried out could have led to the tree’s dangerous condition being picked up, had been put on hold because of the Covid pandemic. He added that, since Ella’s tragic death as a result of crush asphyxia, the council had made a number of changes – including carrying out that delayed review, restructuring its tree management team, adopting a new tree policy in 2021, and improving staff training.

District Judge Zoe Passfield fined the council £280,000 for its part in Ella’s death, which she said “could have been avoided”.

She added, while some inspections of the tree were conducted by the council after the initial 2018 report, they appeared to be the “bare minimum” and resulted in the tree being wrongly judged to be in a “fair condition”

The judge said that the council had “failed to appreciate the seriousness” of the situation, while a later entry into the council’s computer system in April 2020 effectively wiped the “vital” note from February 2018 which called for a detailed inspection of the willow.

The council’s £280,000 fine was reduced from an initial £420,000 in recognition of the guilty plea. With additional costs, the council must pay a total of £288,201.80 within 15 months.

HSE inspector Victoria Wise said after the sentencing that Ella’s death was “entirely avoidable”.

She commented: “Organizations with a responsibility to manage tree health must understand the importance of ensuring that trees in places where there are people, such as playgrounds and schools, are routinely inspected and any faults identified are appropriately managed. Our thoughts today are with Ella’s family and her many friends.”

Chief executive of Newcastle City Council, Pam Smith, said: “Ella’s death was a devastating tragedy, and our hearts go out to her family and friends.

“Whilst we take our health and safety responsibilities very seriously, we fully accept that there were failings in our processes which is why we have taken the opportunity to plead guilty to the offense at the first available opportunity. We note the Judge’s comments today and fully accept the sentence of the court.

“Immediately following the incident, we reviewed our processes and as a result, we have put in place new procedures to prevent something like this from ever happening again. We would like to offer our sincere and profound condolences and apologize unreservedly to Ella’s family for their unimaginable loss.”

Ella’s family raised £30,000 for the Great North Air Ambulance Service in her memory, after it responded to the emergency when she was injured.

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