Chicago taxpayers will spend $5.75 million to compensate a 37-year-old cyclist paralyzed after his spine was crushed by a 40-foot limb that fell from a parkway tree that should have been removed after numerous complaints.
The freak accident that forever changed the life of Erick Leon occurred on Aug. 4, 2011 in the 500 block of West Grant Place.
An avid cyclist training for a triathlon, Leon was riding his bike, having just made a delivery for Jimmy John’s, when he heard a loud noise. It turned out to be a 40-foot limb that had broken loose from a parkway tree that neighbors had been complaining about for months.
Before Leon could get out of the way, the limb landed on his back, crushing his lower spine.
“He now lives life on two wheels, as he did before, but in a wheelchair — not on a bicycle. And he will be in that wheelchair forever,” said Leon’s attorney Michael Goode.
“Before the accident, he loved working outside and being outdoors. Now, he has no control of his bowels or bladder. His sex life is gone. He will never have children. His girlfriend came to him two weeks after the injury and said, ‘I didn’t sign on for this.’ “
For four years prior to the accident—and as recently as four weeks before — neighbors had been contacting the city and the local alderman’s office complaining about branches falling from that same tree.
“Several large branches had fallen off that tree. One went through [a car] windshield on June 21, 2011. Even the homeowner had made repeated complaints, asking that it be substantially trimmed or removed,” Goode said Friday.
“At some point, the city had inspected the tree and believed that nothing needed to be done. We believe the inspection was inadequate. They said the tree didn’t need any attention, but it was falling apart.”
Molly Poppe, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, refused to comment on the settlement, which is expected to be approved by the City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday.
Three years ago, Chicago was forced to sharply reduce tree-trimming and rodent control services as it struggled to keep streets clean and pick up garbage amid a two-year hiring freeze and chronic absenteeism.
On Friday, Goode was asked whether a shortage of employees contributed to the accident.
“There’s two inspectors for the North Side, two for the South Side and two for the Central District. They need more people,” he said.
“The city needs to take a regular inventory of trees every four years and break it down by species and age. They don’t do that. They need to remove hazardous trees from public areas. They don’t do that, either.”
Still, Goode praised the city for a fundamental change he claimed was made as a result of the accident that paralyzed his once-athletic client.
Instead of lumping tree-trimming requests into the same pile of pothole and rodent-control complaints funneled to the Department of Sanitation by the 311 system, the Bureau of Forestry is being “directly contacted” about tree-trimming issues, the attorney said.
“This was one of the things we negotiated. Not the funds, but how the city can make a change in the system. They came to us and agreed the system would be modified and it is now,” Goode said.
“Complaints are no longer chucked onto this long list that includes potholes. If it’s Forestry, 311 automatically sends the list directly to Forestry instead of waiting for them to pick it up. I’ve been in litigation with the city in the past. I’ve never seen them respond as favorably with the intention of getting something fixed.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 budget included $3.2 million in new spending to trim more older trees, plant more new trees and bolster rodent control services in response to a rat population surge.
By hiring the equivalent of 41 full-time employees, the mayor hoped to respond to 20,000 additional tree-trimming requests and reduce a backlog that was 18 months long when he took office.
The new hirings were financed by $2.2 million in savings generated by the switch to a grid system and by another round of “managed competition” between city employees and private contractors.
Laborer’s Union Local 1001 won the citywide tree-trimming competition — and the right to gain 41 members — with help from a series of work-rule changes that allowed the city to pay newly-hired Streets and Sanitation employees at an hourly rate of $20 — $13 lower than the current rate of pay. Those employees also can be cross-trained in other jobs, so they can be moved freely among those jobs based on the city’s needs.
Instead of six months, those new hires now have a four-year probationary period. And instead of pre-negotiated pay hikes, they get raises based on hours worked.