City defends inaction on tree as panel OKs injury settlement

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A City Council Committee on Monday signed off on a $5.75 million settlement to compensate a 37-year-old cyclist paralyzed by a 40-foot limb that fell from a parkway tree, even as a city attorney defended the city’s inaction.

First Deputy Corporation Counsel Leslie Darling acknowledged that the tree in the 500 block of West Grant Place had been inspected by the city 10 months before the accident that left Erick Leon paralyzed from the waist down.

She also acknowledged that the city had received numerous demands to remove dead branches from that same tree — including a request from local Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) — after a fallen branch shattered the windshield of a car parked on that same block in Lincoln Park.

But Darling said, “Our expert was very clear that, when the tree was inspected, we couldn’t have seen the rot as the rot was at the top of the tree . . . They examined the tree according to the protocol and didn’t determine that the tree needed further trimming.”

Then why settle the case for $5.75 million? Was it because of the alderman’s complaint that dead branches had not been removed, along with her follow-up letter to then-Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Tom Byrne?

“That was certainly part of the evidence that led to our moving toward settling on this. There were a number of calls about this tree. [There were] 311 complaints. There was a 311 complaint that had actually been closed out on a clerical error on the same tree. There were a number of matters of notice to the city on this tree that led us to believe that it merited settlement,” she said.

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 Monday, Darling was asked whether a shortage of employees contributed to the accident.

“Our certified expert was very clear in his testimony that the tree inspection system the city has is the standard,” she said.

Ald. Edward Burke (14th) disagreed after the Finance Committee he chairs approved the settlement.

“I don’t know if they did anything wrong. [But] maybe they didn’t do enough,” Burke said.

“The downside of going to trial in that kind of case is that there could be a significantly higher judgment if a jury believes the conduct of city employees rose to a level of negligence. So, the wise thing to do is settle.”

Ald. John Arena (45th) argued that the Bureau of Forestry is still far short of the manpower it needs to prevent a repeat of the  “free occurrence” that crushed Erick Leon’s lower spine.

“I have 570 odd blocks and all of `em have trees on `em. I have people who come to me and say, `I put this in 18 months ago, two years ago and it still hasn’t been addressed.’ Obviously, it’s exacerbated by the Emerald Ash Borer. Those trees die and dry out very quickly, become brittle. We’ve lost a number of them in the last big storms. That helps in bringing `em down. But it brings `em down in an uncontrolled way — and that’s when we’re liable,” Arena said.

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,” Leon’s attorney, Michael Goode, told the Chicago Sun-Times last week.

“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.’”

Goode has argued that Chicago has just six forestry inspectors citywide and needs more people to take a regular inventory of trees every four years broken down by species and age and remove hazardous trees from public areas.

Also on Monday, the Finance Committee agreed to pay $870,000 to compensate a man who spent three years in prison only to be acquitted of the murder of a 76-year-old woman stabbed and burned in the bathtub of her home.

Donny McGee filed a civil lawsuit against the city accusing two Chicago Police detectives and a polygraph examiner of fabricating his oral confession. After the city tried the case and lost, McGee was awarded $1.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The city appealed on a technicality. A new trial was ordered. The settlement averts that second trial.

Both settlement are expected to be approved by the full City Council on Wednesday.

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