Contractor in Tree Death Gets Extra $120K

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West Coast Arborists, Newport Beach’s tree maintenance contractor, received a $120,000 increase in its 2012 contract, according to city contract documents reviewed by the Independent.

WCA and the city are being sued for negligence in the September 2011 death of Haeyoon Miller, who was crushed by a falling blue gum eucalyptus as she waited to make a left turn at Irvine Avenue and Westcliff Drive.

Bystanders rushed to try to aid of Haeyoon Miller when her care was crushed by a falling tree at Irvine Avenue and Westcliff Drive in September, 2011. Photo by McKensie Soylular

The extra payments are for the removal of other blue gum eucalyptus trees on Irvine Avenue and elsewhere in the city following the fatal accident.

The increased payments were approved by Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff and City Attorney Aaron Harp in May. The increase raises the city’s payments to the tree maintenance company to just more than $1 million for the fiscal year 2012.

Kiff referred questions about the contract to city spokesperson Tara Finnigan, who told the Independent via email, “West Coast Arborists (WCA), the City’s tree maintenance contractor, is under an agreement with the City to do maintenance such as trimming, planting, and removal work.”

Asked to clarify whether the contract calls for WCA to inspect the trees, as well, as stated by city officials in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 tragedy, Finnigan replied, “When WCA is trimming trees, they are to inform the City of any problems or issues, such as evidence that the tree is unhealthy, been damaged by a car, or any number of things.  (The city) sees that as part of the maintenance function.”

She added that the city arborist has primary responsibility for inspecting and identifying trees that need attention or removal.

A frame from a bystander’s video of the tree that fell and killed Haeyoon Miller shows decay of the tree’s root system, according to a top arborist.

An independent arborist interviewed shortly after Miller’s death reviewed photographs and video footage of the accident scene and other Irvine Avenue trees and told the Independent that the fatal tree and at least one other on the block were clearly diseased and that the roots of the fallen tree were decayed “quite extensively.”

After Miller’s death, the city of Newport Beach decided to cut down and remove more than 100 blue gum eucalyptus trees from Irvine Avenue, citing their potential danger to the public.

The city also began an extensive reevaluation of similar trees across the city. The city has removed some of the trees and others remain.

Earlier this year, direct claims on behalf of Haeyoon Miller by her parents were rejected by city of Newport Beach.
The parents of Haeyoon Miller then proceeded to file two separate lawsuits against the cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa and West Coast Arborists for their alleged negligence in the care and maintenance of the tree that fell and killed her.

One lawsuit, brought on the behalf of Miller’s father and her estate, filed June 15 of this year, accuses the cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa and the tree contractor, West Coast Arborists, of allowing a “dangerous condition on public property” and of “negligence” in the death of Haeyoon Miller.

The $120,000 contract increase for West Coast Arborists was approved without City Council knowledge or consent, according to the city’s website. The city has maintained a contract with West Coast Arborists since 1993, according to city records.

Councilmember Steve Rosansky told the Independent he didn’t know about the contract increase and that the council never considered it, but that since the council had previously ordered the trees removed, in the wake of the Miller incident, that the contract increase was appropriate.

“I haven’t heard anybody blaming West Coast (for the Miller death),” Rosansky said. “We have to see what comes out in the legal actions.

“I don’t know that West Coast Arborists was negligent. I don’t know that the city was negligent. The tree that fell was inspected (before it fell) by West Coast and also by the city arborist, and there was no indication of a problem.”

Councilmember Keith Curry said the city manager “may have advised us as part of the response to the Irvine Avenue issues.  I don’t remember.  I would have approved, because this is a critical problem needing immediate attention.”

When asked about the issues of claimed negligence by the city and the tree contactor, Curry declined to comment.

The lawsuits filed by the mother and father of Haeyoon Miller against the city and West Coast Arborists are expected to have their first hearings this summer in Orange County Superior Court.

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