By Jennifer Kiel
I’ve become accustomed to scanning the roadsides for movement, especially during deer season. Lately, though, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for something most would expect to be stationary — trees. I’m concerned that one might fall on my vehicle or that I might round a turn and not be able to stop quick enough for a tree in the roadway. Before you cart me off to the loony bin, hear me out. It’s not just a freak accident — at least not any more. And, landowners should take note, because they can be held responsible for dead trees falling onto vehicles.
There’s a contributing factor making this scenario more likely now than ever before — the emerald ash borer. The borer was first discovered in North America in southeast Michigan in 2002. It has since spread as far as the Rockies, New Hampshire and Texas. EAB is now in 79 of Michigan’s 83 counties and has killed more than 35 million trees.
Ohio’s infestation began in 2003 and quickly spread. It is estimated that 25 million trees have been killed by EAB, with an economic impact of billions of dollars — especially since one in every 10 trees in Ohio is an ash.
We’re now in our 16th year of this war on this beetle, and the battle scars are very noticeable and far-reaching. Dead ash trees are dotted throughout our forests and, yes, our roadways. Ash trees were once popular for landscaping in sunny spots, where they can take in the rays. Hence, they’re near roadways, too.
The threat is real, and one Michigan man, Ron Goodger, has starting tracking accidents caused by falling ash trees when his wife narrowly missed injury after crashing into one.
Bonnie Dailey of Ohio’s Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District has written about a similar experience and warned of the dangers.
Goodger lives in Cass County, Mich., and by using Google Earth, has identified more than 800 dead ash trees in that county. He’s also done some research and found 15 deaths in the last couple of years attributed to dead ash trees that have fallen.
In January 2017, 16-year-old Nicholas Hewitt was killed in Cass County, Mich., and in May 2018, 68-year-old Frederick Green of Ogemaw County, Mich., was killed instantly when a dead ash tree fell on the vehicle he was driving.
On July 6, 2018, 60-year-old Robert Musch died in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, after a large tree branch fell on his car.
Goodger, who owns 26 acres of woodland, says he’s cut hundreds of dead ash trees off his property in the last seven years. He pays particular attention to those along the roadway. “It’s the landowner’s responsibility to remove them,” he says. “If you know there is a dead tree and do nothing about it, you could be held negligent and sued for damages if it causes harm.”
He explained that if a healthy tree or a tree that looks healthy falls into the roadway, usually because of a windstorm, then it is an act of God. If, however, the tree is obviously dead, then the responsible party (generally the landowner) has a duty to travelers to remove the danger.
“We need to spread the word as far and wide as possible, because there are so many of them right now,” he says, noting he recently informed a school district of a 3-foot-diameter dead ash a few hundred feet from where school buses travel. He explains that in 2012, a dead ash tree did fall on a school bus and sent five kids to the hospital. Read about school bus incidents at this Goodger's school buses hit by falling trees webpage on his Dead Ash Trees Killing People website.
Robert E. Moore, an Ohio attorney who writes the Country Council column for Ohio Farmer magazine, agrees with Goodger and adds, “It’s always a good idea to check with your insurance agent to make sure the liability insurance policy covers tree damage.”
Goodger has developed a website, Dead Ash Trees Killing People, which contains his research on the issue. Goodger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Moore at email@example.com, or ohiofarmlaw.com.