A 41-year-old Bell Gardens woman whose leg was shattered when a tree limb fell on her at county-owned Ford Park in 1985 was awarded $150,000 Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.
The award settles a $625,000 lawsuit filed by Rosalyn Stephens, whose right thigh, shin and ankle were broken when the 20-foot-long eucalyptus limb suddenly gave way during a Labor Day picnic, pinning her to the ground and prompting five months of hospitalization and surgery.
She still wears a leg brace because her knee atrophied, and she walks with a "significant limp," county lawyers said. Documented expenses exceed $90,000, and her lawyers claim further treatment could cost up to $25,000.
The county was responsible for Stephens' injuries, she claimed, since park employees should have known that even healthy eucalyptus trees sometimes shed large limbs without notice--especially in late summer.
Instead of placing the picnic table at which Stephens' family was sitting away from the park's towering eucalyptus trees, the park crew chained it to a concrete slab under a tree, both sides agreed.
"They created a dangerous situation by placing the table under the tree," said Marcus Petoyan, the woman's lawyer. "There's a surprising amount of litigation that results from these trees specifically. Occasionally there are major injuries. Most often there is property damage."
Previous Incident Cited
Petoyan said the county should have been alert to the hazard because of a highly publicized 1977 accident at the county arboretum in Arcadia that left 11-year-old schoolgirl Suzanne Gilstrap a paraplegic. The county settled her case for $1.6 million in 1982.
At first, county lawyers argued that the accident that injured Stephens was not foreseeable and that the tree was well maintained, having been pruned shortly beforehand. But they joined the Department of Parks and Recreation in recommending the settlement.
The county also argued initially that Stephens, a Jehovah's Witness, may have exacerbated her injuries by refusing surgery involving blood transfusions, which are forbidden by her religion. She was in traction for five months before she agreed to the implant of metal pins in her leg. She permitted the surgery, which was successful, because her own blood was saved for transfusion.
However, the county concluded that the delay in surgery "was not that substantial a problem," said Louis Aguilar, principal deputy county counsel. "Traction and immobilization is a conservative course of treatment" but an acceptable one, he said.
Not acceptable since Stephens' accident, he said, is placement of tables and benches under eucalyptus trees in county parks.
"We are surveying our parks to make sure we don't chain (tables) beneath those trees, and to make sure the trees are well maintained," Aguilar said.