NORWALK, Calif. (FOX 11) - An expert who examined the remains of an 80-foot tree that fell on and killed a 61-year-old woman at her daughter's wedding party in Whittier in 2016 said decay was evident for years before the fall.
A lawsuit was filed against the city of Whittier by relatives of the late Margarita Mojarro in Los Angeles Superior Court in April 2017, alleging wrongful death and that a dangerous condition of public property existed. The case was later transferred to Norwalk Superior Court and a motion by the city for dismissal of the case is scheduled for hearing on May 16 before Judge Lori Ann Fournier.
The plaintiffs include the woman's husband, Feliciano Mojarro; and four of her children, including the bride, Patricia Mojarro.
The tree toppled over at William Penn Park in the 13900 block of Penn Street about 4:30 p.m. Dec. 17, 2016, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The tree was over-watered and allowed to grow on an unsafe 20 percent grade, according to the complaint.
Matteo Garbelotto, who holds a doctorate in forest pathology and microbiology, examined the remains of the tree and submitted a declaration on behalf of the plaintiffs' opposition to the dismissal of the case.
"The decaying branch stub where decay started would have been visible 10-plus years prior to the accident," says Garbelotto.
Garbelotto further says that because the tree was located on a steep bank and was allegedly excessively watered, it should have been "identified as a tree requiring to be inspected closely and often at a level beyond the simple visual inspection."
Root damage to the tree was extensive and could have been detected by probing the surfacing roots for at least five years before the fall, according to Garbelotto.
Mojarro, of San Pedro, died at a hospital. A 3-year-old girl, a niece of the bride, was hospitalized in critical condition with a traumatic brain injury and a half-dozen other people were treated at a hospital for injuries not considered life-threatening.
The tree was a Blue Gum eucalyptus that had become "acutely deceased," according to the suit. "Before plaintiffs knew what was happening, the massive, multi-thousand-pound tree was upon them and they could not escape its path of destruction."
In their court papers, lawyers for the city said that the accident was "only a tragic stroke of nature'' and that "there is no basis for concluding that Whittier is at fault or liable to plaintiffs under California law.''
Arborists hired by the city trimmed the tree in 2014 "and reported nothing to Whittier about any problems with the tree,'' according to the defense's court papers. In addition, Whittier's park manager inspected the tree two months before the accident" and saw no indications of disease, decay or any other reason for concern," according to the defense's court papers.
Before it fell that day, the city never received any complaints, reports or problems about the tree, according to the defense's court papers.
But the plaintiffs' attorneys maintain the city knew of the dangerous condition of the tree and had the means and authority to protect park visitors against such a tragedy.
The park is a popular photo-taking spot because of its mature trees. The wedding party was posing for pictures at the time the tree fell.
CNS contributed to this report.