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*** STAFF FILE PHOTO *** Los Angeles County Firefighters respond where a large tree fell on a wedding party at Penn Park in Whittier, Calif. trapping about 20 people including one person who died, on Saturday December 17, 2016. (Photo by Keith Durflinger/Whittier Daily News/SCNG)

A Norwalk Superior Court judge on Friday, Oct. 23, approved a $28 million settlement the city of Whittier agreed to pay 19 family members of a 61-year-old San Pedro woman who was killed by a falling 80-foot tree at her daughter’s 2016 wedding party in Penn Park.

There was no opposition to the settlement from Stephanie Oviatt, the photographer’s assistant who has her own lawsuit against the city, nor from West Coast Arborists LLP, which contracted with the city to inspect and trim trees at Penn Park, and is being sued by the city and the 19 family members.

As a result, Judge Raul Sahagun ruled the settlement was made in good faith.

“It certainly is not an easy matter to resolve,” Brian Leinbach, the attorney for the family, said. “Our clients are pleased this important step is behind us. We continue to try to resolve the entire matter and move forward.”

 

Assistant City Manager Shannon De Long said the city is not commenting on the lawsuit.

The accident happened at 4:33 p.m. on Dec. 17, 2016 after the wedding of Patricia and Alvaro Garcia. Wedding photos were being taken in Penn Park when a 70-foot blue gum eucalyptus tree toppled onto the family members, “causing catastrophic injury and death,” Leinbach wrote in court papers supporting the settlement.

Margarita Mojarro of San Pedro died at a hospital. A 3-year-old 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 non-life-threatening injuries.

Leinbach said Whittier had no policy or procedure in place to inspect the health of its trees and failed to notice “obvious evidence” the tree was in serious decline and was dying prior to its uprooting.

“Moreover, the inspection of the remnants of the subject tree demonstrates that the open and obvious defects in the tree existed more than 10 years prior to the complete failure of the subject tree,” he wrote. “What makes these circumstances even more tragic is the simple fact that the complete failure of the subject tree was entirely avoidable.” 

Whittier had three certified arborists on staff and deposition testimony presented in this case demonstrated that the subject tree was viewed, if not inspected, on a near daily basis,” Leinbach said.

“The amount of the settlement reflects the potential liability and exposure to damages to the city given the fact that the subject tree was openly and obviously structurally unsound for years prior to the time it fell,” he wrote.

Attorneys for the city had argued that arborists hired by the city trimmed the tree in 2014 “and reported nothing to Whittier about any problems with the tree,” according to the city’s court papers. They also say that 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.”

The 19 family members include the woman’s husband, Feliciano Mojarro — who is scheduled to receive $2.9 million from the settlement — and four of her children — including the bride, Patricia Mojarro, whose share is to be $3.3 million. Both suffered physical injuries and have post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

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