Excessive pruning of trees (D/00/1)

Case number: D/00/1
Date of Decision: 31 October 2000
Decision accepted by the customer: Yes

A customer contacted EIOV stating that she was dissatisfied with the way trees on her property had been trimmed by her electricity company's contractors. The customer said she arrived home to find five trees on her property had been severely pruned. This had damaged the integrity and health of the trees and she was seeking compensation for loss of value and amenity of the trees.

She had been notified that the pruning would take place, but this notice had come 50 days earlier. She did not believe it was necessary to contact the company to discuss the pruning as previous pruning had been conducted sensitively.

The day after the pruning, the customer met with company representatives at her property. She said that they offered to have replacement trees planted, to pay for the repair of her garden and pay her solicitor's fees relating to the matter. She also asked about compensation, but was told the company would not pay compensation at this time. She later received a letter from the company saying that it would accept no liability for any damage to the trees, or loss of value or amenity, but would provide vouchers for replacement trees. No mention was made of her solicitor's fees.

When contacted by EIOV, the electricity company said the trees were heavily overgrown and required substantial pruning, which was undertaken in accordance with the Australian Standard AS 4373 - Pruning of Amenity Trees. It also said no offer had been made to the customer to repair damage to her garden, as there was no such damage, and that it was its practice to provide replacement trees using a voucher system. The company offered to further trim and remove trees on the customer's property to improve the appearance and provide vouchers for suitable fast-growing trees. The customer rejected the offer, as well as two further offers as they were not what had been promised.

During the investigation, the company said it thought the trees were last pruned by the SECV and later found records showing pruning last took place in 1995, but it could not verify the date. In 1996, the condition of the trees had been recorded in the company's records as 'fair', meaning in need of attention and possibly nearing powerlines, however, they were not pruned for a further three years.

EIOV obtained a report from an independent arboricultural expert. The report indicated that the pruning had been excessive and may have long term implications for the health, amenity and function of the trees. The independent arboriculturalist assessed the loss of value of the trees as a result of the pruning to be $5,780.

Because the case could not be resolved through conciliation, it went to a Binding Decision by the Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman concluded that the company had not followed its own Vegetation Management Plan of rolling three year cycle pruning as required by the Code of Practice for Powerline Clearance (Vegetation) 1996 (the Code). She also concluded that the manner of pruning was different from the established pruning practice for the customer's area, and that the company had not consulted with the affected persons (in this case, the customer) as required by the Code, before going ahead with it. The Ombudsman referred this matter of compliance with the Code to the Office of the Chief Electrical Inspector. The company's obligation to ensure public safety in the area was also taken into account. The Ombudsman further noted that the company appeared to have breached the Supply & Sale Code 1997, in not advising the customer's solicitor (when so requested) about EIOV.

Because the Ombudsman considered the customer had no cause to believe that the pruning would differ from what had taken place in the past, she did not hold the customer responsible for not contacting the company to discuss the pruning when she first received the notice. The Ombudsman determined that the company pay the customer $6,400, made up of the assessed $5,780 loss of value of the trees and $620 for her solicitor's fees.