A decaying tree that crushed a driver to death in central Watford when it was blown over in the St Jude’s storm was never inspected due to confusion over whose land it was on.

The inquest into Donal Drohan’s death, who was killed instantly when the 40ft Lombardy poplar landed on his red Peugeot 207, heard there was evidence of fungal decay in the tree.

However, Hertfordshire County Council has no record of it ever being inspected and admitted it "slipped through the net" in the lead up to the tragedy. 

The tree was toppled in Lower High Street as gale-force winds lashed the area in the storm in October.

Watford Observer:

The aftermath of the tree fall

Bystanders and staff from nearby Wickes rushed to help Mr Drohan, a father-of-three from Harrow who was on his way to work at Harrow council where he had worked as an operations manager for nearly 25 years.

The 51-year-old, originally from Waterford, in Ireland, died from head injuries and a fractured spine.

Hertfordshire’s Coroner Court heard on Wednesday the tree was on land owned by Hertfordshire County Council, but is position meant it was unclear who was responsible for maintaining it.

As a result, it had not been given regular safety inspections and it was only after it had come down that it was discovered it was rotting.

Tree expert, Arthur Clarke, told coroner Edward Thomas he inspected the tree and found evidence of fungal decay, but that he had often driven past the tree and had never seen any visible signs that it was not healthy.

Asked if the decay could have contributed to a weakness in the tree, he replied "Yes it would".
Peter Simpson, senior asset manager at Hertfordshire county council, said of the tree: "Our records show it does not form part of the public highway.

"There are parcels of land that may be adjacent to the highway but according to our records do not form part of the public highway and therefore would not come under the regime of safety inspections.

"We have since determined that it is land owned by Hertfordshire County Council but not designated as public highway."

Mr Simpson said if they had known who owned the tree it would have been inspected by the council's property section and admitted it had "slipped the net."

The location of the incident

Mr Thomas said it was impossible to say whether inspections of the tree would have made a difference.

PC Rob Jackson, an accident investigation officer at Hertfordshire Police, told the inquest that he viewed CCTV footage of the incident, which happened at 6.50am on October 28, and that it had happened "very quickly".

PC Jackson said Mr Drohan had been travelling at around 28mph when his car was crushed by and he had no chance to brake.

He said: "He was driving at a perfectly normal speed and this tree went from vertical to horizontal about as quickly as you can imagine."

Recording a verdict of accidental death, Edward Thomas said he "could not imagine how difficult this has been for the family."

He said: "This was not a situation where the tree was half coming down and he thought I might be able to make it.  This just happened.  This was at a time when the winds were very, very strong indeed.

"What you do find with this tree is the ownership of the tree was not clear until after the incident and that ownership of the tree meant it was not subject to the usual inspections.

"Whether an inspection would have made a difference that I do not know because it is clear that it wasn’t an obviously decaying tree.

"I cannot begin to imagine how awful this has been for the family. He was healthy, he was a good family man working hard and enjoying his family life and his family enjoying him.

"The sudden awfulness of this is unimaginable Nothing that I can say can make that any less but I just wanted to acknowledge how awful this must be for you and you have everyone’s deepest sympathies."

Speaking after his death, Mr Drohan’s family said: "Donal was a loving husband and father of three. He was the best husband and father anyone could wish for. You couldn't find anyone who had a bad word to say about him.

"He was very supportive to everybody who knew him and couldn't say no to helping out with anything.

"He was an active member of the community who was involved with local groups and had recently helped Team Harrow of The Challenge Network helping to shape the lives of hundreds of young people within the local community."

Tom Shipp at Hertfordshire County Council said: "This was a tragic accident and we’d like to pass on our sympathies to Mr Dohan’s family."