Felbrigg Hall tree death: National Trust 'not to blame'

Daniel Mullinger
Image caption Daniel was with classmates on a five-day break to Norfolk

The National Trust was not to blame for the death of an 11-year-old schoolboy fatally crushed by a branch in woods in Norfolk, the High Court has decided.

Daniel Mullinger, of West Bergholt, Essex, died and three children were injured at Felbrigg Hall, near Cromer, when the branch fell from a tree.

He was among 10 children on a Monster Trail at the hall in June 2007.

His mother Wendy and three other families had sought compensation from the landowner, the National Trust.

But all lost their damages action.

In a statement released through their solicitor the families said that it was "a difficult decision to accept".

"The path where the accident occurred was upgraded to a medium risk path specifically because the paths under the tree were used by about 4,000 school children a year on organised trips.

"The families are very disappointed with the decision but it is unlikely there will be an appeal.

"Four years on this incident remains a very personal tragedy for the four families involved."

Daniel Mullinger died instantly when the 70ft (21m) branch fell from a 180-year-old beech tree in the Great Wood at the 17th Century stately home.

Claim rejected

Three other pupils from Heathlands Church of England Primary School in West Bergholt were injured.

Harry Bowen, now 15, uses a wheelchair, although he can walk short distances with crutches.

Max Farley, 14, and Katie Farthing, 15, both suffered multiple fractures as well as psychological injury.

The three teenagers were at London's High Court for the hearing last month but Mr Justice Mackay was told that Daniel's family had not felt able to attend.

The judge rejected the claim that the trust's tree inspectors failed to exercise reasonable care in their task.

"I regretfully conclude that I cannot find that the defendant was negligent or in breach of its duty in respect of this tragedy."

Lawyers argued that the tragedy would have been averted had inspectors spotted a defect in the ancient beech tree and "tagged" it for remedial action.

Cruellest coincidence

Mr Justice Mackay said the decision that no action was needed in the event proved "wrong and disastrous consequences followed".

Ruling in favour of the National Trust, the judge said it was "the cruellest coincidence" that the branch just happened to fall just as the school party passed beneath it.

Even the most careful risk assessment can "by its very nature be proved wrong by events", the judge said.

He also remarked that assessing the integrity of an ancient tree was "an art not a science".

He concluded: "I accept these inspectors used all the care to be expected of reasonably competent persons doing their job, and the National Trust had given them adequate training and instruction in how to approach their task.

"It would also be requiring the National Trust to do more than was reasonable to see that the children enjoying the use of this wood were reasonably safe to do so.

"I regretfully conclude that I cannot find that the National Trust was negligent or in breach of its duty in respect of this tragedy".

Sympathy with families

Nick Champion, on behalf of the National Trust, said: "The awful events of that day four years ago have affected so many people, including the team at Felbrigg and in many ways have impacted on everyone's lives since then.

"We hope that the case has provided some sense of relief and greater understanding.

"The judge ruling for the National Trust in no way undermines the great sense of personal tragedy that must be felt and our sympathies are with the families involved.

"It is important to the trust that Mr Justice Mackay found our policies to be clear, robust and comprehensive.

"And we were reassured to hear that he felt that our tree inspections had been carried out competently."

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