A council has been fined after a six-year-old girl was killed by a falling tree in her school playground. The council has been fined £280,000 after admitting to failings that led to the death of Ella Henderson, who became trapped under a collapsed tree.
The year two pupil was playing with her friends at lunchtime when the decayed willow came crashing down during strong winds on September 25, 2020. A court heard on Tuesday that several children were underneath the tree when it fell but, while most were able to climb out to safety, the section that Ella was crushed under was too heavy for school staff to rescue her.
The little girl was taken to hospital. But she sadly died from her injuries in the early hours of the next morning, Chronicle Live has reported.
At South Tyneside Magistrates' Court on Tuesday, Newcastle City Council pleaded guilty to a charge under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, after an investigation led to a prosecution being brought against the local authority by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The council was found to have not carried out adequate inspections of the dangerous tree or properly informed the school of its condition.
In a heartbreaking statement read to the court, Ella’s mum Vikki Henderson said their family had once had a perfect life but now “live with a complete hole in our lives”. She said: “Seeing everyone’s life move on and their kids and her friends getting older while we stay still; always with a six-year-old who will never get her front teeth is devastating.
“When you lose a child you live two lives. The one you should be living and the life you have to live.”
Vikki added: “The hardest part is that all we did was what every other parent does every day. She should have been so safe at school and knowing that I’m the only one who doesn’t get to pick their child up every day is just the worst feeling.
“When I pass schools on the way somewhere and hear that innocent noise of children playing, I think ‘that was all she was doing.’ She was just playing ballerinas with her friends.
“Life is so unfair, and she was so loved and had so much to give this world. As her reception teacher said, ‘the world is a much sadder place without Ella in it.’”
At Tuesday’s hearing, HSE laywer James Towey detailed how the council was responsible for the management of trees at the school, which is run by the Gosforth Schools’ Trust. He said the tree had become an “accident waiting to happen” after the council failed to properly investigate its condition following an inspection in February 2018 that identified the need for another detailed look at it again within six months.
Mr Towey added that an inspection after the tree’s removal found “extensive fruiting bodies” that would be considered a “red flag” for decay – something that the court was told should be picked up easily by someone with basic tree inspection qualifications and would most likely have resulted in it being felled. The council also admitted to having failed to properly communicate the need for the tree to be further inspected with the school, with emails having been wrongly sent to other schools by mistake.
Representing the city council, Ben Compton KC offered an unreserved apology to Ella’s family. Admitting the council’s failures, he said: “The bottom line is that that tree should have been felled. It should not have been standing on that dreadful day.”
Mr Compton told the court how a scheduled review of the council’s tree team earlier in 2020, which if carried out could have led to the tree’s dangerous condition being picked up, had been put on hold because of the Covid pandemic. He added that, since Ella’s tragic death as a result of crush asphyxia, the council had made a number of changes – including carrying out that delayed review, restructuring its tree management team, adopting a new tree policy in 2021, and improving staff training.
District Judge Zoe Passfield fined the council £280,000 for its part in Ella’s death, which she said “could have been avoided”. She added that, while some inspections of the tree were conducted by the council after the initial 2018 report, they appeared to be the “bare minimum” and resulted in the tree being wrongly judged to be in a “fair condition”.
The judge said that the council had “failed to appreciate the seriousness” of the situation, while a later entry into the council’s computer system in April 2020 effectively wiped the “vital” note from February 2018 which called for a detailed inspection of the willow. The council’s £280,000 fine was reduced from an initial £420,000 in recognition of the guilty plea. With additional costs, the council must pay a total of £288,201.80 within 15 months.
HSE inspector Victoria Wise said after the sentencing that Ella’s death was “entirely avoidable”. She commented: “Organisations with a responsibility to manage tree health must understand the importance of ensuring that trees in places where there are people, such as playgrounds and schools, are routinely inspected and any faults identified are appropriately managed. Our thoughts today are with Ella’s family and her many friends.”
Chief executive of Newcastle City Council, Pam Smith, said: “Ella’s death was a devastating tragedy, and our hearts go out to her family and friends. Whilst we take our health and safety responsibilities very seriously, we fully accept that there were failings in our processes which is why we have taken the opportunity to plead guilty to the offence at the first available opportunity. We note the Judge’s comments today and fully accept the sentence of the court.
“Immediately following the incident, we reviewed our processes and as a result, we have put in place new procedures to prevent something like this from ever happening again. We would like to offer our sincere and profound condolences and apologise unreservedly to Ella’s family for their unimaginable loss.”