The fall of a tree that killed a father in Gig Harbor was foreseeable, developer’s arborist says in sworn statement

Pierce County sheriff’s deputies investigate the scene of an accident Aug. 29, 2015, where a tree fell onto the station wagon, left, leaving a 3-year-old unharmed but killing the child’s father, Jamie Fay.
Pierce County sheriff’s deputies investigate the scene of an accident Aug. 29, 2015, where a tree fell onto the station wagon, left, leaving a 3-year-old unharmed but killing the child’s father, Jamie Fay. Staff file, 2015

Arborist Galen Wright had a plan for how developers should log a patch of land along Borgen Boulevard in Gig Harbor for the Heron’s Key retirement community.

After one of those trees killed a Gig Harbor man driving home from Costco with his 3-year-old daughter, Wright realized the plan wasn’t followed.

In fact, loggers never saw it, according to a lawsuit filed in Pierce County Superior Court.

“... the supervisor on site for (the logging companies) was never made aware of the arborist’s opinions,” attorney John Ladenburg Sr., who represents the family of the man who died, wrote in a recent court filing.

The land in question was cleared in 2015 and became the site for Heron’s Key. On Aug. 29 of that year, a tree on the property fell and killed Jamie Fay. His daughter was not seriously injured.

Last year, Fay’s family sued Heron’s Key, developer Emerald Communities and other companies involved with the project, including Olympic Property Group, which hired the companies that logged the land.

Wright was hired to do reports in 2012 and 2015 for Emerald Communities, about which trees needed to be removed. Last week, Ladenburg filed Wright’s recent declaration with the court.

“He started laying out all the things they did wrong, and we were just stunned,” Ladenburg said. “... It’s literally the guy they hired.”

Ladenburg filed the declaration in response to Olympic Property Group’s request that the company be dismissed from the lawsuit, which Pierce County Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin is to address Friday.

Emerald Communities and other companies related to the project are scheduled to argue for dismissal from the suit in December.

Bill Spencer, an attorney for Olympic Property Group, told The News Tribune on Wednesday that the company did not get a copy of Wright’s 2012 report.

“We never saw it, we weren’t part of it,” he said. “We never had that report to give to anybody.”

They did get the report Wright did in 2015, but Spencer said it didn’t have one of Wright’s key recommendations, which involved when to put up a fence on the property.

Wright’s declaration gives this account of what he recommended:

Crews needed to wait until the logging was done before they put up a fence between the area to be cleared and the buffer of trees to be left. Otherwise, workers couldn’t get to trees near the fence line that needed to come down.

But the fence went up before those trees were removed, which meant loggers couldn’t use their machine to take down the trees, including the one that ended up killing Fay.

Nevertheless, Wright said, they should have come down immediately by hand.

“Had I been supervising this operation, I would have instructed that all those trees, including the one that killed Mr. Fay, be taken down immediately and not left up for even one night,” his declaration states.

“They were extremely dangerous given that their roots were disturbed and subject to new wind loads. With the added knowledge of wind conditions coming to the area, this was a critical decision.”

The tree that killed Fay had been diseased and defective, he said, and should have come down right away for that reason alone.

He visited the site after Fay’s death, and found the root base of the tree had been disturbed by heavy equipment. In his 2015 report, he cautioned about the point at which such an impact makes it unlikely a tree will survive.

But according to Ladenburg’s recent court filing opposing the dismissal, subcontractors for the clearing said they never got that information.

“Damaging and disturbing the root structure of the tree makes it foreseeable that it will fail,” Wright said in his declaration.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell