Attorneys John Dodig and Jason Daria secured a $6 million verdict in favor of Warren County resident Kenneth Matlock, who sustained severe and permanent injuries when a large, decayed tree limb fell from a tree onto his vehicle on Route 29 in Delaware Township, Hunterdon County. Route 29 is a state roadway, and the tree was located within the right of way of the defendant State of New Jersey, Department of Transportation (NJDOT). The verdict is believed to be the largest in the history of Hunterdon County.
On July 4, 2006, Mr. Matlock and his wife Vicky were driving with their daughter Ashley and her two friends on Route 29, when a massive tree limb that extended over the roadway broke lose and crashed through the roof of their vehicle. According to NJDOT’s report, the tree limb was “hollowed out” and the tree was described as “rotting.” Additional information obtained during the course of legal proceedings disclosed that there had been 55 reports of tree-related incidents along Route 29 in the two years before this incident. Several of the “tree down” reports involved occurrences very close to the site of Mr. Matlock’s accident. NJDOT personnel were on the scene at these other incidents and had an opportunity to carry out an inspection which would have revealed the existence of the huge, overhanging tree limb which fell onto the Matlock vehicle, but nothing was done, even though the state of New Jersey admitted that a maintenance crew supervisor was responsible for identifying trees which posed a potential hazard to motorists.
No offer of settlement was made by NJDOT, and the case accordingly commenced trial before the Honorable Peter A. Buchsbaum and a jury on October 13, 2009. Among the witnesses presented by plaintiffs was Douglas R. Hunt, a certified tree expert and registered arborist, who testified that the tree limb which hit the Matlock vehicle was at “high risk for failure,” that the state of New Jersey should have known of this dangerous condition, and that the condition should have been corrected well before the date of the accident. George P. Widas, a professional engineer, testified that NJDOT failed to conduct a competent inspection and maintenance program for trees, which would have identified dangerous trees and tree limbs and therefore avoided the incident. Following two weeks of trial, a unanimous jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Matlock and against NJDOT in the amount of $6 million.