Death of man crushed by tree “could not have been stopped”

Forfar Sheriff Court
Forfar Sheriff Court

The death of a man killed when he was crushed by a 100 foot tall tree he was cutting down could not have been prevented, a sheriff ruled today (Thursday).

John Phillips died aged 29 on land owned by pal David Cochrane’s family in rural Angus.

Mr Phillips - who worked as a tree cutter - and Mr Cochrane were felling trees beside a road at Auchindorie Farm, near Kirriemuir, when the tragedy occurred on March 14 2013.

Mr Cochrane told a fatal accident inquiry at Forfar Sheriff Court that his friend had given him a thumbs up signal second before the tree fell directly on top of him.

He had been operating a Caterpillar Telehandler machine attached to the trees they were cutting by a wire while Mr Phillips used a chainsaw to cut the trees down.

A Forestry Commission expert said Mr Phillips had been using the correct tools and techniques, and that the tree had fallen in an unexpected direction, landing directly on top of Mr Phillips, because a “hinge” piece of wood had been “compromised” during cutting.

Today, in a written judgement, Sheriff Gregor Murray said: “The accident could not have been avoided.”

He added: “Self-evidently, tree felling is an inherently dangerous process.

“What occurred was, on the evidence of this case, a genuine tragic accident, reflective of the remaining risks.

“Mr Phillips was highly experienced, wore safety clothing, used appropriate tools and utilised safe techniques.

“He had already felled many trees, including larger specimens, at the locus over two days without incident.

“Though Mr Phillips did not hold City & Guilds Certificates for felling trees with a trunk diameter in excess of 380 millimetres, there was no suggestion he ought not to have worked with such trees or that the techniques he employed felling them were in any way inappropriate.

“It should be stressed that the expert witness had no criticism of the course of action adopted by Mr Phillips after the first saw jammed and its chain disconnected.

“That amplifies the accidental nature of what occurred and, of course, the deep sadness of its outcome, not least Mr Cochrane witnessing a fatal accident involving a close friend.”

Mr Cochrane, 32, said he had known Mr Phillips since childhood and their families had been friends for years.

Speaking of the moment his pal was killed, Mr Cochrane said: “The wire rope was attached to the tree quite high up.

“I was in the telehandler, which was attached to the other end of the wire, around 60 metres away.

“He gave me the thumbs up and I began to move to pull the tree down towards me.

“Instead of coming towards me the tree broke away from the stump and fell the wrong way.

“There was no going back once it broke off - there’s nothing you can really do and it could have fallen in any direction.

“It was very, very quick - all within two or three seconds between the tree coming down and landing.

“Once it broke John tried to run away.

“He was running away to try and get himself clear.

“The tree landed on the ground on top of John.

“I detached the rope and drove the telehandler over and used it to lift the tree clear of John.

“I just lifted it straight up and left it suspended.

“I was shouting to see if I got a response but when I got to him there was no pulse.

“I could see by the damage caused by the tree that there was nothing I could have done.

“The tree came down on top of him and pinned him to the stump of the tree we had done previously.

“I’ve gone through the moment thousands of times in my head but there’s nothing I could have done.”