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Kew Gardens Branch Death "Accidental"

Monday 16th June 2014

An inquest jury has ruled a woman killed by a falling branch at Kew Gardens died as a result of an accident.

Kew Gardens Erena Wilson from Hanwell in west London suffered a fatal head injury in September 2012.

The 31-year-old was there celebrating the birthday of her friend Tess Marshall's three-year-old daughter Ruby.

Ms Wilson was walking along a main tarmac path in Kew's Royal Botanical Gardens when a large Cedar of Lebanon branch, 20ft long and 12in thick, came crashing down.

"It blocked out the sky and all I could see was this umbrella of branches," Ms Marshall told the inquest.

"As I was running I thought the whole tree was falling over. I was sure it was going to hit me. I was running away and then I heard a heavy thud. An ooomph."

The inquest heard it was "fluke" that Ms Marshall and Ruby were not also killed. Ms Marshall said her daughter had run ahead to walk with her aunt just moments earlier.

Tree branches are vulnerable to dropping off suddenly when they endure long dry spells followed by heavy rain in a condition known as "summer branch drop".

John McLinden QC, representing Ms Wilson's family, told West London Coroner's Court it had been raining heavily in the hours leading up to the accident on September 23 however Kew Gardens had not put up warning signs as it considered the risk so minimal.

An expert for brought in by Ms Wilson's family, Jeremy Barrell, claimed the death could have been avoided if the tree, which was planted in 1730, had been pruned.

However Kew Gardens denied that summer branch drop was the cause.

Patrick Blakesley, a lawyer representing Kew, said the death was a "terrible freak accident".

Experts at the Botanical Gardens said the tree had no sign of decay and was regularly inspected.

"I think the branch deluge was triggered by a wind squall," Tony Kirkham, head of arboretum at Kew said. "If we say that the wind gusted at 30mph, that would be strong enough to move branches."

After just 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury of four men and three women returned a verdict of accidental death with the foreman telling the jury "there is insufficient evidence to establish the cause of the branch failure".

In a statement read out outside the court Ms Wilson's parents, Chris Wilson and Elizabeth Shelley, paid tribute to their daughter and called for more research to be carried out into summer branch drop to save lives in the future.

"Our thoughts are not only with Erena but our hearts go out to all the families that have lost loved ones in similar circumstances," the statement read.

"If one death can be prevented and one family saved from having to go through this, then some good will have come from this tragedy."

Speaking after the inquest, Richard Barley, director of horticulture at Kew, insisted that everything possible is done to ensure the safety of visitors to the gardens.

"The jury has found that there was no identifiable cause of branch failure from this tree that caused this tragic accident.

"We of course continue to extend our greatest sympathies of the family and friends of Ms Wilson."

He dismissed calls for fencing to be put in place warning against summer branch drop, saying it would be "inappropriate to place warning signs because it is such an unlikely thing to happen and it is so unforeseeable."