The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 28, 2013

Families of teen, baby crushed by tree awarded $3.7 million

SOMERSET, Ky. — A jury awarded $3.7 million to the families of a 17-year-old girl and her unborn baby who were killed when they were crushed by a tree at a public housing complex in central Kentucky.

Jurors found that the Housing Authority of Somerset failed to properly maintain the grounds at the Colonial Village, where a large maple tree fell in 2009. Griffin, who was pregnant at the time with a son she named Nicholas Ayden Steele, was unloading a car with her cousin, Joshua Thacker, when the tree struck them. Griffin and her baby were killed, and Thacker was injured.

The damages awarded Thursday included $1.26 million to Griffin's estate and $500,000 for Griffin's parents for loss of companionship of their daughter. The award also includes $1.25 million for the estate of Nicholas Steele and $500,000 to Steele’s father, Jason Steele. Another $220,000 went to compensate Thacker.

"On behalf of the Housing Authority, we of course are disappointed with the verdict, and we’ll be considering in the next few days the options that are available to us moving forward," said the organization's legal counsel, Hamp Moore.

The tree involved in the deaths fell during gusty winds, though the plaintiffs pointed out that no other trees in the area fell that day. The tree had a "co-dominant" trunk, with two similarly-sized stems growing out of the same main trunk, which causes a tree to be more likely to fail, according to written testimony from arborist Ian Hoffman.

Nick Vaughn, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the tree was "dangerous" because of the co-dominant trunk and that it was "just a matter of time before it fell. It wasn’t a question of 'if' but just a question of 'when.'"

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