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San Francisco, CA: Robert W. Johnson & Associates was retained to provide economic analysis of the lost earning capacity and future life care plan expenses.

Citation: Cui Ying Zhou; Jian Cong Tan; Angelina Tan; and Arosia Tan v. City and County of San Francisco; and Does 1 to 100, No. CGC-16-555523, Superior Court of San Francisco County. Plaintiffs’ attorneys were Jeremy D. Cloyd (lead), Andje M. Medina and Craig M. Peters, of Altair Law, LLP, San Francisco, CA. The judge was the Honorable Angela Bradstreet.

Case Synopsis: On August 12, 2016, plaintiff Cui Ying “Emma” Zhou, 36, a stay-at-home mom, was at Washington Square Park, in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. While sitting on the park bench watching her two daughters play, a 100-pound branch from a 50-foot-tall Canary Island pine broke off landing directly on Ms. Zhou’s head.

Ms. Zhou sustained a fractured skull resulting in a traumatic brain injury and a severed spinal cord resulting in permanent paralysis below the waist. Ms. Zhou was unconscious and bleeding from her head in front of her daughters, ages 5 and 9, at the time.

She was rushed to the hospital where she underwent emergency spinal surgery. After 10 hours of surgery, the doctors were not able to restore function to her lower limbs and she is not expected to ever walk again.

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Ms. Zhou sued the City and County of San Francisco claiming negligent pruning and maintenance of the tree which led to the branch falling. Plaintiff’s counsel stated that the trees showed evidence of “tree topping” which is a process of removing large branches from the top of the tree. This results in new branches that are weak and subject to breaking. This negligence created a dangerous condition. According to Plaintiff’s counsel, public records showed at least one of the pine trees in the park had previously dropped branches on the playground in 2008 and 2009. An arborist consulting company, HortScience, Inc., was later added as a defendant.

Analysis: Mr. Johnson was first asked to analyze Ms. Zhou’s loss of future earning capacity. Second, he was asked to analyze Ms. Zhou’s future medical expenses.

Ms. Zhou immigrated to the U.S. from China in October 2003 and took English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in 2004 through 2006. After becoming a U.S. citizen, she also completed vocational training in hotel housekeeping. She indicated that before her injury, she wanted to pursue training as a hairstylist.

With the opinions of the vocational consultant, Mr. Johnson was able to provide two potential earning capacity scenarios. The positions were hairstylist and hotel housekeeper. Mr. Johnson also included a fringe benefits package of 15.9% of earnings for each scenario. These scenarios yielded a present value range of lost earning capacity of $1.3 million to $1.4 million.

Next, Mr. Johnson reviewed the life care planner’s future medical plan. As a result of Ms. Zhou’s injuries, she will never be able to walk. For the first 15 years, Ms. Zhou will need an average of 20 hours daily for attendant care. Beginning the 16th year, she will need around the clock attendant care for the rest of her life. In addition to lifetime physical and occupational therapies, she will also need skin flap, shoulder and carpal tunnel release surgeries over the rest of her life. Based on the life care plan, Mr. Johnson calculated the present value of Ms. Zhou’s future needs to be $22.5 million.

Result: On the first day of trial, the parties agreed to a $14.5 million settlement. The settlement will be paid by City and County of San Francisco.

Attorney’s Comments: According to plaintiff’s attorney Jeremy Cloyd, "Ms. Zhou sustained horrific injuries that could have been avoided. She is very lucky to be alive. Even with a 5% to 10% reduction in life expectancy, Mr. Johnson’s economic damages were nearly $24 million in present value for her lost earning capacity and future medical expenses. Once I saw the amount of attendant care Ms. Zhou would need, I knew Mr. Johnson’s economic analysis was going to be a very large number. Also, Mr. Johnson was able to illustrate clearly how the defense economist ‘short-changed’ the plaintiff’s earnings capacity and life care plan by using non-existent interest rates. Mr. Johnson’s analysis definitely helped us bring this case to a meaningful resolution."