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Hundreds of trees fell in San Francisco and residents want to be paid

In an aerial view, fallen trees are seen in a park on March 23, 2023 in San Francisco. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nearly 200 San Franciscans have filed tree-related claims against the city from January to July—for issues related to ongoing street tree maintenance and for damage wrought by falling trees during harrowing winter storms. 

One such claimant is San Francisco business owner Glenda Couchman, who had a tree nearly total her car in January at 1899 Fillmore St.

“I had stepped into Walgreens for all of eight minutes, and when I came out, I was like, 'Where’s my car?'” Couchman said. “This tree had completely enveloped it, and all of these people were gathered around filming.” 

Couchman filed paperwork for compensation from the city for damages to her vehicle—what amounted to $15,000 not covered by her insurance. But her petition was rejected, with the City Attorney’s Office saying it wasn’t accepting any fallen-tree claims because they involved an “act of God.” 

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Couchman exclaimed. “God didn’t plant that tree there.” 

Couchman believes the tree was compromised by poor planting and maintenance and that it’s a “no-brainer” that the city is liable. She is not alone in her frustrations. The number of tree-related claims reveals growing agitation about the city’s urban canopy—already one of the sparsest in the country—and numbers point to what could become a worsening situation. 

People walk by downed trees in a park on March 23, 2023, in San Francisco. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Natural Balance  

A natural tension arises between the push not to remove any street trees—especially given the incredible shrinking canopy—and the need to make sure people and property remain safe from trees that could be dangerous. 

Of the 169 tree-related claims against the city, 24 have received payments. One claimant who filed suit against San Francisco, Khamrie Danielsen, said the city workers who removed a fallen tree branch from her car did more damage to the vehicle than the limb itself. The branch had not hit the vehicle’s trunk nor the back windshield, but when she moved her car after the tree had been removed, she found her back windshield shattered and the trunk dented. 

“Fortunately, I had before-and-after pictures,” Danielsen said of the March incident on Post Street between Polk and Larkin. “The city workers had no regard for the vehicle at all.” 

Unlike Couchman, Danielsen got a settlement—$13,066—which was a few thousand dollars shy of the estimate she had received to repair her car, but she was nonetheless pleased with the outcome.  

The same can’t be said for Lyft driver Obed Kusman, who is still waiting for the results of his claim. Unlike for Danielsen, the damage wrought to Kusman’s car was not caused by storms. Kusman was picking up a passenger from the Salesforce conference back in September 2022. It was a clear day—no wind, no rain. A tree came down out of nowhere at Eighth and Market streets, Kusman said, with his passenger in the car. 

“I blacked out for a few seconds,” Kusman said. “I was freaking out. I thought I’d be dead.” 

Kusman was able to exit his car, which was totaled, and Lyft compensated him for damages. But Kusman is also looking for compensation from the city, something Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon had promised in an earlier account of the incident. When contacted for an update, Gordon said that the City Attorney’s Office was reviewing Kusman’s claim and that it was complicated. 

“They need to verify it’s a legitimate case,” Gordon said. 

In the meantime, Kusman has yet to see any results. 

“It’s the city’s fault,” Kusman said. “How come a tree just fell out of nowhere?”