Rouda, Feder, Tietjen & McGuinn has always prided itself as a plaintiff’s injury firm with the resources and stamina to last for the long haul, and a case that was settled in September 2018 demonstrated that commitment. After six years of litigation led by partner Timothy G. Tietjen, the firm secured a record-breaking $47.5 million pretrial settlement, reportedly the largest for a single plaintiff in California history.

“This is one of our firm’s toughest-fought cases and involved four motions for summary judgment and two appellate decisions,” Tietjen says. “But we knew we had to achieve justice for our client, who had his whole life ahead of him.”  

The inciting incident occurred July 25, 2012, while 12-year-old Zachary Rowe was camping with his family in a designated campground in San Mateo County Memorial Park. Early that morning, a rotten 72-foot-tall tanoak tree came crashing down on Zachary’s tent, crushing him while he slept.

The tree was located approximately 20 feet from a paved access road and was surrounded by a cluster of five campsites, including Zachary’s. The tree was also 37 feet from PG&E’s adjacent power line and within striking distance of the line had it fallen in that direction.

“There was evidence that this tragedy was entirely preventable,” Tietjen says. “The tanoak that fell had been rotten for years, with a 30-inch hole in its stump that rendered it hollow.”

Zachary was rushed to a local hospital, where doctors recognized that the fight to save his right leg was futile. Crush injuries to Zachary’s pelvis prevented all blood flow to the limb, and the leg essentially died. Less than a week after the incident, the leg was amputated at the hip.

 

"This is one of our firm's toughest-fought cases and involved four motions for summary judgment and two appellate decisions."

 

But necrosis from the vascular damage continued to spread into Zachary’s body, invading the organs in his shattered pelvis. Eventually, the doctors determined Zachary could only survive by performing the most extreme lower-limb amputation—a hemipelvectomy, also known as a hindquarter amputation. Not only would Zachary lose his right leg, but his right pelvis and buttock as well.

“This brave young man underwent more than 30 surgeries and initially spent over six months hospitalized,” Tietjen says. “The endless patience and positivity of Zachary and his family inspired our whole firm to work tirelessly and secure the best result possible.”

Following the published appellate decisions, wherein the court found the defendants were not immune from the suit, the case proceeded to mediation in May 2018. After a two-day mediation, San Mateo County and its contractor Davey Tree agreed to pay $30 million to settle the case; PG&E and its contractor WECI agreed to pay $17.5 million (all of which was paid by WECI). This brought the total settlement to $47.5 million, and the case was finally resolved in September 2018.

“Our result was certainly worth the effort,” Tietjen says. “The compensation ensures that Zach receives the best medical treatment and the chance to heal. The result also sent a message to public entities that they cannot always hide behind immunity, and hopefully they’ll take steps to prevent similar catastrophes and tragedies.”