THE Woodlands Trust has been cleared of breaching health and safety laws by failing to properly maintain one of its trees.
The prosecution followed the death of 25-year-old landscape gardener Alex McDonald in February 2008 after a 50-foot tall mature beech fell onto his van at Blaeberry Woods in Whitburn, West Lothian.
On the fifth day of a jury trial at Livingston Sheriff Court yesterday, Sheriff John Horsburgh ruled that there was no case to answer.
The conservation charity, which maintains thousands of acres of woodland, had pleaded not guilty to the charge.
The jury heard evidence that the fungus meripilus giganteus – which is known to rot tree roots – was found at the base of the 150-year-old tree eight months after the fatal accident.
Forestry manager James Gilmour gave evidence that he had noticed the remains of a fungal growth two months before the tree blew down in strong winds.
However, Mr Gilmour said he was unable to positively identify it at the time and accordingly classified the tree as “not hazardous”.
If it had been known that the tree was infected, he said, it would have been judged as posing a “high-to-severe risk” to people using the busy A705 road between Whitburn and Blackburn.
Tree experts told the jury that meripilus could only be identified when the fungus sprouted a fan-like mushroom growth in the autumn, but trees often showed no outward signs of infection.
The dead man’s sister, Margaret MacDonald, 41, was following him in her car on the morning of the accident on February 28, 2008.
Although she reached him within minutes, he died from his injuries at the scene.
Mr McDonald was the youngest of six children and a devout Christian.
He had been on his way to another sister’s house in Livingston to work on her garden when the accident happened.