A federal court jury here awarded more than $1.8 million yesterday to the estate of a 31-year-old Vietnamese emigre who was killed two years ago when a tree from the grounds of the West German Embassy fell on the car she was driving.
The jury delivered its verdict against a suburban Maryland landscaping company that allegedly had worked on the tree near Georgetown University three years earlier and had left it standing despite having made a deep cut in its trunk.
The award "is a real message to everyone who has a tree on their property to have it inspected periodically because things do happen and trees do fall," said Joseph H. Koonz, one of two lawyers who represented the estate of Phuong Thi Nguyen in the suit.
"This could easily have been avoided with some care and better inspection," Koonz said.
Representatives of West Germany, who also were named in the suit and originally claimed diplomatic immunity from damages in the complaint, last year agreed to pay $700,000 to Nguyen's 14-year-old son, Kokey.
Nguyen, who had completed work for a degree in dentistry from Georgetown the day of the accident, had fled Vietnam in 1975 with her son, leaving behind a husband she thought had disappeared and died.
Unable to speak English when she arrived here, Koonz said, Nguyen attended night school near her home in Arlington to learn the language and earn a high school equivalency diploma. She went on to attend George Mason University and spent four years learning dentistry at Georgetown.
On May 2, 1985, Nguyen was driving to the university on Reservoir Road NW with her American fiance, Paul Piontkowski, a local dentist, and a fellow dental student. Nguyen had pulled her Toyota Corolla to the side of the road outside the embassy to let her classmate out of the car when a 70-foot ailanthus tree -- similar to an oak -- split apart and fell across the automobile, killing Nguyen instantly.
Neither Piontkowski nor the other passenger was seriously injured.
In their suit, Koonz and attorney Roger C. Johnson argued that West German officials were responsible for having left the tree standing although its 36-inch trunk had been sawed partially through. But exactly who had cut the tree and when was a matter of dispute.
Koonz said embassy officials provided documents showing that in May 1982, they had hired Pinegrove Landscape Contractor of Bethesda to remove some large trees from the embassy grounds so that they would not pose a danger to traffic on Reservoir Road.
Although company officials acknowledged having worked on the embassy's trees, they denied making the cut in the tree that killed Nguyen, Koonz said. They suggested that neighbors, who sometimes visited the grounds for pieces of wood, might have tampered with the tree, or that the tree had fallen because of the weather, Koonz said.
As a portion of the tree trunk lay next to the jury box in U.S. District Court, attorney Johnson called a former U.S. Forest Service scientist who testified that the tree had been sawed within a 10-day period of when Pinegrove was working at the embassy.
Koonz said the $1.8 million award, based largely on Nguyen's potential earnings as a dentist had she survived, will be placed in a trust for her son Kokey if the verdict stands. Kokey Nguyen now lives in Rhode Island with his father, who had surfaced from Vietnam and found his wife here prior to the accident. They were divorced.
"I think Roger Johnson has done for this lady in death what she was trying to accomplish in life," said Koonz. "She was trying very hard to provide some better future for her son."