A tourist visiting the Bay Area for Fleet Week last year was doing nothing more than reading and napping under a tree in a federal waterfront park in San Francisco when a 16-pound pine cone fell on him and crushed his skull, his lawyer said Monday.
Now, Sean Mace, a U.S. Navy veteran, is suing the U.S. government, the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior and San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park where he was injured for $5 million in the hopes of changing policies so that no one else falls victim to the same type of bizarre incident.
“This guy has an irreversible brain injury and he’s only in his mid-50s,” said Scott Johnson, a San Francisco attorney representing Mace in the lawsuit. “He’s had two surgeries already and he is going to need a third.”
Mace went to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park at the Fort Mason Center on Oct. 12, 2014, to find a spot to watch the Blue Angels air show. He found himself what he thought was a peaceful place to read and rest in the northeast corner of the park under a stand of coniferous Araucaria bidwillii trees, more commonly known as bunya pines or false monkey puzzle trees, according to the lawsuit filed Sept. 4 in San Francisco federal court.
Bunya pines are not indigenous to the area, the lawsuit notes, and the trees in question are thought to have been planted by park staff years ago. Their seedpods, or pine cones, can grow to enormous sizes, reaching nearly 16 inches in diameter and weighing up to 40 pounds.
As Mace snoozed beneath the tree, one of the pods broke loose and landed on his head, crushing his skull, according to court documents.
Mace was rushed to San Francisco General Hospital, where he underwent surgery to relieve pressure on his brain from internal bleeding. Five days later, another surgery was required to further relieve pressure building inside his skull, the lawsuit reads.
He suffered “traumatic brain injury, with severe and likely irreversible cognitive deficits,” according to court papers.
The suit alleges that there were no warning signs posted and no fences or netting to prevent people from hanging out under the trees, violating numerous park policies requiring the removal of exotic species that create safety hazards and mandating the installation of warning signs “necessary for visitor safety.”
“First and foremost, the Park Service needs to do something to make sure this never happens again,” Johnson said. “This park is full of tourists and schoolchildren. Something needs to change.”
Some changes have already been implemented. Orange plastic fences have been erected around the grove with signs warning, “Danger: Giant seed pod falling from tree.”
But Joe Barlow, a street artist who paints portraits near the grove, said he’s seen the cones fall from branches that hang over the sidewalk outside of the fencing, in one instance landing dangerously close to tourists.
“It just missed them,” Barlow said Monday. “And it’s not just the size of them either. They’re big, but they’re really heavy and they have these spikes on the outside like a pineapple.”
Johnson said his client has been severely affected by the incident and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“He’s afraid to go outside at this point because he’s afraid something is going to hit him in the head,” Johnson said. “Our priority is to institute change and help this guy out. He was doing pretty well before the accident, and now he is completely dependent and will likely need lifetime care.”
Representatives from the U.S. attorney’s office and San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park did not return requests for comment on the case.
Kale Williams is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.comTwitter: @sfkale