Mother Nature is a force that cannot be controlled. She does, however, impact everyday life. And some days nature can cause quite a stir. If you own property, chances are you will eventually run into an issue with the trees that live on your property. It is your responsibility to maintain them. However, what happens if a tree from a neighboring lot falls over your property line? We’ll explore the legality and liability surrounding falling trees in this article.
By law, the trees on your property are your responsibility. As goes with the trees on your neighbor’s property. Therefore, you are responsible for the branches of every tree in your yard, even if they hang over onto an adjacent property. There are some caveats to this rule.
Generally, you have the legal authority to chop off any tree limb that overhangs your land from the point where it crosses the property line. Courts have decided that shadow and debris thrown by a nearby limb, which obstruct light, clog gutters, and cause damage to a roof, among other things, can be considered a nuisance, holding the tree owner responsible for any and all damages. The damages are usually recovered in proportion to the severity of the injuries.
Accordingly, the 1952 case of Grandona v. Lovdal, the Supreme Court of California ruled and reasoned as follows: “Trees whose branches extend over the land of another are not nuisances, except to the extent to which the branches overhang the adjoining land. To that extent they are nuisances, and the person over whose land they extend may cut them off, or have his action for damages and an abatement of the nuisance against the owner or occupant of the land on which they grow; but he may not cut down the tree, neither can he cut the branches thereof beyond the extent to which they overhang his soil.”
There is, however, a major exception to this rule. Some jurisdictions have particular tree ordinances that may make this sort of intervention illegal. So you may want to check local laws before modifying a tree. Furthermore, even if there is no local ordinance in place, it is always a good idea to talk to your neighbors before modifying a tree that is rooted on their property in order to maintain goodwill and avoid any unpleasant interactions.
If you’ve been harmed by your neighbor’s trees and the neighbor refuses to modify the tree in question, you can file an “action for abatement” with the court, asking to force your neighbor to make modifications or enable you to trim the branches back to the property line. The California Court of Appeals reasoned in Bonde v. Bishop, another case from 1952, in which a tree owner sued his neighbor for cutting down the branches:
“The finding that the tree in question was a constant menace to the property of the defendants is sustained by the testimony to the effect that in the past large branches had fallen on the roof and porch of defendants’ house, one of such branches tearing a hole in the roof; that the leaves filled the gutters, and littered the porch and lawn. Clearly, under the testimony appearing in the record here and the findings of the trial court, this tree was ‘an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.’”
In the situation between Bonde and Bishop, the owner had been previously aware of the tree’s rot damage. And so when it fell on a house and punched through the roof into a child’s bedroom, the neighbor who incurred the damage was able to hold the property owner responsible for negligence. If one can show that a neighbor was careless in maintaining their property, they have the right to collect both monetary losses (property damage, clean-up costs, medical bills, and so on) as well as damages that can’t be measured monetarily (pain, mental anguish, anxiety, etc).
It is important to have a homeowner’s insurance, as it covers damages caused by falling trees.