Va. High Court Breaks New Ground on Tree Liability

suburbanmdSeptember 15, 2007

I'm posting this link in Home Disasters because tree-related neighbor disputes tend to end up here.

Here is a link that might be useful: Va. High Court Breaks New Ground on Tree Liability

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Many cities require that official permission must be granted before cutting a tree. That would introduce an additional layer of complexity to such situations.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2007 at 7:35AM
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Wonderful, but that doesn't mean that in Iowa, if my neighbor's tree drops a branch yet again for the third time and it takes out my power that I have any recourse. Nor will anyone but me be liable if that tree drops a branch on a friend's Lexus or Mercedes.
Linda C

    Bookmark   September 16, 2007 at 11:11AM
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It's not just in Virginia:

"Virginia is the latest state to make such a change. And in other states, it has resulted, at least initially, in far more than heated over-the-back-fence negotiations.

'This is the trend around the country, as we go from having arbitrary distinctions that made more sense in a rural economy,' said Steven J. Eagle, a law professor and property rights expert at George Mason University law school. 'This is a better line of reasoning. The problem is, it probably will result in more litigation."

    Bookmark   September 16, 2007 at 11:27AM
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Thank goodness for this change. Since I live in VA I was so excited when I read it in the paper yesterday. It's past time for this change. The previous law, which is similar to the laws in many states was ridiculous. To allow a person to have a tree that damages a neighbor's home and for the neighbor to have no legal recourse is stupid.

My neighbors ugly, monstrous, hideous White Pines overhang my roof and brush up against the siding and screen porch screens. I trimmed the branches back as high as I could with my ladder, and to their credit, my neighbors said I could go in their yard and trim the trees back to the trunk, rather than having ugly cut branches at the property line, but as I can't easily afford to hire a professional tree trimmer to cut back the rest of the branches, I think my neighbor to do it. I'll ask them nicely, and hope they'll do it. If they didn't read about the changes in the law, I'll point them to it. Hopefully it won't require litigation to get them to trim the branches back.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2007 at 5:01PM
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Thanks for the update.

I am hyper about having even a little "bad looking" trees taken down. It has cost us thousands but I am paranoid about being held liable for any damages they cause. DH thinks I am nuts.

I am told this is unfounded because the neighbors homeowners insurance should cover any damages (is this correct?) if one of our trees or branches falls on their cars or their garage or house. Because it is an act of god(?) is that right? We have had perfectly healthy looking trees lose large branches in storms. No way to predict that right?

But still, as this shows, new legal precedents are being set all the time.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2007 at 12:12PM
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yes, until the law changes in your area you are responsible ONLY for damage occuring on your property UNLESS you knew the tree was a safety hazzard(dead,dying or diseased).

the best advice is to check the laws in your area. NEVER base your opinion on laws in another area, as they may or may not be applicable to yours.

personally i am on the fence over this one. on the one hand i agree that if the tree causes damage to someone else's property the tree owner should be held liable, but on the other i think you have the right to plant any size tree you want on YOUR property with out interference from the neighbors. i am glad that MY area still follows the old laws and probably always will, or at least they will until long after i am gone. MS is SLOW to make these sorts of changes.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2007 at 1:27PM
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I hated the old VA law - the ones most of you still have - for years.

Especially the part about if you trim back a tree to the tree line, as you're allowed to do, and the tree dies from the trimming, then you can be held responsible for the loss. That makes absolutely no sense. Anyone should have a right to cut the tree back so that no branches are over the property line, no matter whether it damages the tree or not. The tree owner's right to the tree should absolutely stop at the property line. If you don't want it damaged, don't plant it close to your neighbor's property.

In the case that went to court the MORONS with the tree planted a gum tree in a 17'x17' townhouse backyard. Gum trees get to 150' and have an incredibly invasive root system. It did incredible damage to the home of the neighbors who brought suit, and most likely also seriously damaged the owner's home as well.

I'd actually like the law to go further and be what I consider totally fair, which would be that no one could plant a tree such that it will encroach on another's property at all. So if a tree with eventually have a circumfrence of 30' you couldn't plant it within 15' of a property line.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2007 at 8:34PM
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A 90' tree was most likely not planted by the current owner of the house.

People should pay attention to their surroundings when they buy a house. If you don't want a tree next door, don't buy a house where the neighbors have a tree.

    Bookmark   October 2, 2007 at 12:22PM
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I don't agree that one should be able to plant any kind and size of tree they want on their property, especially in small yards where the trees branches, shadow, and roots are likely to enroach on a neighbors property, or unreasonably block their view.
I have a yard only 50 feet wide, and neighbors on both sides of me have allowed clumps of Eucalyptus trees planted only two feet from the property line to grow ever bigger to where the branches will eventually cover my whole back yard, meeting in the middle if nothing is done. They didn't plant the trees, but both have had them trimmed at least once, but now apparently have just decided to let them grow wild, and anyone who knows anything about Eucs can tell you that even if you cut them down to a stump within a few years they will be just as big as they were before they were trimmed, but will now be a multiple trunk monstrosity that blocks out the sun completely. I had two Eucs on my own property and I was considerate enough to cut them down years ago at a cost of over a thousand dollars and replace them with fruit trees that will only grow to 12 to 2o feet tall, not the 60 to 125 feet a Euc can grow to. As an example of how big they can get three yards away there were two Eucs that I would estimate were 125 feet tall with a branch spread of over 110 feet that they finally had trimmed. Took two or three tree trimmers three days just to trim them, and the pile of branches from the trees was higher than the roof of the house.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 10:59AM
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californian, as we have told you before, YOU need to trim the branches overhanging your yard.

yes, i agree that the people who planted the eucs should have known better, but even so it is their yard and their RIGHT to plant anything that is legal to plant. if you want to stop it, get you legislature or city council to pass a law stopping certain types of trees from being planted on lots under X size.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 12:17PM
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We have property with a lot of mature trees---and recently (in the last year or so) spent about $ 4000.00 taking a few out and trimming others---the trees had limbs growing over two of our neighbors' properties and in one case, the tree was large, with dying limbs. I'm far from rich, but the last thing I want to see is one of my neighbor's grandchildren injured or even their fence or house damaged because I'm too stubborn and dumb to keep my trees off their property. They didn't have to ask me and it never occurred to me to ask them to chip in. My yard, my trees, putting them at risk---people and their homes and cars on THEIR PROPERTY is more important than some trees on my land. With that said, if the unexpected happens in a storm or high winds, and a tree falls, then sure, the homeowners insurance of the person who had damage should take care of it. My fear is that "arborists," tree trimming companies and other "experts" are going to go around telling people that their trees are a risk to neighbors property. The neighbor hears that and gets fired up and wants the owner to pay to have the tree removed. Guess who's going to make a bundle of money on that scenario?

    Bookmark   October 13, 2007 at 9:30PM
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Bumping up an interesting but old post.

The one big problem with this new law is that trees are on properties longer than the many people who come and go. My guess is that the sweetgum in question (60' tall) was probably on the small lot longer than the current owner (probably 25-30 year old tree), in other words he did not plant the tree. The neighbor bought the adjoining lot after this tree was already established and growing over/into his property. One could really argue that the neighbor did not take due diligence in looking at all factors effecting his property before purchasing (similar to sloping water runoff issues or noisy road issues, etc.).

Who is to blame? The person who originally planted a large tree on a small lot (not generally a good idea) or those who happen to take ownership later? Of course, knowing how trees grow and the health of trees is a field of study and one cannot expect the average person to know all. In the end, this law does sound like more work for lawyers and arborists and insurance companies who might face liabilities.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2009 at 4:41PM
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You made a good point on this old thread...the tree was most likely hanging over when the folks bought the house. I wonder if that would fall into a loophole in law "condoning"? If they bought the house and never addressed the problem, ya' think a statute of limitations would prevent future liability? Yep, just as you said, work for lawyers and insurance companies!!

    Bookmark   April 29, 2009 at 6:16PM
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I have been giving this more thought and I have another contention with this law.

The ruling states:

"Now, for the first time, homeowners can sue to force a neighbor to cut back branches or roots or take out the tree altogether if it poses a risk of "actual harm" or an "imminent danger" to their houses, the court ruled. Tree owners can now be held liable for any damage caused by the tree.

So we have dealt with the damages, but we have not addressed the benefits of trees. If we are going to be fair, then shouldn't one neighbor be able to charge (or at least recoup if neighbor claims damages) for shade that his or her tree(s) provides to another neighbors home? Lower A/C cost is a cash benefit that trees provide in the summer. There are also the cash benefits that trees provide to a neighborhood in terms of appeal and higher home values. Then there are benefits that are not easily measured in dollar values like CO2 fixation, wildlife home and food, aesthetic beauty, tree swings for the kids, etc.

I am a tree guy and I believe I prefer the old "Massachusetts rule."

Even with the old rule, I think exceptions can be made if a tree is unhealthy and leaning over a neighbors home and poses risk of injury or death to neighbors. This could be covered by city or town laws and handled by independent Arborists not financially involved with the cutting down of trees.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2009 at 11:07AM
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Here,if someone can prove the tree or tree limb poses a danger to a person or home, they can send a certified letter to the property owner to correct the problem. Then, if there is a problem, the tree owner is responsible. If the tree is on the border, both parties are responsible. If a tree limb from a neighbors tree is hanging over the property line, the encroached neighbor can cut the limb. However it must be done in a way where it will not damage or kill the tree.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2009 at 10:26PM
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I've read this thread a number of times now and would like to re open the discussion in lieu of the last couple of remarks. Yes trees can cause damage to homes, so does UV radiation, some insects, and also wild fires, storms, floods, etc...The point is here that the perceived damage from trees far exceeds the actual damages. In fact the odds of a tree killing a member of the public is about 1:20,000,000 or less than being killed by lightning strikes. Yet where do we consider the damages to the community in the loss of large maturing canopy trees that provide a net benefit in hard dollars to communities through all the services trees provide for free.

Another point about small trees in small lots. Trees with canopies that mature under thirty feet take up space in the same areas that we need for human activity. In contrast a tree with a mature height of seventy feet can easily be pruned to allow for canopy coverage above a structure while still allowing for people to have branches clear of their structures and giving them room to walk and play underneath.

Point three: Many of these tree "problems" have an ultimate people cause. Compacted soils causing root growth in the upper portions of the soils, poor sidewalk or patio designs that actually create great spaces for tree roots to grow just below the concrete due to condensation, over fertilizing of lawns that cause fast growth and can lead to premature shedding of tree parts, over pruning or bad pruning which can lead to whole or partial tree failures, removal of neighboring trees that help protect other trees, and the list can go on and on...

Yes trees can sometimes cause some problems for people, but in the end we need them for quality of life. Tree law at this point is just beginning to recognize the longevity of trees, as opposed to the short occupancy of most homeowners. The laws are beginning to take into account that trees are not static things, but change from year to year.

We still have a long way to go on this one, but I fear that litigation and regulation is going to create an environment where no tree reaches maturity before it is deemed a "hazard" and removed only to be replaced with a much smaller tree producing less quality of life for our community.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2009 at 7:28PM
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