Trees Neighbors Lawsuits

Lawsuits among neighbors often center around trees. Yes, trees. My neighbor cut down my tree. My neighbor cut down his tree but it provided me shade. My neighbor’s tree is coming over onto my property and dropping leaves or fruit in my pool. My neighbor’s tree has roots that extend onto my property. Often these disputes degenerate quickly into shouting matches, restraining orders and lawsuits. Here is a primer on the law of trees in California.

Who Owns The Tree?

The owner on whose property the tree trunk sits owns the tree. But what happens when the tree trunk sits on the boundary? The tree is owned in common and neither owner may remove or injure the tree without the other owner’s consent. This is often called a boundary tree or line tree. What if the branches of the neighbor’s tree overhang into your yard? A neighboring property owner may cut back the tree limbs that overhang onto his property as long as he does not injure the tree. The same standard applies to roots which come over the property line—they can be removed but not if they will injure the tree. Needless to say, a neighbor may not go onto the adjoining property to cut down someone else’s tree.

What Are the Damages for A Wrongfully Cut Tree?

California law imposes some serious penalties for wrongfully cutting down a tree. Damages are measured by the difference in value of the property with the tree and without the tree. This is called diminution in value. However, sometimes damages are calculated as the cost of replacement of the tree. In other words what would it take to replace the damaged tree. Both measures of damages leave a lot of room for argument (and therefore expensive litigation).

Where tree litigation can get expensive is in the doubling or trebling of damages, pursuant to California statute. If the cutting of the tree was “casual or involuntary”, damages will be doubled (i.e., this is mandatory). However, in all other cases the damages may be trebled (i.e., this is discretionary). Typically punitive damages will not be awarded if treble damages have been awarded. These penalties can make litigation over trees very expensive.

What Potential Settlement Options Are There?

Unfortunately litigation between neighbors often takes on a life of its own without any regard for the cost-benefit of the litigation. Litigation will involve attorney time as well as expert witness testimony, potentially including an appraiser and an arborist. Attorneys fees are usually not recoverable in this type of litigation and should be taken into account. In other words, neighbor litigation can get expensive.

Whether someone cut down someone else’s tree should be relatively easy to ascertain. If it looks like there is liability, a defendant should explore offers to replace the tree or landscape the neighbor’s yard. Landscaping, even if it does not replace the offending tree, can improve the plaintiff’s property and is usually less expensive than litigation. Both parties can come out of the lawsuit with a win.

Los Angeles real estate attorney Laine T. Wagenseller specializes in real estate litigation. Wagenseller Law Firm handles neighbor disputes and other litigation over real property. For more information, visit our website at www.wagensellerlaw.com. Mr. Wagenseller can be contacted at (213) 286-0371 or ltw@wagensellerlaw.com.