Whether urban or rural, mountainous or coastal, trees are such an essential part of our landscape. California
contains a rich biodiversity of tree life, including majestic redwoods, sequoia, fragrant eucalyptus, sturdy live oak, signature palms. And while we may think generally of the trees as belonging to all of us (collectively, anyway), most trees in fact belong to the owner of the land they grow on. When a tree, or portion thereof, falls and hurts someone, there is an entire body of law laying out who is responsible. Because most landowners have, or live next to, trees, it’s helpful to know some basics about tree law.
Ownership and Care
When property owners were not the ones to plant their trees, yet need to assess who is responsible for them, the primary question under California law
is where the trunk stands. If the tree trunk is wholly on one person’s property, it is that person’s tree. If the trunk straddles the property line (even if it has grown that way after starting out entirely on one side), then the tree is shared, and neither neighbor is permitted take action to trim, treat or cut down the tree without the other’s consent, and both are responsible for it.
An owner is responsible for making sure that a tree, including its limbs and roots, are not at risk of causing any damage. However, because trees grow not only up but out, it is common for tree branches to overhang abutting property. Similarly, tree roots can grow onto neighboring land. Historically, the rule was that if any part of your neighbor’s tree crossed onto your property, you were entitled to trim the tree up to the property line. This is still the underlying law, but there have been some modifications through case law that place some limits on how much can be trimmed by the non-owner.
For example, in the 1994 case of Booska v. Patel, a California appellate court inserted a requirement into the trimming rule that a neighbor not act unreasonably or cause harm to the tree. In that case, a tree’s roots had grown to the point of buckling the neighboring sidewalk. When the neighbor brought in a contractor to trim the offending roots, he severed the root system along his entire property line, to an extent that left the tree unstable and unable to survive. The court determined that a neighbor’s right to trim overhanging limbs or extending roots was not absolute, and that consequences to each party must be taken into consideration.
Another limitation on this trimming rule is that the law allows for branches and roots to be trimmed up to the property line, but not over it. Any amount of removal or damage that traverses the property line without the owner’s consent, even if genuinely and reasonably believed to be correct, can make the trimming neighbor liable to the owner for damages two to three times the value of actual damages. Further, even trimming that remains on the right side of the property line can give rise to the same liability if the tree is somehow damaged. Keep in mind that ‘actual damage’ may mean replacing a mature tree, or the tree’s aesthetic value, a costly proposition. Clearly, it’s best to work things out with your neighbor to have them trim the tree, and when you can’t, hire a professional who knows both trees and boundary rules.
One more thing—while a neighbor is entitled to trim portions of the tree that extend into their own yard, they may not go onto the adjoining property where the tree is located to either trim or cut down the tree. Cutting down, harming or killing a neighbor’s tree, even unintentionally, can be subject to criminal penalties
of up to a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail, as well as civil damages.
Liability for Fallen Trees
Taking care of a tree includes maintaining the health of the tree, keeping it trimmed, and taking note of any dangers posed by it. Failure to properly maintain a tree that causes damage will give rise to the owner’s liability for harm caused. Where a storm or earthquake causes a properly maintained tree to fall or lose a limb, the damage will be considered an act of God and the owner will not be held responsible. The line between these two may not always be clear.
In a 1958 case, a California appellate court held that a storm of moderately unusual intensity did not qualify as an act of God and the tree owner was responsible for damage cause by fallen limbs on his neighbor’s land. Note that, as in this case, tree liability intersects with nuisance law
Other Issues To Be Aware Of
- What falls from the tree (fruit, leaves, shade): These are not the responsibility of the tree owner but of the owner of the property onto which it falls. Leaves, twigs, etc. are considered natural debris, and treated as any other material that falls or blows onto one’s property, even where they cause damage, like clogged gutters.
- Fruit or nuts: If your neighbor has a fruit tree that overhangs your property, the fruit on the tree belongs to your neighbor, even if it’s on your side, unless you have your neighbor’s consent. Any fruit that has fallen from the tree on your side is all yours.
- View: Some communities have ordinances relating to blocking a neighbor’s view. One case interpreted a fence height restriction to apply to a row of trees, so as not to restrict their view.