Court Awards Double Damages in Boundary Line Tree Dispute Between California Neighbors
In August 2012 the California Court of Appeal upheld an award of double or twice the actual damages caused by one neighbor for the cutting down and removal of a boundary line tree, or over $107,000.
In this case, a tree originally planted on one neighbor’s property eventually matured and grew over many years so that its trunk and branches crossed over the property line, and were on both sides of the lot line.
One neighbor became concerned about the 70 foot height of the tree, and contended that the tree presented a danger and was causing a nuisance.
The neighbors could not agree on the trimming or removal of the tree, with one preferring that it remain because it enhanced their property value and because of personal preferences, and the other neighbor preferring that it be taken down.
Rather than going to Court to resolve the dispute, the objecting neighbor simply hired a contractor and had the tree completely cut down.
The other neighbor sued for damages to the tree and his property value, and for costs to replace the tree.
The Court held that because the trunk and roots of the tree had grown across the property line, under Civil Code § 834 the tree belonged to both property owners, and that neither neighbor could do anything that might injure the tree without the consent of the adjoining property owner.
It then awarded the Plaintiff double the “value” of the tree itself as damages, per Civil Code § 3346(a).
The Court split the “value” of the tree - based on the testimony of an expert arborist - between the neighbors, in proportion to the amount of the trunk that was on the property of each, before awarding the Plaintiffs their share of the doubled damage.
The Court did not award the Plaintiff the cost to replace the tree, which would have been about $1,000,000, and did not award the amount by which the loss of the tree adversely affected the Plaintiffs’ property value, which might have been an alternate measure of damages.
The damages award was in part based on the finding that the Plaintiffs were likely to replace the tree, for personal reasons.
The California Court of Appeal upheld the doubled damages award based in part on a case from Washington State.
The lesson to be learned here probably is that one property owner usually cannot take unilateral action which might injure a boundary line tree, and probably also that one should always exercise caution in dealing with or doing things which might injure a neighbor’s tree, whether the issue is the trimming of encroaching branches, doing construction or other digging in the root area of neighbors tree, or the like.
It will usually be prudent to consult with or get a written report from an arborist or tree expert, and try to work out the issue amicably with the neighbor, whether through negotiation or mediation.
If the dispute cannot be resolved mutually, and there is a possibility of injury to the tree or to the neighbors, consult with legal counsel and consider submitting the dispute to a Court for resolution before taking any action yourself which might injure or kill a boundary line or neighbor’s tree.
Unless there is an extreme and immediate emergency or hazard to life or property, it is usually unwise and risky to take unilateral action on your own.
Also check your local ordinances, as many cities and counties in the Bay Area and California have tree or view or solar light ordinances, which may govern the planting, trimming or removal of trees, the preservation of views or access to sunlight, or provide a method for the resolution of tree, view, and/or light disputes by mediation, arbitration or otherwise.