Trees located on or near property boundaries may not cause a problem when they are small. However, as they grow, tree branches, trunks, and roots can encroach upon or across your property. Although the common theory is that you can trim your neighbor’s tree branches back to the property line, that right is not absolute.
For purposes of this article, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of tree ownership. The California Civil Code states that “trees whose trunks stand wholly upon the land of one owner belong exclusively to him, although their roots grow into the land of another”, and that trees whose trunks stand partly on the land of two or more coterminous owners, belong to them in common.
An adjoining neighbor’s trees may be considered a nuisance for any number of reasons. A tree may drop leaves and other debris onto your property, damage a fence/wall, or have roots that cause damage to a foundation or driveway. These matters may constitute a nuisance, but that nuisance only exists if their encroachment interferes with your economic interests at that time.
Although California imposes a duty on a property owner to prevent a nuisance that affects an adjoining landowner, the adversely affected property owner cannot simply take matters into their own hands.
One’s ability to simply cut/remove roots and branches of a neighbor’s tree is not as simple as it sounds as the California Courts have determined you can be held liable for harming the tree of a neighbor.
Branches and Roots:
When a tree trunk is on your neighbor’s property, the branches and roots growing and extending unto your property, belong to you. However, when trimming the offending branches, one must not enter their neighbor’s property without permission, and when trimming, the act must be done reasonably so as to not harm the health of the tree.
Similarly, one is not allowed to simply cut/remove roots encroaching on your property when harm to the tree is a foreseeable result. The California case of Booska v. Patel rejected the notion that property owners have an absolute right to cut encroaching roots when damage to the tree would result. In that instance, the Court held the defendant liable for damaging the tree and as a property owner had a duty to act reasonably to avoid foreseeable harm to their neighbors’ property, (tree).
When a tree is harmed by cutting or pruning it in such a manner as to endanger the tree of falling or not surviving, the offending party may be held liable not for the cost of a new sapling, but rather the replacement cost of a mature tree.
When it’s your tree:
As stated previously, if the tree trunk is entirely on your property, you are the responsible party for the damage caused by your tree. This includes the general care and maintenance of the tree. Although unforeseen events that cause your tree to fall, such as a severe storm, will likely not result in your liability, awareness of an unhealthy tree that falls in that same storm can result in your financial responsibility. The California Courts have held that unusually strong storms do not constitute acts of God and that property owners have an affirmative duty to guard against potential damage that could be caused by falling trees.
If a neighbor requests that you trim your tree, but you refuse to do so, depending on the circumstances, your neighbor may be able to obtain a Court order against you to trim or remove that tree.
When trees interfere with public utilities, such as power lines, the utility company can generally enter upon your land and cut/remove the branches that interfere with the “proper and efficient use” of the wires. If a utility company does cut more than is necessary, or “wantonly and unnecessarily cuts or mutilates the trees,” the utility company can be liable for damages caused to the owner.
Use caution before cutting off any encroaching branches to minimize liability for any harm caused to a neighbor’s tree. If a neighbor refuses to trim their trees, put them on written notice that a dangerous condition is present concerning the trees, and that if the trees cause any personal or property damage, they may be held legally responsible for the damage caused.
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Disclaimer: Every situation is different and particular facts may vary thereby changing or altering a possible course of action or conclusion. The information contained herein is intended to be general in nature as laws vary between federal, state, counties, and municipalities and therefore may not apply to any given matter. This information is not intended to be legal advice or relied upon as a legal opinion, course of action, accounting, tax or other professional service. You should consult the proper legal or professional advisor knowledgeable in the area that pertains to your particular situation.