Accidents and injuries can be caused by many things we encounter in our everyday lives. The most obvious, of course, are our motor vehicles, our pets, the stores we shop in and even our own homes. Less common, but still frequent enough for our notice, are those accidents on the golf course, at amusement parks and at restaurants and social activities. This comment, however, deals with accidents much less frequent yet still potentially serious: Accidents caused by trees.
First, it must be said that this article will not discuss such things as improperly placed trees, trees that block stop signs, trees that violate ordinances or laws and trees that are otherwise indirectly involved in accidents. Rather, we here discuss those instances where the tree itself is the direct cause of the accident, injury or damage.
In these cases, a tree limb, branch or the whole tree itself, comes down or falls over and hurts someone or damages something. For example, a palm frond falls from a tree and strikes a person who happens to be unfortunate enough to be sitting under it. A heavy branch or limb falling from a height can certainly cause injury or worse to the victim, but who is responsible? The owner of the land—and the tree—or whoever is in control of them, can be liable if the legal requirements are met.
Legally, the basic question is whether there was anything to indicate that the limb or tree was weak, rotten, diseased or otherwise in danger of falling in normal—not hurricane-like—conditions. If the owner knew the tree was dead, or would have seen that it was had he taken the trouble to look at it, then he probably should have done something to make sure that it did not fall on someone. It is really not much different than the duty the law imposes on any property owner to inspect and keep his property safe for those who lawfully come upon it. The store owner must keep his aisles free from debris, the homeowner must repair his broken step, the restaurant must mop up the spilled drink, etc.
Falling trees and limbs can and do injure people, but they can also do damage to the property of others. A tree branch can come down on a parked car or it can cause an accident when it falls on a moving vehicle in the roadway. It can fall on a neighbor’s house and damage the roof or break the windows. The legal question is the same: should the owner have known about or discovered the dangerous condition of the tree or the branch and taken action to prevent it from falling? This will depend not only on the condition itself but also on the surrounding circumstances: How long did the condition exist, what caused it, how visible was it, was the tree in the yard or on acres of land? For example, suppose there is a dead tree in the front yard of a house and it topples over onto a parked car; that could be a failure of the owner to notice the danger or to correct it. But suppose the tree merely has root disease below ground and it suddenly falls one day. Or suppose that dead tree is out on a farm property among hundreds of trees. The point is that each situation has to be looked at for those factors that can impose responsibility on the owner. Do not assume, however, that when a tree or limb falls and causes injury or damage that no one was negligent. If it happens to you, seek legal advice.
The idea that the owner has an obligation to take care of his tree brings up another legal point worth mentioning. If your neighbor’s tree is causing you problems by scraping your house or dropping debris on your yard, you can legally trim that tree above your property—at your own expense—in order to abate the nuisance. Again, this is at your own risk and own expense, so you should probably ask your neighbor to remedy it before you do it yourself. You might also ask a lawyer what you can do.
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