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Dangerous Trees, Driveways, and Sewer Lines

dangerous trees driveways sewer lines Tuesday Tree Talk with Joe Samnik

Dangerous trees, driveways, and sewer lines: In this matter we come to understand that the courts often do not appeal themselves to the emotions of a case or the incidentals such as right and wrong that sometimes differentiate one matter from another.

Here we have a plaintiff who owned a big pine tree. Big is defined as roots encroaching across property lines and damaging a neighbor’s driveway and sewer.

The neighbor whose driveway and sewer line were irreparably damaged by the tree roots replaced the driveway and sewer line. In doing so, however, the construction crew severed the tree roots.

An arborist told the owner of the tree that the structural integrity of the pine tree had been lost, destroyed when the roots were severed. The owner of the pine tree sued for removal costs.  The court awarded partial reimbursement to plaintiff for driveway and sewer costs. Defendant cross-appealed the judgment, arguing the court erred in finding them liable for driveway and sewer repair costs because they had the right of self-help in cutting the tree roots that encroached on their property.

The judgment was reversed. The court further reasoned that because the owner of the tree could not be compelled to pay for the damage to the sewer line and driveway, she likewise had no cause of action against the owner of the driveway or sewer if the tree was damaged when that owner exercised her privilege to cut the roots encroaching onto her property.

Plaintiff relies on a case law that establishes foreseeability of consequential negligent actions. In other words, plaintiff is stating that it should have been foreseen when the roots were severed that the tree would lose its structural integrity and fail. However, plaintiff did not allege that the destruction of the structural root system caused damage to anything but the tree whose encroaching roots defendant undisputedly had a right to cut, and imposing liability for causing any damage to the tree in this instance would effectively eviscerate that right.

What is not presented in this matter is whether and how the general principles of foreseeability would apply if defendant’s actions were alleged to have caused damages to persons or property other than the tree itself.

The predominant view around the country is this: It is well-established that an owner of a healthy tree is not liable to an adjoining property owner for damage caused by encroaching tree branches or roots, but the adjoining property owner “is privileged to trim back, at his own expense, any encroaching tree roots or branches… which have grown onto his property.”

The distinction in this case, however, is whether the adjoining property owner is liable to the tree owner when the self-help remedy causes damage to the tree. There is conflicting authority on this issue.

Always rely upon an attorney’s advice on how to proceed when dealing with neighbors, vegetation, and property rights.

The articles presented here do not make any legal recommendations or representations, as the author is not qualified to do so. These articles are for educational and entertainment purposes only. Seek the advice of a qualified attorney regarding questions of law.

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