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Legal Insights

Trees — Damage to or Destruction of by Persons Other than the Property Owner

Carol’s house was shrouded by enormous, old holly trees. Carol loved the trees. They were each probably 60 or 70 years old. While the trees were quite beautiful, they shed their leaves almost year-round. Cleanup of the leaves was troublesome and it was a year-round job. And, then there were the berries that the trees shed during the spring. The berries often fell onto a car owned by Carol’s neighbor, Jim. On Saturday, Jim had enough of scraping the berries off the hood of his car. He got out a saw and began cutting large portions of the trees down. Much of what Jim cut was on Carol’s property. In fact, Jim cut down so much of the trees that all of the trees along the property line between Carol’s house and Jim’s house died within a few weeks. What are Carol’s options?

Ownership of Trees

A tree is owned by the property owner on whose property the trunk of the tree sits. When a property owner has an interest in a tree, the property owner has the right to recover in the event the tree is damaged or destroyed by another.

Legal Action

A property owner may initiate a legal action in an effort to recover for damage to or destruction of a tree. In such an action, the property owner may seek compensatory damages, statutory damages, and/or punitive damages. Compensatory damages are designed to compensate for actual losses. Statutory damages are determined by the law of a given locality. In fact, in some states, a property owner may be entitled to recover up to three times the amount of compensatory damages. Lastly, punitive damages are designed to punish the conduct of the wrongdoer. Such damages are determined by a judge or a jury. Laws as to available remedies vary widely from state to state, and the laws of a particular state must be consulted directly for further details.

Alternative Means of Dispute Resolution

As an initial matter, the parties could try to work the matter out on their own. In that way, the parties could try to reach a workable resolution and still preserve their relationship.

A property owner may also report damage to or destruction of a tree to the local police department. The police will intervene in the event of a violation of the law. For instance, in some states criminal penalties attach may be imposed for crimes such as malicious destruction of property and other similar offenses.

Also, alternative dispute mechanisms, such as mediation, can help parties resolve their problems without the necessity of formal legal action. By using mediation, parties can work with a neutral third party to resolve their dispute. It is often the case that local police departments will suggest mediation to the parties. It can be a quick, cost-effective way to resolve disputes

June 20, 2014

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