Tree Disputes in Massachusetts: What to Do

Tree disputes happen much more than you might expect in Massachusetts. These problems are most common among adjacent landowners, and can lead to major disputes if not properly addressed.

Tree disputes generally consist of two types of matters: (1) damages caused from a tree and (2) the unauthorized removal of a tree.

Whose Tree Is It?

While it may be obvious in many cases, it is sometimes necessary to determine who owns the tree at issue in the dispute. Generally, this can be figured out through a survey or plot plan.

If the ownership of the property is unknown, this (on its own) may be a separate matter to deal with.

Damage From a Tree: Healthy or Not?

Determining one’s liability from a tree comes down to a central question: is the tree healthy? Massachusetts law prohibits a tree owner from being liable from damages caused by a healthy tree. The rationale for this is that trees, naturally, will loose limbs and fall down from weather conditions.

Liability does exist for an unhealthy tree. If you own a tree that is not healthy, and it causes damage to someone else’s property, you may be liable.

Determining whether a tree is healthy will likely require an expert opinion, through an arborist or landscaping professional.

Damages From Removing a Tree Without Permission

The unauthorized removal of another’s tree is a serious offense. Such a violation can subject one to triple damages. Given the large expense of replacing a tree, this can be a significant penalty.

How to Handle a Tree Dispute

As with most disputes, it is best to see if the matter can be resolved without court action. Often, such matters can be resolved through clear communication and negotiation.

Legal action is often necessary if such matters cannot be amicably resolved. The law, importantly, allows not just for money as damages, but equitable relief, where a court can order someone to do (or not do) something.

This can be critical if immediate relief is required, such as stopping the cutting of trees or requiring a neighbor to do something about an unhealthy tree, before significant damage occurs.

Conclusion

If you need assistance with a tree dispute, contact me for a consultation.

Massachusetts Tree Law: When Can a Property Owner Be Liable For a Tree on Their Land?

Massachusetts Tree Law

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision last week on Massachusetts tree law.  The decision, Shiel v. Rowell (included below), discusses a property owner’s liability for a tree on their property.

Background

The facts of this case are fairly straightforward.  The parties in this case were two neighbors, with one bringing a lawsuit against the other for damage caused by a tree from the other’s property.  This tree caused algae buildup on the other’s roof, from the branches that were hanging over the home.  The neighbor who filed this lawsuit sought money for these damages, and an injunction (court order) that the other neighbor cut back the tree that was causing this damage.

Overview of Massachusetts Tree Law

This case presented a simple, but important, question for the court: when can a property owner be liable for a tree on their land?

The Court reaffirmed a long standing rule in Massachusetts that a landowner may not hold a neighbor liable for damage caused by a neighbor’s healthy tree.  Here, the algae damage to the home resulted from branches hanging over the home . . . something that commonly occurs with trees.  As this was a “healthy” tree, it was not up to the owner of the tree to deal with this problem.  Rather, the neighbor who owned the home underneath these tree branches was responsible for addressing this problem.

The Court affirmed that a property owner has a right to cut off branches, roots, and other parts of a tree that interferes with one’s property.  If a property owner fails to do so, they cannot blame the tree owner for the natural damage caused by the tree.

The issue of whether a tree is “healthy” was a critical factor for the outcome of this decision.  If a tree is unhealthy, this rule of non-liability would seemingly not apply.  For example, if a dead tree breaks apart and falls onto a neighbor’s home, the owner of the tree will not automatically avoid liability for such damage.   Likely, in such a case, the owner will have liability for any resulting damage.

Practical Implications

As the Court stated in this decision, a practical lesson of this decision is the importance of maintaining one’s property.  A homeowner cannot expect to obtain relief against a neighbor if they fail to address the natural problems that arise from encroaching trees.

A word of caution about cutting down portions of a tree on your property.  While it is permissible to cut back portions of an intruding tree, Massachusetts law imposes steep penalties for willfully cutting down or destroying trees on another’s land.  With this in mind, one should use extra caution in dealing with an encroaching tree.

Conclusion 

If you find yourself in need of assistance with a matter involving Massachusetts tree law, contact me for a consultation.

Shiel v. Rowell (Tree Law)