Return of Legal Questions Answered By Griffin & Murphy, LLP

Photo by PoPville flickr user Mr. T in DC

Griffin & Murphy, LLP, (a PoP advertiser) is a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. concentrating its practice in real estate law (including development, finance, leasing, zoning and condominium conversions), as well as estate planning and probate, civil litigation, and business law. The attorneys of Griffin & Murphy, LLP are licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Griffin and Murphy, LLP was founded in 1981.

Please send any legal questions relating to real estate, rentals, buildings, renovations or other legal items to princeofpetworth (at) gmail (dot) com, include ‘legal question’ in the title and each week one question will be featured. I was curious about the following questions:


What happens when a “city tree” falls on your property? What happens when
a neighbor’s tree falls on your property? What happens when a neighbor’s tree
damages your property? Are there any rules on trimming a neighbor’s trees?


The law regarding trees is rooted in ancient common law and there are no statutes in the
District of Columbia dealing with this topic.

Damage from falling branches may seem like an issue that would be more prevalent in
the suburbs, where yards are bigger and can support more trees. However, many of the
cases we found that address the law of trees actually take place in urban settings like DC
due to fact that people live close to one another, cars are typically parked on the street
and pedestrians abound.

Under common law, a landowner is held to the duty of common prudence (not strict
liability) in maintaining his/her property, including the trees thereon, in such a way as to
prevent injury to a neighbor’s property and people in the adjoining public right of way.
This rule applies to private landowners as well as governmental bodies. Therefore, if a
branch or entire tree falls on your property (or you) and causes damage, the person who
owns the tree is not automatically liable for your damages. Even the sturdiest looking
tree is capable of being knocked over given the right circumstances, so a court will not
fault the owner of the tree if the unthinkable happens. However, if the neighbor was
negligent in maintaining the tree (ex. the tree was obviously dead and leaning toward
your house), the neighbor would be liable for any damage caused by his/her negligence.

Continues after the jump.

If branches or roots from your neighbor’s tree extend over onto your property, you
have a right at common law to trim any intruding branches and roots. This is known as
the “Massachusetts Rule” and it is applied by the DC courts. That said, you can only
trim the branches and roots that extend onto your property. Additionally, you must take
reasonable care not to kill the tree, otherwise your neighbor could have a claim against
you. You do not have a cause of action against your neighbor for trespass due to the
encroaching tree branches and/or roots – your only right and remedy is to trim the tree.

A word of caution: if you exercise dominion over a parcel of land that is actually in the
public right of way (for example, the patch of grass in front of your house between the
sidewalk and the street), there is a possibility that you could be held liable for damages
resulting from any failure to maintain the trees in that patch.

If you feel a tree on your neighbor’s property poses a danger to your property our
pedestrians, for your benefit and your neighbor’s, we would recommend having a
friendly chat to see if the danger can be neutralized before any damage is done and you
have to resort to the legal system.

This response was prepared by Mark G. Griffin and Patrick D. Blake of Griffin & Murphy, LLP. The material contained in this response has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice or as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified attorney. Nothing in this response should be considered as either creating an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Griffin & Murphy, LLP or as rendering of legal advice for any specific matter.

13 Comment

  • So if the tree that is in the city treebox that the city planted (that I didnt request) falls on someone’s car, I can be held liable for damages? If that’s the case, can I cut down the tree in the city treebox (so that I wont have to worry about being sued for damages) or at least trim it down?

    • No, did you read what he said? Do you take care of the tree box? Even if you did, its not a sure thing.

      • No I dont take care of the tree in the tree box because I thought since they planted it that the city has to tend to it.

        • I’m confused by: “if you exercise dominion over a parcel of land” (e.g. in this case the public tree box).
          What constitutes exercising dominion? If I took care of the tree? I assume I would have to plant the tree to exercise dominion, and thus only in that circumstance would there be a “possibility that [I] could be held liable.”

          So I think that in your case, Kami, since you didn’t plant the tree, you don’t have to worry about being held liable (unless you cut down the tree without a permit, in which case you would face a fine; see: Haydees dispute, 2010).

    • ah

      Since you’re not allowed to cut down the city tree it seems that if you notice it’s dead, call the city to report it, and get a record of that request you should be able to point to that if the tree falls.

      • I have called the city multiiple times about cutting it back from the power lines and that the roots are pushing up the sidewalk but to no avail. But thanks I have kept the confirmation numbers from when I emailed my complaint.

  • I sure am glad that Griffin & Murphy column is back. It is one of my favorites.

  • In my case, a branch from a tree that appears to be on both my property and “neighbor A’s” property fell onto the fence separating my property from “neighbor B”. Of course I wouldn’t expect neighbor A to have to pay for that (since according to the above, it would’ve been within my right to trim the branch). For now, since I don’t think “B” has even noticed (or perhaps “B” views it as my fence and not his), I haven’t done anything.
    However my situation does seem to require an additional level of cooperation in determining what to do with the tree (especially if it ever seems like it might be about to completely fall). I guess joint ownership means joint liability?

    • ah

      No, if it falls on your property it’s your problem. You only need to cooperate if you’ve got some huge tree that falls across both yards and you want to share removal expenses.

      As for the fence, if it’s yours you pay for any repairs. If it’s your neighbor’s it’s on him. But since no one seems to care about it, why bother fixing it?

      • I guess I’m not sure if the fence is mine or his. Someone said it is yours if the crossbeams are on your side, which in my case means it’s not mine. So since he doesn’t care, we probably won’t bother.

  • “…if you exercise dominion over a parcel of land that is actually in the public right of way…” WTF does this mean? In english please. These articles are useless unless they are written for the average citizen to understand. It’s obvious from the questions that that isn’t the case.

    • Translation – If you take action on public property (the City’s property) that indicates (or a reasonable person could interpret as indicating) you are the owner of that property, you can be held liable if what you do causes harm.
      The example given – You plant a tree in the grassy patch on the sidewalk that abuts the curb. The tree dies, falls on and damages a neighbor’s car. The grassy patch is the City’s property not yours. But your action of planting something could be interpreted as indicating you own or control the land. If the thing you plant causes damage, you’re on the hook not the City.

  • In much of Capitol Hill, city land begins at the front of the house (most bays and porches are actually on public land) but you can treat the space between that and the sidewalk as your front yard, have a garden or a patio or whatever the historical preservation rules allow there (but NOT park your car; ironically, this space is called “parking” in a 19th century sense of the word). I presume that’s what “exercise dominion” means.

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