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.