If your neighbor or someone else cuts down, removes, or hurts a tree on your property without your permission, that person is required to compensate you (the tree owner) for your loss. If necessary, you can sue to enforce your rights.
Heres the lowdown on what you must prove to recover for a damaged or destroyed tree, and how much money you can recover. (To learn more about particular situations involving trees and neighbors, see Nolos Trees and Neighbors FAQ.)
What counts as "damage" to your tree?
To run afoul of the law, your neighbor doesnt have to chop down your tree. Its enough to just damage the health of your tree. For example, your neighbor has the legal right to trim branches of your tree if they hang over the property line. But if the trimming seriously injures your tree, your neighbor will be liable to you for the damage done. Similarly, if your neighbor uses a chemical in his or her yard to destroy unwanted roots, and the chemical seeps onto your property and kills one of your trees, your neighbor can be liable.
What do you have to prove in order to recover damages from a neighbor for destroying or damaging your tree?
In general, you must meet two requirements in order to have a legal right to compensation for a damaged tree.
- Your own property must be damaged. For instance, if a neighbor trims the part of your tree that hangs over the property line, making that part of the tree look terrible but not harming it in any way, you have no right to recovery. That's because your property (the portion of the tree that's on your side of the property line) is not damaged).
- The tree in question must not create an immediate danger to others. Unsound trees that threaten a neighboring property are not under the same legal protection as healthy trees. In some circumstances, for example, if a dead tree is about to fall, a neighbor can even enter an owners property to prevent any harm.
Can a tree owner recover for actual losses caused by tree damage?
Yes. If someone damages or destroys your tree, you can recover for the amount of your actual loss due to the injury or destruction of the tree. This recovery is available even if the damage was caused by an honest mistake. A final dollar figure for actual loss might include:
- The cost of replacing the tree. This would also include the cost of removing debris and cleanup.
- Diminished property value. If replacing the tree is impossible, then you can recover for the decrease in your property value due to the lost tree.
- Out-of-pocket expenses. In most states, you can recover for money reasonably spent trying to save an injured tree, or to remove a dead one. Such expenses might include appraisal costs, cleaning up debris, repairing the yard, or missing work time to deal with the tree damage.
- Aesthetic loss and mental anguish. Several courts in Louisiana have awarded damages to tree owners for aesthetic loss and mental anguish in tree damage cases. Its unclear how courts in other states will respond if you ask for this kind of compensation, but it could be an option.
Can a tree owner recover for more than just actual damages if a neighbor intentionally damages or destroys a tree?
Some states have specific statutes that provide for additional damages if someone intentionally damages your tree. For example, in Mississippi, if someone deliberately injures your tree, you can sue the violator for an additional amount that is double the amount of your actual damages.
Other states dont have a specific damages statute for intentional harm to trees. However, tree owners in these states might be able to sue for punitive damages (an extra amount over and above actual damages) if the conduct of the person who damaged the tree was especially outrageous or malicious.
What happens if the tree owner already received partial compensation from an insurance company?
If your tree was damaged or destroyed and an insurance company compensated you for part of the loss, you must subtract this amount from any other damage claim (in a lawsuit for example), unless you are required to repay the insurance company.
Is intentionally harming someone elses tree a criminal act?
In most states, deliberately injuring a tree is not a crime. About 15 states do have statutes that make intentional tree damage a crime resulting in a fine or jail sentence. But even if your state doesnt have a specific statute addressing intentional tree damage, a prosecutor could rely on general criminal statutes -- such as those related to theft or property damage -- to bring a criminal prosecution for intentional harm to a tree.
As a practical matter, however, prosecutors rarely go after people who damage trees in residential situations. Criminal prosecution is more likely in scenarios involving the timber industry or the Christmas tree business.
Where can I go for more help on tree laws and neighbor disputes?
To learn more about laws governing trees on your property, and what to do if your tree is damaged, get Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise, by Cora Jordan and Emily Doskow (Nolo). If you want to consult with a lawyer about tree damage or another type of neighbor dispute, check out Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory, to find an attorney near you.