Can my neighbors sue for suffering since my tree fell on their garage?

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Question:

During a recent storm, high winds knocked over our acacia tree, which had been healthy but was rather large. It destroyed our neighbor's garage. No one was hurt, and our insurance (as well as theirs) paid for the damage. But now these neighbors are sending me threatening letters saying they want compensation for suffering. Can I be sued for this?

Answer:

Hopefully your neighbors are throwing themselves fully into their martyred role -- wringing their hands, pacing the floor sleeplessly during the wee hours, and dabbing at their eyes with a damp kerchief. But theatrical value is about all they're going to get out of this.

For starters, a person is normally liable for damage to someone else's property only if they caused that damage through negligence or an intentional act. Negligence is a legal term meaning the person failed to act with reasonable care under the particular circumstances. Owning a healthy tree is a normal thing to do; it's not negligent. And you probably weren't the one who caused the storm.

So your neighbors should count themselves lucky that there was insurance money around to pay for the basic damage, because they might not have gotten compensation from you in court.

Now as to your neighbors' claim that they should be compensated for "suffering" over and above the cost of their garage. From what you've said, this sounds like a no-go. First, your neighbors would have to prove that you were negligent or that you intentionally tried to cause them harm. As mentioned above, you don't seem to be at fault here.

On top of that, they would have to show proof of the actual harm they've suffered. It's not enough if they've experienced a couple of sleepless nights -- they would have to prove, for instance, that this experience raised their blood pressure or caused them back spasms. This isn't to say that your neighbors can't walk up to the courthouse door and file such a claim -- anyone can file suit for just about anything -- but it would give any reasonable judge a good laugh.

If you have more questions about the rights and responsibilities of tree owners, check out our Trees and Neighbors FAQ.

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